Biggest Ole Miss Vs. AU Game In Decades

The 20th-ranked Ole Miss Rebels will try to stay unbeaten in conference play when they visit Auburn.

Auburn, Ala.--This weekend's matchup of the Auburn Tigers (6-3, 4-1) and #20 Ole Miss Rebels (7-2, 5-0) is one of the biggest in the 28 meetings all-time between the two schools. Not since the 1971 Gator Bowl that featured Archie Manning against Pat Sullivan, the greatest quarterbacks in school history for both programs, has this game been so highly anticipated by football fans across the South.

Manning's title is being challenged by a familiar name, his son Eli. One of the top passers in the NCAA and a Heisman Trophy candidate, the 6-5, 218 senior has thrown for 9,182 career yards and 73 touchdowns. Both are Ole Miss records and put him sixth and seventh respectively in SEC history. This season Manning has been outstanding with 2,663 passing yards and 21 touchdowns with eight interceptions. Completing 62.8 percent of his passes, Manning rarely makes mistakes and has been sacked just 12 times this season, the fewest in the league.

While Manning gets most of the attention when looking at the Rebels, the real story of the emergence of the Rebels this season has been the development of a running game that can be counted on in crunch time. Averaging 168.1 yards per game, Ole Miss has become a dangerous team on the ground and that has made Manning a better quarterback.

Without second-leading rusher Ronald McClendon because of NCAA questions, the Rebels will lean on lightning-quick Tremaine Turner to handle the load. The 5-10, 200-pounder has the speed to break the long one, but is also tough between the tackles. This season he has rushed for 512 yards on 114 carries and has three touchdowns. As a team the Rebels have 14 rushing touchdowns with four coming from Vashon Pearson (6-0, 205), the number two back this Saturday. The fullback is little-used Rick Razzano (5-11, 240). This season he has just three carries for six yards.

Chris Collins is a big-play threat for the Rebels.

When Manning throws the ball he has the option of perhaps the top receiving corps in the SEC with senior Chris Collins the best player of the unit. A 6-2, 190 speedster, Collins has 55 catches for 701 yards and five touchdowns this season. Threats on the outside with him include Bill Flowers (6-1, 193) with 28 catches for 380 yards and one touchdown, Mike Espy (6-0, 187) with 24 catches for 421 yards and two touchdowns. Throw in Kerry Johnson (6-3, 193) and Taye Biddle (6-2, 175), who have 41 catches and nine touchdowns between them, and you have danger at every turn for the Auburn secondary.

Up front the left side of Tre Stallings (6-4, 317) and Doug Buckles (6-5, 300) is the strength of a unit that is one of the best in the country at keeping the pass rush off the quarterback. At center senior Justin Sawyer (6-3, 310) holds down the duties with Marcus Johnson (6-6, 320 at right guard and Cliff Woodruff (6-6, 301) at right tackle.

The tight end is junior Eric Rice (6-3, 230) and Johnson will also line up at the position to create mismatches for the defense.

On the other side of the ball the Rebels' 4-2-5 defense has been a big surprise, becoming one of the top units in the SEC behind a sure tackling front seven and a pair of aggressive safeties in Eric Oliver and Travis Blanchard. The leading tackler on the team with 74 stops, Oliver often can be found near the line of scrimmage acting like another linebacker for Ole Miss. The same is true of Blanchard, who has 52 tackles this season. Joining them in the worst statistical secondary in the SEC are safety Kelvin Robinson and cornerbacks Von Hutchins and Travis Johnson. This week both Hutchins and Johnson were called out by defensive coordinator Chuck Driesbach and you can expect both Trumaine McBride and Bryant Thomas to also get some action in Saturday's game at the position.

Up front tackles Jesse Mitchell (6-1, 277) and Daniel Booth (6-4, 281) will use their speed and quickness to get upfield and try to disrupt Auburn's running game. Joining them in the starting lineup will be defensive ends Charlie Anderson (6-4, 240) and Josh Cooper (6-4, 245) with Jayme Mitchell (6-6, 280) and Cory Robinson (6-4, 250) also getting some action. In the middle both McKinley Boykin (6-2, 285) and Michael Bozeman (6-2, 290) will also rotate in at tackle to spell the starters during the game.

The linebackers are both smaller players, but play with a lot of effort. Seniors Justin Wade (6-3, 225) and L.P. Spence (6-3, 220) are both veterans that have seen just about everything possible out of opponents. Wade has 44 tackles and one interception this season while Spence has 32 stops and two sacks. The top backup at linebacker is junior Rob Robertson (6-2, 228) with 25 tackles.

The special teams have been very special for Ole Miss this season, particularly at kicker where junior Jonathan Nichols has been as close to automatic as you can be. Nichols is 22-23 this season in field goals with a long kick of 54 yards. His only miss has come from outside 50 yards. Punter Cody Ridgeway has been almost as good, averaging 44.5 yards per punt with nine inside the 20 yard line out of 35 attempts.

With one of the hottest teams in the country coming into Jordan-Hare Stadium, this could be a shootout until the final whistle just like it has been in recent years. If Auburn can establish the run early against Ole Miss and keep the Rebels from the big play then the Tigers can come out of this test with a victory. If that doesn't happen it could be a long day for the home team.

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