Quarterback Eli Manning leads a Rebel attack that has been up-and-down this season with a win over the Florida Gators followed by blowout losses to Alabama and Arkansas. The Tigers also suffered a trouncing from the Razorbacks and then followed that with an overtime loss to the Gators before bombing LSU last week at home.
Despite the Rebels' struggles in their last two outings, Auburn's players and coaches are expecting the Rebels will give the Tigers a major test in what is likely a must-win situation for Coach David Cutcliffe's team because it is a home game and because the Rebels have two SEC losses. A third SEC loss will make it very difficult for either team to win the SEC West.
A potent offensive team because of the passing of Manning, who is averaging 275.4 yards per game through the air with 14 touchdowns and just six interceptions, the Rebels haven't been impressive on the ground. Averaging just 105 yards rushing per game, things could get interesting if the return of tailback Robert Williams means a return to running the ball for Ole Miss, but don't look for much improvement. The Rebels have rushed for their average or better four times this season with 180 yards in the opener against Louisiana-Monroe, 214 one week later against Memphis, 107 against Vanderbilt and 188 versus Arkansas State. In conference games this season the Rebels have rushed for just 184 total yards on 117 attempts. That means this game should feature Manning versus an Auburn defense that has 15 interceptions this season with only four passing touchdowns allowed.
A 6-4, 218 junior who is on pace to shatter every passing record in the books at Ole Miss, Manning could be the most difficult quarterback to defense in the league because of his ability to read defenses and get rid of the ball quickly. Despite attempting 299 passes this season for a team that doesn't run the ball well, Manning has been sacked just seven times thanks in part to a quick release and an offensive line skilled in pass blocking.
Led by seniors Ben Claxton (6-3, 302) at center and Belton Johnson (6-5, 304), the front five for the Rebels is the most solid unit in the league when it comes to pass blocking. Providing a steady wall for Manning, guards Doug Buckles (6-5, 307, So.) and Marcus Johnson (6-6, 320, So.) along with left tackle Tre Stallings (6-4, 317, Fr.) round out the line for the Rebels.
Another strength of the Rebel offense is a receiving corps that is one of the more talented in the league. Led by 6-1, 193 sophomore Bill Flowers, who has 40 catches for 429 yards and three touchdowns this season, Ole Miss has six solid wide receivers who are capable of making big plays. Junior Chris Collins (6-2, 190) is second on the team with 28 and leads the team with 441 yards and five touchdowns. Dangerous kick returner Jason Armstead (5-11, 160, Sr.), Mike Espy (6-0, 187, Fr.) and Decatur native Taye Biddle (6-2, 175, Fr.) round out the favorite targets for Manning.
At tight end the Rebels are hurting with starter Doug Ziegler out for the season because of a broken bone suffered in the Vanderbilt game. Reserve Bo Hartsfield has been banged-up as well, but could see some action in Saturday's game. He has three catches for 26 yards this season. If he's unable to go look for little used sophomore Eric Rice (6-3, 230) to get the majority of work. With just two starts this season he has six catches for 57 yards.
At running back senior Robert Williams (5-10, 192) is expected back in the lineup after missing the Arkansas game with a bruised shoulder. The team's leading rusher, averaging 61 yards per game with four touchdowns, he could be a boost to the running game. Listed as the starter is 5-10, 200 Tremaine Turner, who has 88 yards on 28 carries this season. Both Vashon Pearson (6-0, 200, Fr.) and Ronald McClendon (5-9, 190, Jr.) should also see action. Pearson leads the team with five rushing touchdowns while McClendon has three.
Defensively, the Rebels use a variety of fronts and blitzes to help cover up for a small and relatively inexperienced defensive front four. With no listed starter over 277 pounds and just three reserves over 280 pounds, this is a unit that has had occasional problems stopping the run. Facing a powerful Auburn running game this Saturday, expect Ole Miss to stack the line early and often to force quarterback Jason Campbell to beat the Rebels through the air. Josh Cooper (6-4, 245, Jr.), Yahrek Johnson (6-2, 270, Sr.), Jesse Mitchell (6-1, 277, Jr.) and Charlie Anderson (6-4, 235, Jr.) are the starters for the Rebels with Alabama native McKinley Boykin (6-2, 285, Fr.) and Germaine Landrum (6-3, 235, Sr.) the top backups.
Eddie Strong is shown in action for David Cutcliffe's team.
Linebacker Eddie Strong (6-4, 245, Sr.) is the leader of the Rebel defense. A starter since his freshman season, he has battled injuries for much of his career and appears to be healthy heading into the contest. He has played in just five games this season and has 20 tackles and one sack. The other starter at linebacker is Justin Wade, who took over for injured Lanier Goethe earlier in the season. The 6-3, 225, Jr. has 23 tackles and one sack this year.
Playing a 4-2-5 defense, not unexpectedly the leading tackler for the Rebels comes from the secondary. A statistic that you don't want is your top three all to be in the secondary, but that is what Ole Miss has this season. Sophomore free safety Eric Oliver (6-2, 210) leads the team with 74 tackles while strong safety Matt Grier (6-1, 190, Sr.) is second with 49 tackles and leads the team with nine tackles for losses and four interceptions. The combination of Wes Scott (6-1, 200, Jr.) and Von Hutchins (5-11, 184, Jr.) has 59 tackles with three interceptions. Although Scott is the starter, expect Hutchins to see the majority of the action.
At the corners Travis Blanchard (5-11, 185, Jr.) and Travis Johnson (6-1, 191, Fr.) are solid cover guys but have the tendency to let receivers get behind them.
Because of its style of play, this could be a game for the Auburn offense to take some chances downfield against an Ole Miss defense that has been torched each of the last two weeks. If running back Ronnie Brown gets off to a good start, this could be a big day for the Tigers. Defensively, the Tigers must force the Rebels to be one-dimensional and not let them have any success on the ground early.