October 12, 2012 11:19:40 AM
OXFORD -- The University of Mississippi and Auburn University football teams are winless this season in the Southeastern Conference.
Yet there's an unmistakable feeling that one program is finally clawing its way toward respectability while the other is sliding further into the league's bottom tier.
The Rebels (3-3, 0-2 SEC) are the ones with optimism. They will play host to Auburn (1-4, 0-3) at 11 a.m. Saturday afternoon in a game that could provide a much-needed confidence boost to the winner heading into the second half of the season.
Ole Miss is coming off a 30-27 loss to Texas A&M University last week that was equal parts encouraging and demoralizing. The Rebels led for almost the entire game before blowing a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. It was the program's 16th straight SEC loss.
"The next step is not only getting to the fourth quarter in a highly contested game, but finding a way to win it," first-year Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said.
The Rebels will get another chance against Auburn, which is coming off a 24-7 loss to Arkansas and hasn't been able to muster much offense the entire season.
Freeze admitted earlier in the week that it's hard to figure out Auburn's offensive identity because the Tigers have had so many issues -- especially at quarterback.
But a program that hasn't won an SEC game in more than two years isn't in a good position to take anyone lightly. Freeze said Auburn is still capable of playing good football.
"They've got a very talented defensive line that will give you problems -- it keeps them in most games," Freeze said. "If their offense ever starts clicking, they're going to be a very good team in this conference regardless of what their record is. We all know that from being around this conference. Every team has enough players to scare you. They are certainly no exception."
Auburn has won three straight games against Ole Miss, but has managed just 27 total points in three SEC games. The Tigers are dead last in almost all offensive categories, but have had an especially tough time throwing. Quarterbacks Kiehl Frazier and Clint Moseley have combined to throw three touchdowns and 10 interceptions this season.
For a team that won the BCS national championship just two seasons ago, the dropoff has been steep.
"We've just got to be aggressive," Auburn receiver Travante Stallworth said. "We've just got to throw the first punch. We can't go out there lackadaisical and just try to find our way around. We just need to go out there and play the game that we know how to play."
Auburn coach Gene Chizik said Ole Miss is undersized at certain spots -- most notably on the defensive line -- but said Freeze has done a good job of getting the Rebels to play with passion and confidence.
"Just the energy of how they're playing, they just look like a different team," Chizik said. "They're young but they're very talented and they've got some players at key positions that are extremely difficult to defend offensively and defensively."
Now Ole Miss is focused on cutting down mistakes. Junior quarterback Bo Wallace threw for 305 yards and a touchdown against Texas A&M, but also had two crucial interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown and another that ended a potential game-winning drive.
Freeze said Wallace will be the starter against Auburn, but he wouldn't hesitate to bring in backup Barry Brunetti if the mistakes continue.
The Ole Miss defense is a work in progress as well. The Rebels forced six turnovers against Texas A&M, but gave up a 99-yard drive in just three plays during the decisive fourth quarter.
Freeze said he appreciates the defense's passion. But he continues to stress discipline.
"We won't slack off," Freeze said. "We'll continue to preach to them."