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Friday preview: Mississippi St.

Missiles of the Auburn defense: this is Tony Dixon. He has heat. Go and seek.

What’s at stake: Any State fans out there might (will) disagree, but: more for Auburn.

Because given the two programs’ levels of returning talent and historical success, the stakes are higher for the entire season for Auburn. At MSU, a 5-7 season is progress, a solid first step forward; for Auburn, it’s a demoralizing second straight losing season and an abject failure. At MSU, two SEC wins (especially given their schedule; their “winnable” games are all on the road) would be a borderline triumph; at Auburn, it’ll be time for some serious soul-searching about the future of the program. Mullen can afford to be patient; Chizik, I maintain, cannot.

So: Auburn enters as 14-point favorite in an SEC home game. When every win up to 7 is a precious, precious thing, being a 14-point favorite in an SEC home game just isn’t the kind of opportunity they can screw up. It’s just not a game Chizik can lose. And while a win would be huge for State and Mullen–beating Auburn two straight in J-Hare would be quite the feather in the program’s cap –I don’t see how it’s one the Bulldogs have to have. That comes at Vanderbilt next week.

When Auburn has the ball

The first and far-and-away most important question for the Bulldog defense is this: Can they stop the run? Auburn proved last week that if they don’t, well, a few well-timed strips of the ball might be the only thing standing between the Tigers and a 45-spot. Right now, the answer is: Well … maybe.

The Bulldogs do have some athletes in their front seven. I shouldn’t have to tell you senior MLB Jamar Chaney is State’s best player on that side of the ball by a mile, JUCO end Pernell McPhee is MSU’s Nick Fairley, they’ll start two seniors at tackle in 310-pound Kyle Love and Charles Burns, and junior strongside ‘backer K.J. Wright had a big year last year. There certainly weren’t any red flags in the Jackson St. scrimmage: that bunch of Tigers were held to 1.8 yards a carry.

Still: this is a group that gave up better than 4 yards a rush a season ago and lost three starters off its front four. Thanks to McPhee and the return of Chaney (who missed last season via injury) they’ll be better this season anyway, but they won’t be that much better–and in any case, on paper Auburn’s already faced a better defensive line than the Bulldogs’ in La. Tech. This also seems like a bad match-up for McPhee; a converted tackle weighing in at 275 pounds, he may not be quick enough to help contain McCalebb off the edge. All in all, State’s strength at linebacker means Auburn likely won’t average 5.8 yards-per-carry again, but “Hailstorm and Lightning” aren’t getting flat shut down, either.

And that’s where things get dicey for the Bulldogs, because the evidence of both teams’ games last week suggests that when opportunities open up downfield, Todd and Co. are going to take advantage of them. You already know that Todd averaged 9.4 yards an attempt and 15 a completion, right? Well, Jackson St. quarterback Trae Rutland might have only completed 8 passes (and tossed a couple of interceptions, including a pick-six), but he made those 8 count–they went for a whopping 16.5 yards a completion. The State secondary is young and unsettled–three starters lost from last year, sophomores at both strong safety and corner, position switches all over the place–and judging from that number, it’s quite possible they’re going to be the type of unit that ends up making some big plays for both teams. Given Malzahn’s emphasis on going over the top and the success Todd had last week, that’s exactly what Auburn wants to hear about an opposing secondary.

New State defensive coordinator Carl Torbush is an old pro who knows what he’s doing, and overall the Bulldog D should be an upgrade on the ’08 version despite the 7 departed starters. But given the holes Auburn appears capable of opening up both in the State defensive line and downfield, the Tigers look to have too much balance (and too much offensive coaching) not to expect a second strong offensive outing. This year, the Auburn side of the scoreboard is going to show a number many, many times greater than “3.”

When Mississippi St. has the ball

Get ready for it now: Tony Dixon Tony Dixon Tony Dixon Tony Dixon.

Tony Dixon.

The senior slugger at running back is far and away the best thing the State offense has going for it, and his Week 1 suspension for DUI was probably a blessing-in-disguise for Mullen: he’ll likely want to get the ball to Dixon in a variety of ways, and this way Auburn doesn’t have film on all the ways those might be. Dixon will likely touch the ball 25-30 times, and while he’s not a threat to hit the 75-yard home run, we all know he’s rugged enough to get his yards if State gives Auburn reason to pay even the tiniest modicum of attention to anyone else.

