No. 4 Auburn-No. 7 Ole Miss: Playoff knockout game
OXFORD, Miss. (AP) Auburn and Mississippi spent the week dismissing their standing in the first College Football Playoff rankings as mostly irrelevant.
One of them will no longer enjoy the relative comfort of a win-and-in mindset after this weekend. The fourth-ranked Tigers and seventh-ranked Rebels, both among the initial top four teams, meet Saturday night in what could amount to the first elimination round of the playoffs.
It won’t likely be the last in the competitive Southeastern Conference Western Division.
”We’re focused solely really on one ranking and that would be on Dec. 7,” said Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, referring to the final rankings that set up the four-team field. ”That’s the one that really matters.”
This game really matters to both teams.
Auburn (6-1, 3-1) is third in the CFP rankings, one spot ahead of the Rebels (7-1, 4-1). The loser of this game is out barring help from multiple upsets.
Like Freeze, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn doesn’t want to talk in such big-picture terms.
”I’m viewing this Saturday as, this is the biggest game on the schedule,” Malzahn said. ”We’ve got to go there, we’ve got to play well to win, and that’s the only thing on our mind. I’m not looking ahead, this or that. We’re going to Ole Miss. We’re trying to win a game.”
The Rebels are coming off their first loss, 10-7 to No. 16 LSU. They still sport the nation’s top scoring defense.
The Tigers are averaging 39.3 points a game and have the SEC’s top running game, fueled by quarterback Nick Marshall and tailback Cameron Artis-Payne.
This will be the biggest test both units have faced.
Malzahn says this is the best Ole Miss defense he has faced.
Here are some things to watch in the Auburn-Ole Miss game:
BO BOUNCING BACK: Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace had one of his worst games of the season in the loss to LSU, including an interception in the final seconds. He was 14-of-33 passing for 176 yards but expressed the hope for a less conservative gameplan this week that leds to fewer third-and-long situations.
FREEZE VS. MALZAHN: The two former Arkansas State coaches both typically employ a no-huddle offense, though Freeze has pulled back the reins somewhat with his defense performing so well. The Tigers are more run-oriented than the Rebels, too. But some of the principles are the same, tailored to their respective strengths. ”Gus and I could be identical if we chose to within the game plan,” Freeze said. ”We can also look quite different probably. We’re extremely similar in run game. Pass game, probably more different than the run game. We could make them look very, very similar if we chose to.”
PROTECT THE FOOTBALL: It’s a huge challenge facing any team going against Ole Miss. The Rebels lead the nation with 17 interceptions, including eight from cornerback Senquez Golson. They’ve scored four defensive touchdowns. Auburn’s Marshall has only thrown three interceptions, but the offense opened its last road game with turnovers on its first two plays against No. 1 Mississippi State. The Tigers defense has 13 interceptions.
WE’RE NO. 1: The Rebels’ Laquon Treadwell and Tigers’ D’haquille Williams are big, physical receivers and two of the SEC’s best. Both also sport No. 1, and their on-the-field numbers are similar. Treadwell has 529 yards and four touchdowns while Williams has produced 527 yards and five TDs.
DEFENSIVE MATCHUP: The Rebels got pounded for 264 rushing yards against LSU. The defenders are more in their comfort zone going against an offense that can so closely resemble their own.
”I think that our defense is probably more designed for the Auburn offense,” Golson said. ”It’s more familiar with us especially running against our offense all the time. More comfortable for us, definitely.”
AP Sports Writer David Brandt contributed to this report.