Can upset-specialist Nutt lead Ole Miss past Auburn?

Ole Miss (3-4, 1-3) has a tough task Saturday when Auburn (8-0, 5-0) visits Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The Tigers, No. 1 in the Bowl Championship Series standings, are coming off of an impressive victory over LSU and have the leading Heisman Trophy contender, Cam Newton, under center.

But Ole Miss has head coach Houston Nutt, who has developed quite the reputation as a giant-killer. He won his share of games against ranked opponents at Arkansas, including road victories over No. 5 Texas in 2003, No. 2 Auburn in 2006 and a thriller over top-ranked LSU in 2007.

Can Nutt do it again Saturday evening and propel the Rebels toward another strong second half — something they’re very used to doing in his first two years in Oxford?

Since he was hired at Arkansas in 1998, Nutt’s teams are 41-19 in their final five games of the regular season. His teams have gone either 4-1 or 5-0 in their final five regular season games six times — 2008 at Ole Miss; 2007, 2006, 2003, 2002 and 2001 at Arkansas.

Jeremiah MasoliICONJeremiah Masoli is coming off of his best game yet as a Rebel.

To have a chance against Auburn, Rebels quarterback Jeremiah Masoli will have to carry the load. The Oregon transfer played his best game yet as a Rebel in last week’s 38-24 loss to Arkansas, and the Auburn defense has yet to face as potent of a dual-threat signal caller. And, no, the LSU tandem of Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee does not count. Masoli had a career-high 425 yards of total offense — 327 yards passing and 98 yards rushing — last week. Keep in mind that Auburn has given up 14 touchdowns through the air, which is the most in the SEC.

Because of injuries, the Tigers don’t have a ton of depth at linebacker or in the secondary. Cornerback T’Sharvan Bell likely will be a game-time decision after missing last week with a hamstring injury, while outside linebacker Daren Bates is also questionable after injuring his shoulder against LSU.

While the Rebels should be able to move the ball against the Tigers, Tyrone Nix’s defense has been prone to giving up the big play all season. While that doesn’t bode well against any offense week in and week out, it’s especially dangerous against one led by the Heisman frontrunner.

Ole Miss has allowed the most points per game (32), the third-most yards per game (370.6) and the third-most passing yards per game (345.6) in the SEC. Ranking in the middle-of-the-pack against the run is the only bright spot for the unit.

When you consider that Newton and Co. have scored the most points per game (38.6), gained the most yards per game (486.8) and rushed for the most yards per game (303.2) in the league, it doesn’t bode well for the Rebels.

The Tigers’ aerial attack is considered their weakness, but that’s just because they have attempted to throw fewer times than any other team in the conference. When Newton, who is averaging 135 yards per game on the ground, runs better than most running backs, why bother chucking the rock around?

Jerrell PoweICONCan Jerrell Powe lead a defensive revival for Ole Miss?

The woes for the Rebels on defense began with their season-opening loss to Jacksonville State, which posted 49 points in the upset win. In their loss to Arkansas last week, the Rebels consistently missed tackles and let the Hogs score on drives that took less than two minutes four different occasions. Nix has emphasized the importance of tackling all week during practice and at meetings this week.

It looks as though the team’s second-leading tackler, safety Damien Jackson, will miss the game after suffering a knee injury against the Razorbacks. The junior, who has 49 tackles, two pass breakups and a recovered fumble this year, is doubtful and would be replaced by freshman Brishen Matthews.

Can tackle Jerrell Powe and his fellow defenders rough Newton up and contain him enough to give Masoli and the offense a chance to help Nutt deliver yet another upset? The Tigers have yet to have their bye and they’ve played in a lot of emotional games. Can they dial it up once again on the road, where they beat both Mississippi State and Kentucky by only a field goal?

Based on what we have seen happen to No. 1 teams the last few weeks, as well as Nutt’s history of upset wins, it wouldn’t be shocking.

Email dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

Upcoming Games

Jan 24th, 3:05 PM

Tampa Bay +3.5 -110

Green Bay -3.5 -110

@

Jan 24th, 6:40 PM

Buffalo +3 -125

Kansas City -3 -125

@