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Why the run game could make or break Auburn’s chances against Georgia

Eleventh-ranked Auburn did not need a strong rushing attack to beat a three-win Ole Miss team. A better offensive outing would’ve left fewer doubts, sure, but the Tigers never seemed to really be on the ropes until the Rebels’ final drive in that 20-14 Tigers win.

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.

The Tigers will need a solid run game more than ever come November 16, when the sixth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs make the trip to the Plains. The Bulldogs have not allowed a single rushing touchdown all year.

“I feel like we could’ve done better,” Tigers freshman running back Harold Joiner said. “It could’ve been better. It was a little bit of a dirty win. We just have to come back and get better.”

The Tigers have run the ball well enough this season, at least for the most part, something Tigers coach Gus Malzahn has said numerous times is key to keeping quarterback Bo Nix comfortable. Running back JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow remains sidelined, but Auburn hasn’t really felt that impact yet.

Freshman running back D.J. Williams led the Tigers with 93 rushing yards and one touchdown against the Rebels. Five Tigers, including Nix and receiver Anthony Schwartz, registered carries in the Ole Miss game.

Joiner, another freshman, nearly scored on a 78-yard reception on a wheel route against the Rebels, coming up just one yard short.

“We both came in early,” Nix said of Williams. “I’ve seen the work that he’s put in. I’ve seen the things that he’s had to overcome to get in this situation, and now that he’s in this position, he’s making the most of it. He’s doing a really good job for us. He’s breaking tackles. He’s catching the ball out of the backfield, and he’s doing some really good things. He’s just going to get better.”

Receiver Seth Williams emerged early-on as a key target for Nix, but Schwartz might be the most important key to the offense. The speedy Schwartz scored a rushing touchdown and a receiving score against Arkansas, after being largely left out of Malzahn’s game plan against Florida. He led the Tigers with 89 receiving yards against Ole Miss. It was Schwartz’s 57-yard touchdown run that silenced Kyle Field early against Texas A&M, and the threat of the sophomore taking the ball on a jet sweep adds a wrinkle to Malzahn’s offense.

“We know Ole Miss has a good run defense and passing defensive isn’t as great,” Schwartz said. “We tried to attack the weak points. We tried to make sure everyone got the ball — me, Seth (Williams), Sal (Cannella), Ja’varrius (Johnson).”

The Bulldogs held Florida to 17 points on Saturday and will likely travel to Jordan-Hare Stadium as a one-loss team, pending they avoid a South Carolina-level disaster against Missouri. They rank eighth nationally in total defense and give up an average of 77 rushing yards per game.

Georgia also held the Gators to just 21 rushing yards on 19 attempts — a whopping 1.1 yards per carry.

And against the better defenses on their schedule, the Tigers have not produced.

The Tigers ran for 130 yards against an LSU defense that ranks 13th nationally in run defense. They ran for 124 yards against 31st-ranked Florida. The Tigers ran for one touchdown in those two games combined and 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.

“They are the only defense to hold — they’re the only FBS team to not give up a rushing touchdown, which is a pretty strong statement,” College Football Playoff Selection Committee chair Rob Mullens said in his Tuesday evening teleconference.

That’s a streak the Tigers would probably prefer to end sooner rather than later.

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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.