BY WIL CREWS
Jordan-Hare Stadium was in its purest form on Oct. 30, 2021. Bleachers were chalk-full, excitement filled the air and the new-look Auburn Tigers handed the No. 11 Ole Miss Rebels their second loss of the year. In moments like those, the environment in and around the Auburn football program is unmatched.
Unfortunately for fans of the orange and blue, this year’s matchup with a top-25 Ole Miss team appears to be significantly different for reasons beyond the contest being played in Oxford.
Since defeating the Rebels last October, Auburn is a mere 3-8 with just one victory coming against power-five competition. The lone victory? An overtime gift from Missouri, a team widely considered to have slipped below Vanderbilt in SEC bottom-feeding.
As for the Lane Kiffin-led rebels, last year’s mid-season defeat was seemingly the perfect wakeup call. Since the showdown on the Plains, the Rebs are a remarkable 10-1, losing only to No. 7 Baylor in the Sugar Bowl with star quarterback Matt Corral on the sidelines.
The trajectory of the two familiar foes has never been more apparently adverse than it is this weekend. There is no hiding that Auburn has its work cut out for it; the running Rebs have a clear-cut advantage in nearly every phase of the game.
Auburn’s success — or lack thereof –— begins in the trenches. Throughout the year, Tiger fans have watched the offensive line struggle to provide any form of protection to their various quarterbacks and are seemingly incapable of carrying out anything that remotely resembles run blocking. The group has earned the honors of being Auburn’s worst line since 2012, statistically.
The woes of the offensive front have had a direct impact on All-SEC running back Tank Bigsby. The junior is averaging just 57.5 yards per game on 4.4 yards per attempt. In Auburn’s contest against Missouri, the highly touted back tallied 44 total yards and 62 yards after contact. Yes, you read that correctly.
To Bigsby’s credit, the Tigers’ quarterback play has leant him no aid. After winning the starting job, redshirt sophomore TJ Finley lasted just three games before ultimately suffering a grade two AC sprain and leaving head coach Bryan Harsin and company with redshirt freshman Robby Ashford as the only option, barring a break from four-star Holden Geriner’s redshirt.
Ashford has shown glimpses of promise at times. He has also fumbled the ball seven times through six games and just two starts.
The turnovers haven’t all fallen on Ashford, though. Auburn’s offensive unit has found new, absurd ways to give the ball away on a weekly basis and have succeeded in generating a -9 margain, good for 128th in the FBS.
As many expected ahead of their 2022 campaign, the Tiger defense has certainly been the premier side of the ball for Harsin’s squad; the group has not been exactly what most anticipated, either. Despite allowing just two passing touchdowns to this point in the season, the orange and blue have forced just one interception, allowed 359.8 yards per contest and currently sit at an underwhelming No. 56 in FBS total defense.
On the Ole Miss side of the field, the narrative could not be any more dissimilar.
Coming into the 2022 season, many believed that Kiffin and company were returning one of – if not the – most talented offensive fronts in all of college football. The group has been flat-out bullying in the trenches, giving way for the talented duo of Quinshon Judkins and Zach Evans and earning the title of No. 7 rushing offense in college football.
To complement its premier rushing offense, Ole Miss has found yet another source of consistently high-level quarterback play in sophomore USC transfer Jaxson Dart. The former five-star has shown his abilities as a dual-threat, averaging 6.6 yards per rush and keeping defenses honest with his talents in the passing game.
Most importantly, the Rebs have a clear QB1 and are seeing continual growth on a weekly basis.
Although historically known for his offensive mind, Kiffin’s defense is arguably the most impressive aspect of this year’s squad. After being heavily criticized in 2019 and 2020, the red and blue have constructed the No. 31 defense in the land, limiting opponents to just north of 4.5 yards per play, generating four interceptions and pitching a shutout against power-five Georgia Tech.
When Auburn rides into Oxford this weekend to try and extend its six-game winning streak over the Rebs, the group will be met with a form of adversity that it has not seen in this matchup in quite some time. These programs could not be headed in any more different directions. Saturday will be one of Auburn and Harsin’s last chances to narrow that gap.