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Friday Preview: Mississippi State

Last year's defense held Mississippi State to 14 points. Now most Auburn fans will be happy with double that.

The Good Guys: All week long, you’ve heard that same narrative from last Saturday’s victory against Utah State.

For one last time, that 2010 magic was back as Auburn mounted an impossible comeback with under four minutes to play. For one last time, it seemed those same Cardiac Cats were back, thrilling the crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium. For those last four minutes against the Utah State, that championship mojo was in the air again.

Instead of stepping out of the shadow of 2010, the 2011 Tigers thrived in it — for at least one game.

All of that ends on Saturday, when Mississippi State comes to town and the conference schedule begins.

And Auburn is in for a reality check tomorrow. Players and fans alike will see exactly what an uphill climb this 2011 season is going to be, and exactly what this 2011 season is going to look like.

For all intents and purposes, after what seemed like a flashback to years past in Week One, the 2011 season truly begins for the Auburn Tigers on Saturday — for better or for worse.

The Bad Guys: If it weren’t for the name, you wouldn’t be able to tell that the Bulldogs were the same Mississippi State that has struggled so mightily throughout their program’s history—not by the way they act, not by the way they talk, and, truthfully, not by the way they play either.

To say that the Bulldogs have improved under head coach Dan Mullen over the last three years would be an understatement. It seems that at every turn Mississippi State is breaking school records, and setting new program standards. More importantly, it appears that this season the program is actually presenting a quality product on the field. Make no mistake: The Bulldogs are entirely deserving of their Top 20 position in the polls.

If it’s not now, it’s never, or at least that’s how it would appear for Mississippi State. A win on Saturday in Jordan-Hare Stadium would be a huge step toward them turning the corner. Mississippi State may have won in Jordan-Hare in 2007, but a win for them this season would mean so much more than just a regular upset bid. Rather than just playing the role of the lowly spoiler, the Bulldogs will have the rare chance at being the favorite, being on top of that pedestal, and proving that they can compete and win those difficult games that this conference demands of its top-tier teams.

It’s time for Mississippi State to prove it this Saturday. It’s time for Dan Mullen to prove that he’s a hot commodity as a coach, despite just two seasons and one bowl game. It’s time for them to prove they can actually compete in the West division, after going 0-8 against the big boys outside of Mississippi over the last two years.

It’s time for Mississippi State to put up or shut up. Because if it’s not now, it’s never.

When Mississippi State has the ball: It’s all going to boil down to the running game.

Montgomery native and returning starter senior quarterback Chris Relf should have improved his passing going into this season, but let’s just say that he and the Mississippi State wide receivers have yet to set their bar very high.

Last season, the Bulldogs passing offense finished 87th nationally with 186 yards per game. That’s not putrid when you consider that the Bulldogs had just 287 attempts last year, good for near bottom of the conference and the nation (right next to 2010 Auburn). Keeping attempts low and bolstering your yards-per-attempt against the defensive expectancy of your run-heavy attack looks great on the stat sheet, but for Auburn’s purposes on Saturday, all it means is that the Mississippi State passing game wasn’t a viable enough option to take much of load off of their running game, even in their four losses last season.

Attempting to help Relf balance out the offense this season and on Saturday will be junior wide receiver Chad Bumphis, who has led the way for the Bulldogs at the receiver position for the past two seasons.

But for Mississippi State, it all comes down to the running game. At the forefront will be senior running back Vick Ballard, who last week amassed 166 yards and 3 touchdowns on just 10 attempts against Memphis. Ballard finished last season with 981 yards and 20 touchdowns, and will look to become a 1,000-yard rusher and find the end zone even more times this year.

Ballard is a workhorse, but Relf is going to do a lot more than just hand him the ball. Last season, Relf finished with more total carries than Ballard, and ended with 701 rushing yards to his own credit.

The key for Auburn will obviously be to slow down the Mississippi State running attack, which isn’t an impossible feat. Despite what some Bulldog fans might want you to think, they’re not unstoppable. Mississippi State did finish 16th best in the country last year with 215 rushing yards per game, but that’s not as “elite” as some might think when you consider that the season rushing total was still 1,000 yards shy of the Auburns and the Oregons of 2010 — who are also teams that, you know, have an actual passing game. When looking at their national ranking per attempt, the 2010 Bulldogs check in at a modest 40th.

That said, Mississippi State is good at running the ball, and besides a couple of linemen, they return all of their weapons offensively.

The match-up could be much worse for Auburn, though. Despite how things looked against Utah State, Auburn has played well against the run under Chizik and Ted Roof, especially when they load up and attempt to shut it down.

Luckily, Auburn won’t have to shut it down on Saturday. They’ll just need to slow it down.

When Auburn has the ball: Mississippi State’s greatest strength on defense is its secondary, which returns all four starters from a season ago.

Junior cornerback Corey Broomfield and sophomore safety Nickoe Whitley both had three interceptions last season, and Whitley began 2011 off on the right foot, pulling down a pick against Memphis last Saturday.

Auburn will want to attack the Mississippi State front seven, which returns just three starters, no linebackers. One player to watch will be Clemson transfer and senior linebacker Brandon Maye, who is able to play immediately with an NCAA waiver after graduating from Clemson and attending graduate school in Starkville. Maye brings immediate experience to a Bulldog linebacking corps that needs it, having played in 25 games in three years for Clemson. He played, but finished with zero tackles in the Auburn/Clemson game in 2010.

In the front four, Mississippi State was hurt by the loss of now-Baltimore Raven Pernell McPhee, but it still returns junior defensive tackles Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox.

