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Friday Thursday preview: Mississippi State

Chad Bumphis: SEIZE HIM.

What’s at stake: A surprising amount for both teams, considering it’s Week 2 and neither is expected to, you know, win anything important.

But if you’re Auburn, expected or not, you’ve got designs on the SEC West all the same. And those designs can just about get tossed in the trash if you lose to Mississippi St. Not entirely–a home sweep could still easily set up the Iron Bowl for all the marbles–but taking the mulligan this early in the season is going to have those hopes on a knife-edge all season. Beyond that, unless State goes on the kind of tear no one save the most irrational of Bulldog fans is expecting, this is going to be the kind of game and kind of opponent that Auburn must win to be taken seriously as a member of the SEC’s upper echelon. No one questions that the Bulldogs are much, much better under Mullen, but legitimate league heavyweights still don’t lose in Starkville; if Auburn wants to return to the stature they enjoyed under Tubby in the mid-Aughts, beating a quality SEC team like State on the road* is a first step they have to take.

For the Bulldogs, it’s about respect. They finished sixth in the SEC West last year and have remained consigned to the “whatever” bin of the league in popular perception, even when 1. they were easily good enough to have gone bowling in 2009 with a couple of breaks 2. they’re easily superior to the likes of Ole Miss, Tennessee, probably Kentucky, and quite possibly the full equals of LSU, Arkansas, Carolina, etc. This is their chance to prove it, to break out of the “just Mississippi State” ghetto–home game, national television audience, ranked-but-not-overpowering opponent. As the YouTube video I embedded yesterday put it, this is a Day of Reckoning for State in 2010; they may still pull an upset or two down the stretch if they lose to Auburn, but if they want to be more than spoilers, this is too golden an opportunity to pass up.

In short: both teams feel they’re the type of team that wins this game. Only one of them is right.

When Auburn has the ball: If they keep their heads, they’ll move it plenty.

Because while State has several good players, it’s hard seeing this as the kind of unit with the top-to-bottom strength that’s going to slow an offense as balanced as Auburn’s down for too terribly long. Sure, they held Memphis to 237 yards and nearly threw the shutout. But aside from the linebacking crew, this is still a frightfully young defense as a whole: of the eight members of the defensive line and secondary, four are sophomores and one a redshirt freshman.

We’ll start with the line, where senior end Pernell McPhee is the unquestioned star of the defense … but will have Lee Ziemba to tangle with. Tackles Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox are both talented players on the rise … but they’re sophomores going up against three Auburn seniors on the interior. The linebackers are all seniors, with star K.J. Wright the leader … but there’s no Jamar Chaney here, either, and Auburn’s backs have loads more natural talent. Throw in the difficulties for State in containing Newton as well, and Auburn should be able to get theirs on the ground unless State over-commits against the run.

Taking that tack, however, will put an incredible amount of pressure on the worst matchup for State on this side of the ball. The Bulldogs have sophomores on both corners and freshman Nickoe Whitley at free safety, all lining up against Adams, Zachery, and Carr (not to mention Burns and Reed), and with little help reasonably expected from the State pass rush. (Memphis didn’t accumulate a ton of yards, but they did complete 20 of their 32 passes.) Leaving those guys on an island against Auburn’s receivers and Newton’s deep ball is asking for major trouble … but State may not have a choice, and new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has a reputation for high-risk, high-reward blitz schemes. Adams and Zachery should both be due for big, big games.

Assuming, of course, that Newton keeps his composure. If I’m a defensive coordinator, I back off of Auburn on passing downs–play zone, ask your front four to get pressure, keep Newton in the pocket, and force him to go through his progressions. If Diaz decides to bring the heat–maybe the best plan anyway, given that his secondary may not be able to hold up in a zone–Newton will have opportunities to both take advantage of one-on-one coverage on the outside and find some big space on the scramble. But pulling that off against Arkansas St. at home is one thing. Doing it against a SEC defense on the road in a cowbell-infested environment is something else. If Newton can keep his cool against Diaz’s pressure, he and Auburn should have a field day in the air … but that’s still a big if until we see him do it.

The guess here is that aside from maybe one or two hiccups, he will. The bottom line is that this a young defense with average overall talent in the first year of their coordinator’s schemes. Again an offense like Auburn’s, even being at home on a Thursday night shouldn’t help that much.

When Mississippi State has the ball: It’s going to be a lot less fun.

Remember that by the end of last year, State wasn’t just one of the best rushing teams in the league … they were one of the best rushing teams in the country, finishing the year with four 300-yard performances in their final seven games and ranking ninth in D-I in rushing. Most of those yards went to workhorse back Anthony Dixon, but don’t expect too much of a step back: four of the five line starters return (with 85 career starts between them) including mammoth LT Derek Sherrod, Chris Relf averaged 6.6 a carry a year ago on 76 attempts, and most importantly Dan Mullen is still the head coach. The new backs (JUCO Vick Ballard, junior Robert Elliott, sophomore and ex-Auburn commit LaDarius Perkins) won’t create nearly as much on their own as Dixon, but between the line and Mullen’s system, they won’t have to earn much by themselves to rack up the yardage. Roof’s emphasis on run-stopping, the emergence of Fairley, and the downhill marauding of Bynes and Freeman–who should find this a much better match-up than tricksy, airborne Arkansas St.–means that State isn’t going to just run Auburn over. But they’ll get their yards here and there.

