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COLUMN: Winning only thing that matters now for Rebels

AUBURN, Ala. — You just knew Ole Miss’ game against Auburn was going to be close.

Yes, the Tigers have proven to not be anything close to what everyone thought they would be before the season started, which was the preseason favorite (at least in the media’s eyes at Southeastern Conference media days back in July) to win the SEC and be in the hunt for a spot in the playoffs at this point of the season.

Auburn’s defense still can’t stop anybody, and the offense hasn’t been able to help like Gus Malzahn’s offenses normally do since the Tigers had to plug in freshman quarterback Sean White midseason for Jeremy Johnson, who isn’t at all what most expected him to be either.

And, yes, Ole Miss, despite its own struggles, was the touchdown favorite after looking like the team everyone thought the Rebels could at least resemble with a suffocating win over Texas A&M that kept the Rebels alive in the SEC Western Division race for another week.

But traveling across the border is usually trouble for Ole Miss. That win over Alabama in mid-September was the first for the Rebels in Tuscaloosa in 27 years, and Ole Miss hadn’t won at Auburn since Eli Manning found Lorenzo Townsend down the sideline and a wide-open Ben Obomanu dropped Jason Campbell’s pass in the end zone in 2003.

And Ole Miss again found itself in a tussle with the now-.500 Tigers on Saturday in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

A pass defense that’s been shaky all season for the Rebels blew another coverage early in the second quarter, and 47 yards later, Ricardo Louis strolled into the end zone for a 10-3 lead that got the home team off to a fast start and may have had Ole Miss fans thinking the worst after the Rebels had lost their last two road games by a combined score of 75-34.

But Ole Miss punched back instead of letting the blows pile up.

Akeem Judd highlighted an all-of-a-sudden rejuvenated running game with a 25-yard answer a couple possessions later, the passing game eventually hit on the big plays it normally does, and the Rebels’ defense, with Robert Nkemdiche back in action, shut down Auburn’s plethora of backs and generated enough pressure on young quarterback Sean White to bend yet not break.

The result was a 27-19 win, and that’s all that matters at this point.

Ole Miss stayed in control of its road to Atlanta, a path that’s still full of potential landmines but is still there nonetheless. Ole Miss is a different team at home (11-1 there since last season) and gets its next two games at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

A much more balanced Arkansas team won’t be easy to beat this Saturday, but the defense should have Tony Conner back from his knee injury against the Razorbacks. Win that one, and Ole Miss can heal everybody up during its bye week before its showdown with LSU.

But most teams are what they are at this point of the season, and Ole Miss is no different.

The pressure created up front and the improved tackling have helped, but this defense is going to give up yards. And while the running game has come to life the past two weeks, Chad Kelly, Laquon Treadwell and the rest of the Rebels out wide are going to have to continuing carrying the offense.

It’s made for some ugly moments this season, and Saturday wasn’t always pretty.

But the Rebels need wins to turn their dream of an SEC Championship Game berth into a reality, and it doesn’t matter how.

Davis Potter is the sports editor of The Oxford Eagle. You can reach him at davis.potter@oxfordeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DPotterOE.