Obviously, Auburn’s running game will need to improve in order to succeed on Saturday. Luckily, while there’s some experience on the inside of the Bulldogs’ defensive line, there isn’t much experience at the linebacker position behind them to help.

You could even go so far as to say that Auburn’s rushing attack is in a better match-up this week against than it was against Utah State. Yes, even though it’s SEC competition this week, in Auburn’s case they just might take the Mississippi State defense over having to run against Bobby Wagner and Utah State, and having to decipher the evidently mysterious 3-4 defense once again.

Mississippi State’s strength on defense is in its secondary, but without a stellar performance even it will have a hard time slowing down the Tiger passing attack if Barrett Trotter shows up the same way he did last week.

On this side of the ball, Auburn is actually is a good position and has the advantage of some favorable match-ups. One of the only troubles could be if the offense fails to execute, and, unfortunately with a team, that’s always a possibility.

Special Teams: Overall special teams was one of the lone bright spots for Auburn in the opener. Auburn will obviously be looking for more big plays out of Tre Mason, Onterio McCalebb and the kickoff return team, while Cody Parkey will try to blast more through the end zone to keep the ball out of the hands of Mississippi State’s return specialists.

Those aforementioned specialists are Jameon Lewis and Johnthan Banks, who both returned punts in the opener against Memphis. However, we could also see their do-everything receiver Chad Bumphis, who returned kicks and punts last season.

Mississippi State played two place kickers last week, with senior Derek DePasquale and sophomore Brian Egan both kicking PATs for the Bulldogs last week. DePasquale was the only one to attempt any kicks from the field, going 1-for-2.

Meanwhile, Auburn’s Cody Parkey has yet to attempt a field goal in his short career.

Reason for Worry: Just as physicality becomes a concern for Auburn in Week One, they have to turn around and play this ground-and-pound game against Mississippi State in Week Two. The Auburn linemen, on both sides of the ball, could have used a few more weeks to improve and to build their confidence, because it’s going to get nasty in the trenches on Saturday. They say that playing on the lines isn’t much of a mental game, but a lack of confidence and timidity could spell doom for this young offensive line. Here’s hoping they instead come out with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove.

Reason for Confidence: Last week’s scare against Utah State was far and away the best thing that could have happened for this young team. It gave Auburn the necessary wake-up call and all of the alerts to the weaknesses in their game, without the actual embarrassing loss that so many other teams have had in season openers over the years. A different outcome last Saturday would have changed the entire complexion of this game. Instead, Auburn seems almost as if it’s already battle tested and in mid-season form, while Mississippi State is facing their first day game and will face its first real test tomorrow.

Three Wishes

1. Get big. Needless to say, the play along the lines will be crucial, and the line play for Auburn is going to have to make a big improvement. Offensively, the (possibly re-shuffled) line is going to have to set the tone for Auburn’s running game, and give Auburn a chance to attack Mississippi State at its weakest spot — its defensive front seven. Meanwhile, the defensive line is going to have to contain the running game, as is always the gameplan for any opponent going up against the Bulldogs.

2. Strike early. They say that the best offense is a good defense, but for Auburn the best defense may be a good offense on Saturday. If Auburn’s offense can turn the game into a shootout, they have the distinct advantage, especially if they can maintain a lead and force Relf and company to go to the air to try and come back. A big lead, at any point in the game, could effectively eliminate the Mississippi State running attack, and if Auburn can do that, they have a good chance at winning this game.

3. Force two or more turnovers. Auburn isn’t going to play lights-out defense on Saturday. That’s just too much improvement over a week’s time to expect, and too much to expect out of these young defensive players this early. But one thing that Auburn can do defensively is make plays, and hand the ball over to the offense. Auburn will have to look to get as many stops as they can; forcing turnovers is a great way to make stops, and to put your offense in scoring position.

The Prediction

Most aren’t giving Auburn much of a chance on Saturday.

What most see is an Auburn defense that gave up 227 rushing yards to Utah State, and an assumed potency to a Mississippi State rushing attack that romped over Memphis.

But if that’s the only match up that they’re looking at in this game — and it is — then they’re terribly mistaken.

On the opposite side of the ball, Auburn’s running game will face an equally suspect and inexperienced front seven in Mississippi State’s, and unless their greatest asset on defense — their secondary — plays extremely well, they’ll be hard pressed to bring a halt to Gus Malzahn’s passing attack.

Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the spectrum and the opposite side of the ball, the Auburn secondary has struggled over the past few years, but they’ve faced better passing attacks than Mississippi State’s, who have had their own struggles.

And while Ballard and Relf will lead an outstanding ground game, the Auburn defense has played well against the run under Gene Chizik and Ted Roof’s tutelage, especially when they game plan to shut it down and force an opponent to beat them through the air — which is something I’m not willing to forget after just one half of a jittery season opener against Utah State.

Across the board — forgetting the future and the rest of the season — Auburn is in better position in this game than they’ve been given credit for. Auburn is matched up in a good position on both sides of the ball, and it’s not like the Tigers don’t have the horses to keep up with a Mississippi State team still trying to turn the corner, because they do.

After the schematic match ups, and after the natural roster talent, it all depends on which team is going to show up on Saturday.

While it’s never easy to predict exactly what’s going to happen in any football game, I think Auburn has a very good chance to win on Saturday.

While most are wondering about the points spread, how close the game will be, and what the rest of the season will look like, I think Auburn wins this game outright.

The Final Score

Auburn 36, Mississippi State 28

Photo via.

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