If State’s passing game was still as embryonic as it was last year at this time, that wouldn’t be nearly enough to make this a game. But on the basis of Week 1, not only has it taken a major step forward, it probably represents Auburn’s biggest headache. In case you missed it, State went a collective 20-of-25 for 372 yards, an absurd average of 14.9 yards per attempt. Relf finished 7-of-9 (with a pick, however), and redshirt freshman/designated passing guy Tyler Russell an eye-opening 13-of-16, but the real stars of the show were receivers Chad Bumphis and Brandon Heavens, who each topped 100 yards while combining for 9 catches, 212 yards, and four touchdowns.

If Bumphis and Heavens were 6’2″ burners who repeatedly beat Memphis deep, that’d one thing. But they’re both 5’10” jitterbugs who specialize in taking a short throw and turning it into a long gain–6’0″ third receiver Leon Berry is no slouch in this department, either–much like the Arkansas St. wideouts who gave Auburn such fits a week ago. This, for my money, is the key matchup on either side of the ball–if Thorpe, Washington, the safeties, and the occasional helper from the linebacking crew can keep Bumphis and Heavens in front of them, tackle immediately, and generally hold the yards-after-catch in check, State will be in trouble; they don’t have the size to go deep, and they won’t be able to run that consistently, especially if Auburn’s not having to pay extra attention to the pass.

That sounds nice. But can we really expect the Auburn secondary to pull that off against receivers with twice the explosiveness of those they struggled against just five days ago? If they can’t, and Auburn has to fall back from their run duties to help … it’s going to be a long night.

When special teams are on the field: Who knows, honestly, at this stage of the season. State had the better punting and punt return numbers last week, but whether that continues this week is anyone’s guess. But there are two things we can say with some level of certainty:

1. State’s the more likely to break off a big kick return, as Berry showed a ton of promise last season and it’s too early to assume Auburn’s kick coverage issues are entirely solved

2. Auburn’s much more likely to get a big field goal from their kicker; we have Byrum, and they have Sean Bracuhle, who was serviceable las tseaosn but missed a 38-yarder against Memphis.

Intangible reason for worry

I think having to travel to Starkville on a short week to play a Thursday night game they’ve had circled on their calendar for months is worth about eight reasons.

Intangible reason for confidence

Auburn’s defense knows they didn’t play all that well last week. Ted Roof knows his defense didn’t play all that well last week. They all know that they’re going to be facing some serious heat if they don’t improve this week, if Auburn’s offense upholds its end of the bargain and they do not.

Because they know all that, I think they’re going to be ready to make the improvements they have to make.

Three wishes

1. 66 percent or better third-down conversion rate. One of the problems for Auburn’s defense last week was that the offense just kept scoring so damn fast; not one of Auburn’s five first-half touchdown drives lasted even two minutes. Meanwhile, none of Auburn’s other drives save the doomed end-of-first-half possession lasted longer than five plays. We’re all for points as quick as can get ’em, of course, but it would also be nice if when Auburn is facing a third down and worried more about converting than hitting the 60-yard jackpot, that’s what they do.  Every first down is important.

2. A lead entering the fourth quarter. Both teams are so capable of moving the ball on the ground that whoever happens to have the lead in the final stanza is going to have a major advantage grinding away against what’s virtually guaranteed to be an exhausted defense. The expectation is that this game is going to be close, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if one team ends up pulling away behind their ground game in the dying minutes.

3. Two forced turnovers. Auburn’s defense didn’t get any last week. It’s hard to win a turnover battle that way. Russell might not be obliging, but Relf threw the pick-six last year and had the one interception against Memphis. Ballhawks should be on their toes.

Success is/Failure is: A win/a loss. (For those of you new to these previews, this will change as Auburn faces teams that they really, really ought to beat or, on certain very rare occasions,

Your bottom line

I am still petrified about this game. It’s just past 11 a.m. Mountain, and I am already fighting off the monarchs and swallowtails multiplying in the gut. I can see Bumphis and Heavens going bananas … I can see the offense sputtering through the first quarter as the crowd rattles them and State flies around like a team that knows they have a favorite on the ropes … I can see Relf and the line pounding out first downs as the clock ticks towards embarrassment. Aubur nis going to have to play a very, very good game to win tonight.

But I think they’re going to play that game. Last week was not impressive. But that’s OK. This week matters a lot more, and I think last week gives Auburn a little something extra in the tank: a little more focus in preparation, a little more edge to their effort, a little more creativity in their play-calling. It sounds strange to say Auburn is “due” for a better performance after just one week, but I think they are; after all, it was just last year when Louisiana Tech also pushed Auburn late into the third, and the very next week the Malzahn rushing game simply obliterated State in the final three quarters.

I’m certainly not expecting a repeat. I think the game will be close. But I think that if Auburn gives their best effort and plays close to their potential, they win. They have the better, more talented team. Even if we assume the defenses are equally as strong (Auburn’s was better last year), I don’t think there’s any doubt that with Newton at the helm, even State’s outstanding attack isn’t at the same level as Auburn’s. If the game is decided between the lines, and not by the crowd or the trip or focus issues or general mental fragility on Auburn’s part, it should be decided in Auburn’s favor.

If Auburn had breezed past Arkansas St. while MSU had struggled with Memphis, maybe I’d feel differently. But as is, I think State already played their first genuinely good game of the young season; I think Auburn plays theirs tonight.

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

Carnac

Auburn 38, Mississippi St. 31.

I think.

*I suppose Auburn might have taken this step when they beat Tennessee a year ago, but that was still when Jon Crompton was flailing around and the Vols had lost–at home–to UCLA just a couple weeks earlier. This State team is playing better and is probably better, period.

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