Notes and observations from Ole Miss' 51-31 home loss to Auburn …
I was asked many times during the week what kind of chance I thought the Rebels had to defeat the team that was ranked No. 1in the BCS standings, and my reply was that the Rebels' chances depended more on how Auburn played than how Ole Miss played.
Auburn needed to come out flat. Auburn needed to be looking back to last week's win over LSU, or looking ahead to wins it must have against Georgia and Alabama to close out an unbeaten regular season.
But Auburn was on top of its game. It was sharp and focused, and it won with a variety of weapons, not just quarterback Cam Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley.
I liked the Ole Miss plan. Newton had shown he could dominate a game by rushing for 200 yards. He hadn't shown he could dominate a game passing or get his teammates so fully involved. Now he has shown that.
The Rebels held Newton to 45 rush yards, about 89 below his average. His 209 passing yards were his second-most in an SEC game but the big thing was his accuracy, 75 percent. He completed 18 of 24 attempts.
Much of that accuracy feeds off the threat of the run. Newton often had lots of time to throw, not only because he was well-protected by a veteran offensive line but also, because the Rebels weren't trying very hard to get to him, no blitzes or pressures, because of their respect for what Newton can do when you don't get him to the ground.
The problem was the Rebels couldn't cover the Auburn receivers, who were often wide open in the secondary. Newton also hit some receivers when they were covered well, and those receivers made some nice plays. It all added up to the visiting team going 9 for 13 on third-down conversions. Ole Miss didn't force enough third down plays, and when it did, it couldn't get off the field.
Auburn's speed advantage of evident on both sides of the ball but especially on offense where the Ole Miss defense couldn't catch up to tailback Onterrio McCalebb when he got to the edge. Just one small block, and McCalebb turned in a big play.
With all that focus on the run game, and with Newton gaining only 45 yards, Auburn still rushed for 343 yards and averaged 7.5 yards per attempt.
Overall, the Tigers gained 572 yards and averaged 8.1 yards per play on 71 snaps.
Auburn finished about 16 points and 100 yards ahead of its per-game averages.
Defensively, Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt did what he needed to do. Everybody knew Newton could take over a game on the ground if you didn't do something extra to stop him, As Auburn coach Gene Chizik pointed out after the game, his players were able to overcome that by doing a little extra in other areas. Newton put the ball on the money in the pass game, and tailbacks McCalebb (99 yards) and Michael Dyer (180 yards) both had career rushing nights.
Ole Miss has got to get better at several spots defensively. The Rebels need better coverage in the secondary, and while they tackled better last night, this team needs a couple of big-play defensive players who produce sacks and turnovers.
Offensively, 407 yards and 31 points ought to be enough to win, but for Ole Miss it wasn't even close. The Rebels gave Auburn a good jolt in the first half but just couldn't keep pace.
Again, the plan was good. No need to challenge Fairely with an offensive line interior that is both young and wounded. Fairley had four tackles, one tackle for loss. He didn't dominate the game largely because the Rebels ran way from him. They were able to get to the corner with Jeff Scott and to do some good things in the passing game with Jeremiah Masoli. While good plays were made, offense was still much more of a struggle for Ole Miss than it was for Auburn, and a decent performance was overshadowed by the fact that the Rebels couldn't get the ball from Auburn on third downs to give it back to their offense.