It seems like an eternity since Auburn started the season 3-0. It’s been three weeks since the miraculous game-winning drive against Mississippi State that helped secure its first SEC victory in nearly two years. Since then, the Tigers lost on the road at LSU and took last weekend off.
Now they return to Jordan-Hare Stadium for a matchup with No. 24 Ole Miss on Saturday. It’s a critical game for Auburn and the coaching staff understands that.
“We’re just taking it one game at a time,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “We’re just focused on each week. We’re not taking anything for granted. They’re very important as we’re building this thing, and we understand this is a big game, but we are playing at home against a very, very good opponent. We’re not thinking ahead, put it that way.”
And why should they be? It’s the Tigers’ best chance to knock off a top-25 opponent. A win all but secures an appearance in the postseason with home games against Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic still on the schedule. And not to mention, it’s a pivotal game in how the SEC West shakes out.
But the game is just as important for an up-and-coming Ole Miss team which suffered a blow last weekend with a road loss to No. 1 Alabama.
“Right now, it’s our biggest game just because it’s our next game,” Ole Miss linebacker Serderius Bryant said. “Auburn is a great team. They’ve got a great coach, great players. You know they were great because they won a national championship a couple years back. I just feel like we have to go out and play hard.”
The key for the Rebels is to put last week’s loss behind them or “put it in the trash can” as coach Hugh Freeze put it after the game. They’re still 3-1, ranked No. 24 nationally and have road wins at both Vanderbilt and Texas.
“To be real candid, if you would’ve told me before the season that we would be sitting here 3-1 after having to go to Vandy, Texas and Alabama, I would’ve signed up for that pretty quick probably,” Freeze said.
Still, Freeze’s team has to be careful. The season could get away from them real quick if they falter against Auburn. Their next two opponents are both ranked in the top 10 and if they lose Saturday, there’s a good chance they fall below the .500 mark.
But this year’s Ole Miss team is not last year’s team. They want to be better.
“We feel like now we’ve got a bigger chip on our shoulder,” Bryant said. “We’ve now got a lot to prove. A lot of people had us to win the Alabama game, and we didn’t play how we wanted to. I just feel like the whole the team is motivated right now.”
Meanwhile, the Tigers are trying to mimic what the Rebels did a year ago. They, too, are coming off a horrendous season. They, too, have a new head coach, and they, too, are trying to right the ship and make it to a bowl game in year one of the rebuilding process.
“To watch them play, it’s eerily similar to what we were going through last year, and there’s no question that they’re getting better each week,” Freeze said.
If Auburn wins this Saturday, it’s proof that maybe they’re a year ahead of schedule. However, if Ole Miss wins, then maybe the Rebels are still a legitimate threat in the West and the Tigers are still a year away.
“This is a big game for both of us, and we both understand that,” Malzahn said.