At the start of the season, if you were to ask any Ole Miss fan what they thought about their team’s chances against Auburn in Week 8, most wouldn’t have offered much hope. At least if you asked any sane, rational fan who could put their fandom aside and view the matchup objectively.

After all, Auburn entered the season as a legitimate national title contender. Armed with a potential Heisman-candidate under center, an explosive receiving corps and arguably the best defense in the country, the Tigers were viewed as a very real threat to bring home their second championship in just under a decade. After throttling the then-No. 6 Washington in Week 1, those ambitions became even more real, and the preseason hype looked even more justified.

Yet here we are in Week 8, and the Tigers (4-3, 1-3) have more losses than the Rebels (5-2, 1-2). Auburn is still favored to beat the Rebels on Saturday, but with the line hovering between 3 and 4, it’s widely expected to be a very close game, one that the Rebels could win. Believe it or not, they are catching Auburn at the perfect time, especially with the Tigers coming off two consecutive ugly losses.

Just three weeks ago, after the Rebels’ blowout loss to LSU, the fan base was on the verge of complete and total mutiny, ready to fire Matt Luke midseason. Just a few short weeks later, that same fan base appears to be re-energized and optimistic about their chances of upsetting a team that was ranked No. 8 nationally just 10 days ago. Such is the life inside the SEC.

So, what does Ole Miss have to do to beat Auburn?

First of all, OC Phil Longo needs to call the game exactly like he did in the second half of the Arkansas game last week, which was a truly beautiful thing. He was especially brilliant on the final two drives of the game, one being a 10-play, 84 yard drive and the other being a 7-play, 97 yard drive, with both resulting in TDs.

What was different about the play-calling? Finally, he stopped focusing entirely on the deep ball. Throughout much of the season, the offense was destined for either a 75-yard bomb or punting after trying and missing on a 75-yard bomb three consecutive plays. That’s not a real offense, unless you’re playing Madden 2009 with Randy Moss.

Instead of throwing deep every play, the Rebels started focusing on shorter passes that got the ball to their playmakers in space, with great success. QB Jordan Ta’amu wound up having a career day, completing passes to 8 receivers and throwing for 387 yards and 2 TDs, averaging 11.1 yards per attempt.

Credit: Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

The shorter passes put the opposing LBs into coverage, which opened up the middle of the field for both Ta’amu and RB Scottie Phillips, who combined for 227 yards rushing and 2 TDs.  All of this ultimately led to more sustained drives with the ability to generate some momentum, while also keeping their defense fresh, and more important, off the field.

Ta’amu could be in store for a big day against an Auburn secondary that was torched by Tennessee QB Jarrett Guarantano last week. Guarantano threw for 328 yards and 2 TDs. He was particularly effective taking shots downfield, something the Rebels have been prone to do. The Rebels have a big and physically gifted receiving corps (even without D.K. Metcalf, who is out for the season with a neck injury) that can win one-on-one matchups, especially against smaller DBs.

Now I know what you’re thinking, that I just said they need to focus on shorter passes like they did against Arkansas while in the next breath discussing how the deep ball could be open against Auburn. I’m not saying the Rebels shouldn’t throw deep anymore; that would be foolish, especially considering the skill on hand. All I’m saying is that they can’t do that on every play, or it loses its effectiveness. Use the shorter passes to open up the deep shots downfield. Shorter passes keep the ball moving and builds momentum while forcing the defense to creep up, which eventually leads to a single man coverage on the outside with no safety help over the top.

The opportunities could be even greater if Auburn star CB Jamel Dean doesn’t play. Dean, a supremely gifted cover corner with size and speed, missed the second half of last week’s game with an injury and left the Mississippi State game for concussion protocol. The Tigers will also be without safety Jeremiah Dinson for the first half of the game due to suspension from a targeting call against Tennessee.

If the Rebels can get into a rhythm, string together a couple of lengthy drives, get the ball to their playmakers in space and take calculated shots downfield, they’ll be in a good position to win this game. Of course, they’ll also need their defense to string together 4 quarters of solid play, something they have yet to accomplish this season. They’ve generally played pretty well in the second half of games this year, but they can’t wait until the 3rd quarter to turn it on this week, not if they hope to come away with a win.

Fortunately for the Rebels’ defense, which has been absolutely awful this year, giving up 35.1 points per game (110th nationally) and 498.1 yards of offense (122nd), they’ll face an equally frustrating Auburn offense, which is 75th in scoring offense (28 per game) and 93rd in yards per game (376.1). You have to think, one of these two struggling units will wind up looking good, the question is which one.

Many are pinning the blame of Auburn’s offensive struggles on QB Jarrett Stidham (1,499 yards, 60.6%, 7 TDs/4 INTs), which is unfair in my opinion. He hasn’t played up to his ability, undoubtedly, but he also hasn’t gotten much help from his line, which has been remarkably porous, or his receivers, who have struggled with drops.

The Stidham we saw from last year, who completed 72% of his passes for 451 yards with 3 TDs and no INTs in wins against No. 1 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama, hasn’t been the same this year. The losses along the OL (Braden Smith, Austin Golson, Darius James and Casey Dunn), along with RB Kerryon Johnson, have made life much harder on Stidham, as he doesn’t have the rushing attack to force the defenses to play honest and doesn’t have the time in the pocket to make his progressions and find the open man. He’s noticeably getting antsy in the pocket, and the lack of protection is beginning to really impact his play.

For Ole Miss to win, they’re going to have to dial up the pass rush. They absolutely have to stop the run on first down and get pressure on passing downs. They need to make him uncomfortable. They need to force him into making mistakes, something they’ve done relatively well this year. For all the negatives on defense, they’ve forced 12 turnovers, tied for fourth-most in the SEC.

Make no mistake, Auburn deserves to be favored in this game. They still have a considerable edge in overall talent and they’ll be playing with a sense of urgency, knowing that they could literally be playing for their coach’s job at this point. Granted, that additional pressure might not necessarily be a good thing, but Ole Miss likely won’t catch a sleepy Auburn team – they know how important this game is, especially considering what looms: No. 17 Texas A&M and road trips to No. 8 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama.

Still, the Rebels have a legitimate chance, something I didn’t think I would’ve said at the beginning of the year. Coming off a big conference win against Arkansas and playing at home against a team struggling on offense and is close to unraveling at the seams? They appear to be catching the Tigers at precisely the right time.