Whether they will or not … we’ll see. Mullen’s arrival appeared to have done wonders for the State quarterbacks against JSU: senior Tyson Lee and sophomore Chris Relf combined to complete 16-of-24 for 172 yards and 3 TDs vs. no picks. The yards-per-attempt number (6.9) wasn’t glittering, but with the emphasis on Dixon, efficiency’s the name of MSU’s quarterbacking game–and Lee and Relf were certainly efficient. State even has a legitimate weapon on the outside these days in true freshman Chad Bumphis, a jitterbuggy four-star, top-20 recruit who scored twice vs. JSU. Mullen also has MSU spreading the wealth: nine different players caught a ball last week, and five of them caught two or more.

Here comes the giant flaming caveat: all those numbers came against Jackson State. At home. And aside from the fact that they will also be playing the game of football, Auburn’s defense (on the road!) will not be equivalent to Jackson St.’s in any way, shape, or form. This is particularly true up front, where MSU was just dreadful last year (even with Dixon, they averaged all of 2.5 yards a carry in SEC play) and Mullen has been shuffling candidates around in order to get his five best guys on the field. If Auburn’s defensive line could handle a La. Tech front with greater levels of both talent and experience–and handle them they most certainly did–the State line is in trouble.

And so the Bulldog offense as a whole is, Ithink, in trouble. Mullen should find a way to recreate some of Tech’s success exploiting Auburn’s linebackers and soft coverage underneath, but no part of the MSU offense–receivers who should struggle beating McFadden and Thorpe, quarterbacks who aren’t equipped to get the ball downfield, a line that sucked out loud in pass protection last season–suggests the Bulldogs will be able to stretch the field vertically. This puts even more of an onus on Dixon and the run game, and Auburn’s line (plus the Bynes/Stevens combo) looks too good from here to let that become the kind of threat that changes the game.

I respect Mullen enough that I expect him to turn Lee’s and Relf’s accuracy, Dixon’s power, and Bumphis’s speed into something greater than the offensive travesty we saw from the Bulldogs at this time last year. They won’t get their only points via self-inflicted safety, that much I’m confident about. But unless I’m badly misjudging the outcome of the battle along the line of scrimmage, crossing the 20-, 24-point barrier against a defense of Auburn’s caliber still seems like it’s a year away at least.

When special teams are on the field

Both of State’s specialists are brand new JUCOs; no one really knows what’s going to happen with them. However: kicker Sean Brauchle missing from both 37 and 38 in last week’s utterly pressure-free situation doesn’t seem like the best of omens. State’s returns are less intimidating than last year’s with the departure (finally!) of Derek Pegues, but are otherwise also a total mystery.

With Byrum back on form and Auburn’s coverage teams coming off of keeping a legitimate threat in Philip Livas well in check, the special teams match-up would seem to tilt in the home team’s favor … as long as, of course, that whole “bounce the punt out of our returner’s hands 10 feet into the air” problem has been resolved.

Intangible reason for worry: Uh, this match-up was just about as lopsided on paper entering the ‘o7 and ’08 meetings, and as I believe you’re already familiar with the final results of said meetings,  I won’t bother to rehash them for you. Based on that, I think it’s possible that after all of those years of remorselessly curb-stomping the Bulldogs, this series may just be overdue for a long string of tight-fisted slugfests … and who wins that kind of game, the football gods alone know.

Intangible reason for confidence: Slugfests or not, Auburn has dominated the yardage margin against the Bulldogs each of the last two years, without–obviously–seeing that domination translate to the scoreboard. If Auburn starts racking up the yards on State again, one of these years the contest’s going to turn into the decisive Tiger victory the box score says it ought to be.

Three Wishes: 1. No more than one Auburn turnover, and none that result in an immediate Bulldog touchdown 2. Todd completes four passes of 20 yards or more 3. Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens play fewer than 50 plays

Success is / Failure is: I’m going to get greedy here, so forgive me if everything goes pear-shaped, but: Win by two possessions or more / Win by one possession or defeat. (Why does the margin matter? Because we have to get our starters off the field some time, that’s why.)

Your bottom line: I’ll make this real simple: last week, State outgained a SWAC team by 216 yards and by 2.3 yards a play. Auburn, meanwhile, outgained a likely bowl-bound WAC team by 311 yards and 3.5 yards a play.

Unless Auburn’s outing against Tech was a complete and total fluke, the Tigers will be both the home team and the better team. Barring a series of turnovers and special teams disasters, a loss to a Bulldog team this green just does not look likely.

And so, in one final attempt to look spectacularly wrong …Carnac

Auburn 29, Mississippi St. 13.

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