Nathan King, assistant sports editor at The Auburn Plainsman, joins DM sports editor Grayson Weir to discuss Saturday’s matchup between Ole Miss and Auburn.
Nathan King: How does Ole Miss pick itself up after the big loss to Bama? Does this team have the maturity and leadership to forget that game?
Grayson Weir: How can you forget a 66-3 slaughter at the hands of the nation’s top program? You can’t. I don’t think “forget” is the right word. Coming off of such a demoralizing loss, the key is reevaluation. And that starts with the coaching staff, runs through the leaders and trickles all the way down to the practice squad. With the team having been through so much already this year, there’s no doubt the players have the individual mental wherewithal and leadership to move forward.
NK: What are some keys to success for Shea Patterson and the offense against the SEC’s No. 1 defense?
GW: With all due respect to Auburn and the tough Tigers defense, calling it No. 1 in the SEC is solely statistic-based. Alabama’s defense is, in my opinion, the best in the nation, and our offense couldn’t get anything going against it. Coming in to this weekend, I think the biggest key to success is a push from the big uglies. Our offensive line has lacked significantly, even though we have experience, size and talent. If the line can step up, the rest of the explosive offense should fall into place from there.
NK: Who is an X-factor Auburn fans should be on the lookout for from the Rebels?
GW: Outside of Patterson, the easy answer would be wide receiver A.J. Brown. Prior to the loss at Cal, in which he went down holding his knee, Brown led the nation in receiving yards and touchdowns. But his return last week saw tight coverage and a clear key on his routes, rendering him relatively ineffective (like most of our offense). However, the one positive from last weekend was running back Jordan Wilkins establishing himself as a factor, creating a run game. Look for Wilkins to play a bigger role.
NK: What is the best position matchup for the Rebels? What Auburn weaknesses could they maybe expose?
GW: Defensively, the best position matchup is on the line. Our secondary is weak, and the second level has struggled, but the big fellas in the trenches are a constant. The size, the speed and the athleticism are there and can cause quite a disturbance in the middle. In an ideal world, the defensive line will force less time in the pocket, causing Stidham to rush his throws, and can keep Pettway, Martin and Johnson from getting past the first level or outside the tackles — because then, only God knows how far they will run.
NK: Score prediction?
GW: I prefer not to make score predictions regarding my own teams. I think it brings about bad “juju.” That being said, a road trip to the No. 12 team in the nation is a tough test for a team that was just demoralized by Saban. The Rebels have a chance in this game if the weeks one and two offense shows up, starting with the line, and the defense can force two-plus turnovers. Otherwise, it could be a tough day at the office.
Grayson Weir: Quarterback Jarrett Stidham finally showed what he is capable of last weekend, being named SEC’s co-offensive player of the week. How important is his play to the success of the offense?
Nathan King: Stidham is the Auburn offense. Before he emerged with the second-best completion percentage in SEC history against Mercer, the Tigers were one-dimensional in the running game. The redshirt sophomore found himself with happy feet in the pocket and would often scramble when the pressure just wasn’t there. That cost him against Clemson, when he was torn down for a sack 11 times. Since that game in Death Valley, Stidham has found his niche in the offense and leads the SEC in completion percentage. For the Rebels to disrupt his groove, they’re going to have to get after him with just four and be able to keep the top on the secondary, because Stidham’s efficiency on deep balls has skyrocketed.
GW: Auburn opens as three-touchdown favorites. What is the biggest question mark for the Tigers heading in to Saturday?
NK: Everything went right for Auburn against Mississippi State. The biggest question mark will be if Gus Malzahn’s squad can replicate that dominating performance. Auburn has a history of slow starts in 11 a.m. kickoffs, a time when the Rebels captured a victory in Jordan-Hare in 2015. Auburn can’t underestimate an Ole Miss team that has the potential to turn a devastating loss into motivation.
GW: Auburn’s defense continued to excel against Mississippi State and quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, registering five TFL, two sacks and 11 QB hurries. How is the best defensive unit (on paper) preparing for an Ole Miss offense that has the ability to put more than 500 yards on the board?
NK: Auburn’s defense is preparing for more business as usual. This year’s defense is the only unit in the FBS to not allow more than 14 points in a game. Against a pair of Power Five schools this season, Ole Miss has been outscored 93-19. In those two road losses to California and Alabama, Patterson turned in just two touchdowns to five interceptions. All that being said, Kevin Steele’s defense doesn’t take weeks off and has given the Ole Miss offense its utmost attention and respect this week in practice.
GW: There has yet to be a clear lead-rusher in the Auburn backfield. Is this balance expected to continue? Is there one back in particular who may step up and take over?
NK: Kamryn Pettway, who ran wild over Ole Miss in 2016 with 236 yards, said Tuesday that he was “frustrated” with the way his season has begun. Pettway has been nursing a hamstring injury since the end of the last season, which has hindered the big bruiser from hitting holes with same speed as years past. Kerryon Johnson has all but replaced Pettway as the Tigers’ feature back and hasn’t disappointed. The junior has eight touchdowns in his last two games and is on pace to break Tre Mason’s 2013 single-season record of 22 scores. In addition to Pettway and Johnson, Auburn touts a pair of lightning-quick youngsters in the backfield who both had more than 100 yards rushing against Georgia Southern. While Johnson will continue to get most of the workload, the Tigers will have no shortage of depth at tailback.
GW: Ryan Davis has 29 catches on the season, presumably forcing the defense to key in on the shifty receiver. If he is shut down, who might step up in the passing game?
NK: Davis is Stidham’s favorite one-on-one threat, but junior Will Hastings has been virtually untouchable due to his ability to run the option route to perfection. Hastings can get behind the defense, as can Kyle Davis and Eli Stove. Stove and Davis both had big games in the deep passing game against the Bulldogs yet have very different play styles. Stove gets involved heavily with the run game, as his incredible speed on the edge is lethal when well-blocked by the Tigers up front.
GW: For Auburn to win, what needs to happen? Prediction?
NK: For the Tigers to take care of business in their last home game until November, the defense can’t come out sleepwalking. Patterson is dynamic and explosive and can jump on Auburn quickly if it isn’t careful. Expect the Tiger defense to step up again and hold the Rebels to fewer than 20 points. This game might become closer than people expect if Auburn is electing to look ahead to its matchup with LSU next week, but the crowd will likely snap the Tigers out of it. Stidham paces the offense early, defense does enough to discourage Ole Miss from considering a comeback and the backups should be in by the fourth quarter. Auburn moves to 3-0 in the conference with a 47-7 victory this Saturday.