Auburn University

Auburn pulls out an unconvincing win, but what the Tigers do next is the bigger story

This was never a game that eleventh-ranked Auburn looked like it was going to lose, despite a sluggish start on offense that carried well into the second half and two of its top defenders being sidelined.

The Rebels could not take advantage of the numerous opportunities presented to them. Auburn kicker Anders Carlson missed two first-quarter field goals (and a fourth-quarter kick that would’ve sealed the win) and Nix should have registered an interception on the goal line, had the defender not dropped the ball. The Tigers were booed into the locker room and did not put the game to rest until much later than they should have.

The Tigers’ 20-14 win was never in doubt until the Rebels scored late to make it a one-score game, even after that sluggish first half in which the home team really should have put the game away. Auburn out-gained Ole Miss 507-266.

This was a win, albeit an ugly one, that Auburn needed. Because what the Tigers do, or rather face, next is far more important than anything they did Saturday night.

“We won, I think that’s how you assess (the game),” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We won the game. Proud of the fact that we won the game, but we’ve just got to clean some things up. We put up 500 yards against a pretty good defense. ... We’ve just got to finish some things and put some points on the board.”

Auburn, like it has all season, took care of business against an outmatched team, though the performance was a bit less convincing than the team’s previous easy home wins. Quarterback Bo Nix threw for 340 yards, his second 300-yard outing of the season, and ran for a touchdown. His completions (30) and attempts (44) set Auburn records vs. Ole Miss, and his 340 passing yards are the third-most all-time against Ole Miss. The 30 completions were two more than his father, Patrick Nix, against Ole Miss in 1995.

Speedy running back D.J. Williams continued to show promise as a freshman. The Tigers defense once again did its best to shut down an opposing offense with little help from its own offense.

“Auburn’s got a good defense,” Ole Miss coach Matt Luke said. “They’re really good. They give a lot of people problems. ... we didn’t execute great. A lot of that has to do with the defense that you’re playing, so give those guys credit.”

The Tigers haven’t produced results against the better teams on its schedule. They lost unconvincingly to No. 6 Florida in The Swamp, a game in which Nix threw three interceptions. They lost to LSU in Baton Rouge despite holding the Tigers to their lowest point total of the season (by almost a full two touchdowns). They nearly blew a two-score lead to an Ole Miss team that lost to Memphis and Cal.

These performances have to be sharper over the Tigers’ home stretch. Auburn’s final three games — dates with Georgia and Alabama, and a noon kickoff against Samford — come against two of the top teams in the nation. Teams that will handle the Tigers if they keep failing to produce on offense.

The Tigers have a defense genuinely good enough to win those two brutal matchups, as it kept Auburn’s average offense within striking distance in the team’s two road losses to Florida and LSU. But the offense hasn’t produced when it mattered. It did just enough to beat an average Ole Miss team at Jordan-Hare Stadium, a place the Tigers hadn’t played in a close game all season.

“We could get better at executing,” Tigers running back Harold Joiner, who caught a 78-yard pass from Nix on a wheel route, in the first half, said. “Without executing, you can’t- you have to run a play right. If you don’t run the play right, it just doesn’t work out.”

Tigers defensive tackle Derrick Brown said more of the same. The message is clear: Auburn must get sharper over the bye week.

All this said, the Tigers did still beat an SEC opponent despite not performing anywhere near its best. Had the Rebels not added a fourth-quarter touchdown, the final score likely would’ve been more indicative of how one-sided this game was for the majority of the night.

It was not a pretty game, but that was bound to happen. Take a team, coming off a tough road loss that ultimately slammed the door on its season goals, and that’s how sluggish performances like Auburn’s Saturday night happen.

What matters more is how the Tigers respond to Saturday night, and how much sharper they look in two of its toughest games of the year. Georgia, which the Tigers host November 16 coming off the bye week, is a one-loss team that just beat Florida in Jacksonville. The Bulldogs’ offense isn’t scaring anybody, but it just got 6-foot-5 recevier Lawrence Cager back (Cager went for a career high 132 yards on seven receptions against the Gators). Alabama quarterback Tua Tangovailoa will likely be back to 100% for the Iron Bowl on November 30.

Both games are completely winnable. With Auburn’s defense, any game is. But it all depends on which Tigers team shows up these final few weeks.

“We feel confident, offensively,” Tigers quarterback Bo Nix said. “We got in a great rhythm. We had some good drives. We’ve just got to start executing. ... We’ll look into that, and we’ll start executing better.”

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Joshua Mixon is a reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer. He covers sports (Auburn and preps) and local news, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He previously covered Georgia athletics for the Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.