With the 2013 season drawing closer by the minute, it’s never too early to begin taking a look at Auburn’s opponents in the coming campaign. On Day 3, we begin with the Ole Miss Rebels, who the Tigers will play in their fifth game of the season coming off an open date the week before.
All-time series: Auburn leads 27-10
When last they met: Like many other games last season, Auburn’s loss to Ole Miss was one it would like to be able to expunge from its memory bank. The defeat was particularly painful for one reason: The 41-20 win for the Rebels helped them snap what had been a 16-game losing streak in conference play. The last time Ole Miss had beaten a fellow SEC squad came in October 2010, when it downed Kentucky 42-35 at home. And as it so often happens, the 21-point margin of victory for Ole Miss is deceiving; the contest was knotted at 20 at halftime, and the Tigers trailed 24-20 heading into the final period. In a 1:36 span during the game’s last five minutes, Ole Miss scored two touchdowns to stretch its lead from 27-20 to 41-20.
2012 Year-in-Review: Freeze’s first season far surpassed what any person’s wildest imaginations could have conceived, even for the most ardent Rebels’ backer. The coach took a team that went 2-10 (winless in the SEC, to boot) in 2011 and that hadn’t won a conference game in nearly two years, and somehow willed it to a winning record (7-6) and a bowl victory. Ole Miss gave Alabama a game in the first half last season, leading 7-6 in the second quarter, along with holding the Crimson Tide to a season-low in total offense (305 yards). Ole Miss also put a scare into Texas A&M, holding a 27-17 advantage at home in the final period before eventual Heisman winner Johnny Manziel rallied the Aggies to a 30-27 victory. Yes, Ole Miss suffered a three-game losing streak late in the season — most notably a frustrating one-point defeat to Vanderbilt at home, 27-26 — but the Rebels finished strong, topping arch-rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl to gain bowl eligibility, and then beating Pittsburgh once they got to the postseason, dropping the Panthers 38-17 in the BBVA Compass Bowl. And the good vibes carried over into the offseason, as you may have heard, as the Rebels signed one of the best recruiting classes in college football, highlighted by snagging defensive end Robert Nkemdiche out of Georgia, the consensus top prospect in the nation.
Biggest area of concern: The thing that should worry the Rebels the most has nothing to do with the makeup of the team, given the number of starters they are bringing back (18 or 19 total on offense and defense, depending how you want to define certain positions). On top of this, Auburn has lost one of their top players Josh Harris who has signed to the Falcons.
No, instead it’s something, that, for the most part, is out of their hands: the schedule. Ole Miss’ slate does it no favors in the first quarter of the season, as four of its first five games are on the road. That includes the season opener against Vanderbilt on Aug. 31, whose days as the SEC’s doormat are over. The Rebels know that as well as anyone, since they have lost to the Commodores each of the last three years. After hosting Southeast Missouri at home in Week 2, Ole Miss goes back on the road against Texas, Alabama and Auburn, respectively, with a bye week sandwiched in between the matchups against the Longhorns and the Crimson Tide. After they play the Tigers, the Rebels return to Oxford, Miss., for a pair of difficult home games, welcoming Texas A&M and LSU to town in back-to-back weeks in the middle of October. The schedule gets easier — at least on paper — after that, but who knows what the Rebels’ record will look like at that point?
Key returning player/unit: No, Bo Wallace didn’t put up spectacular numbers in Freeze’s offense last year, especially when you compare him to some other quarterbacks around the league. But it was enough for the Rebels. In fact, Wallace’s 2,994 passing yards last year was the third-best single-season showing in school history, trailing only Eli Manning’s 2003 (3,600) and 2002 (3,401) totals. He also finished among the top four single-season efforts in the Rebels’ annals for touchdowns (22, fourth-most), completions (235, fourth-most), passing efficiency (142.7, fourth-best) and completion percentage (63.9, second-best). And as good as it was, Wallace’s season could have been far better. He had 17 passes picked off, more than any other quarterback in the SEC, and far too large a number if Ole Miss wants to continue to make a push toward the upper level of the SEC’s hierarchy. Assuming Wallace can cut down on his interceptions this year, the Rebels should be able to do just that. And it doesn’t hurt when you’re leading an offense that returns one of the conference’s top receivers in Donte Moncrief, who caught 66 passes for 979 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Oh, and did I mention Ole Miss returns seven other starters on offense aside from Wallace and Moncrief? As long as Wallace can stay healthy while running the read-option — which saw him produce 390 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in 2012 — he may be able to challenge Manning’s single-season record for touchdown passes (31), though the passing yardage standard of 3,600 be a bit out of reach. Then again, with the things the Rebels have been able to accomplish under Freeze in a short amount of time, one can never say never.
Extra point: Given all the time we spent talking about Wallace above, it should come as no surprise 2012 was one of the best offensive squads Ole Miss has ever fielded. The Rebels scored the third-most points (409) and averaged the second-most yards per game (423.8) in school history.