It’s Mississippi State week, or as Auburn fans across the Twitterverse know it, “StateHate Week.”
We of the Wishbone have wrestled with the idea of just how much “hate” we really hold in reserve for the Bulldogs of the Magnolia State. Do we truly hate them? Is doing so actually giving them too much credit? Are they worthy of actual, honest-to-badness “hate?” In other words, Mississippi State: Do you rate the hate?
Then we remember the events of 2010 as they pertained to Dan Mullen and the Miss State program in general. We remember what a mess they stirred up—a mess that, as Gene Chizik later described it, was “a Mississippi State problem” all along, never an Auburn problem.
And we remember what we think of Mullen in general.
And then, lo and behold, the hate comes flowing right along. Well, still maybe not real, visceral hate. Again, that may be taking things too far when we’re only talking about Mississippi State.
But something kinda sorta akin to hate. And, for those guys, that’s probably enough.
Are Things Better?
When you’re trying to tell if your college football team has improved there are several methods you can use. You can look at raw statistical data to see if the team’s performance has improved in key areas (either straight up or relative to other teams). You can look at how outside people perceive your football team. Or you can use the “eyeball test.” This week we will use all three methods to decide if Auburn is better, where it might be better and what it all means for the Mississippi State game.
How can we tell things are better?
1) Looking at Numbers.
The Tigers’ raw numbers are better in key areas:
Auburn is averaging 6.21 yards per rush after averaging 4.01 yards per rush last season.
In the second half of games Auburn is allowing opposing passers to complete 47% of their passes for a quarterback rating of 77. (The best pass defense in the nation last year was FSU, who held quarterbacks to a 95 rating for the entire season.) Auburn’s defense allowed opposing quarterbacks a 145 rating over the course of last season (which was good for the 101st best pass defense in the nation.) You can’t do much worse than that if you give your DBs flashlights and have them simply usher the opposing receivers into the end zone.
Auburn is making 9.5 tackles per game behind the line of scrimmage – last year that number was 5.5 per game. Auburn has 29 quarterback hurries through two games (14.5 per game); the team had 55 all of last season (4.5 per game).
And of course the Tigers famously made more interceptions (3) in game 1 than in all of last season combined (2).
2) Outside people / stats notice:
Paul Meyerberg for USA Today has Auburn at No. 40 (up from 56 last week).
Jeff Sagarin’s rankings of college football teams has Auburn at 36th. (In the ranking that takes final score into account Auburn is 29th).
3) Our eyes see the difference; we can simply tell that Auburn is better.
Auburn has played two games. The Tigers ran 66 plays in the first, 69 plays in the second. Where is the promised “fastest team in football?” Why hasn’t Auburn tried to play at a fast pace yet? There are several reasons why not, and they make sense. First, Auburn has not pushed the envelope in order to allow new quarterback Nick Marshall to be comfortable in the offense and to get the right read and right play each time. Since Marshall didn’t go through spring practice this makes sense. Also, Auburn has played two teams that like to push the tempo themselves (Auburn’s defense has faced 88 and 80 plays so far) and Malzhan may have been protecting the defense by not trying to get into a full track meet with those teams. Against slower paced SEC teams Auburn should be more likely to speed it up. Finally, the tempo hasn’t been pushed because Auburn didn’t need to push it yet. The fast tempo is a weapon to be used against other teams when Auburn needs it and the reality is that Auburn didn’t need it against the first two teams. But SEC play is starting this week. It may be time to push the throttle, just a little.
Watching Oregon play, they look like a well-oiled machine. They are. They’ve been running the same system for about five years now, with actual returning QBs and no sudden changes to a new OC and a new system. They’re used to it. Auburn’s players are not. They’ll get there. It’s coming.
Moving on to Mississippi State:
Last year’s MSU game was what we call “painful.” As in “set the dumpster on fire and jump in” painful.
But it’s important to look back and remember that as poorly as Auburn played, the Tigers were still in the game in the second half, on the road. The 2013 version of the team from Starkvegas is tough to get a read on – they played one tough team in a neutral site game, but their senior starting quarterback got a concussion in the third quarter. MSU had 333 yards of offense and was 2 of 16 on third down conversions. In the second game they played a I-AA SWAC team at home and blew them out, using the backup QB. So we have one half of football in a neutral site against a very good Big 12 team to look at. Other than that we don’t know much about them.
Keys to the game:
1) Can Auburn run the ball successfully against an SEC defense? Running the ball against a lower-tier PAC-12 team and a good Sun Belt team is one thing, running against SEC defenses something else. Based on the first two games and MSU’s defensive performance against OK State (they allowed 7 yards per rush), we believe the answer is that Auburn can and will run on MSU.
2) What if MSU brings everyone up to the line of scrimmage and says “OK, Nick Marshall – you beat us.” Can Marshall consistently make the throws he needs to make? Is Malzhan ready to put the game in Marshall’s hands? Has the time come at last to turn him loose?
3) The Auburn defense must stop Mississippi State on third down. Last year MSU was 1 for 10 on third downs against Auburn. Against OK State they were two for 16. The Auburn defense has clearly improved from last season but sometimes still has problems getting off the field . (They’re allowing teams to convert 42% of the time on third down down so far this season, which is worse than last year’s 40% rate. And we don’t want to hear that ANY ASPECT OF OUR TEAM OR ITS PLAY IS WORSE THAN LAST YEAR.)
(How the heck did we lose the MSU game last year again??? Ah yes, Auburn turned the ball over 5 times and had 216 yards of total offense.)
The Wishbone Power Rankings
Alabama (Nick Saban dominated Bye Week and stole all their recruits.)
LSU (Sensing the Crazy is actually not too bad this year.)
The Very Good:
Texas A&M (with a big chance to move up on Saturday!)
Georgia (Thanks for mucking it all up, Dawgs! The East is a mess.)
South Carolina (It was your big chance and you blew it…)
Ole Miss (soon to be ‘beat Texas in Austin’ OIe Miss)
Florida (The hardest team to watch in the SEC. They make Scot Loeffler look like a guru.)
Vanderbilt (Can Vandy catch Spurrier and company with a hangover from the UGA loss?)
Auburn (Until Auburn beats an SEC team it is tough to say they are in the Good category.)
Tennessee (Visits Oregon this weekend and will leave with tread marks on their backs.)
Missouri (Are they still in the SEC?)
Arkansas (It was close, but we knew Stanford was good. Wait—what? Who??)
You can listen to Van and John’s even more in-depth analysis of Auburn’s performance against Arkansas State / preview of the Mississippi State game here.
Van Allen Plexico managed to attend Auburn (and score student football tickets) for some portion of every year between 1986 and 1996. He realizes that’s probably not something one should brag about, but hey. He teaches college near St Louis (because ten years as a student was somehow just not enough time to spend at school) and writes and edits for a variety of publishers. Find links to his various projects at www.plexico.net.
John Ringer graduated from Auburn in 1991 (which may be the greatest time ever to be an Auburn student – SEC titles in 1987, 88 and 89 and the 1989 Iron Bowl). His family has had season tickets every year since well before he was born and he grew up wandering around Jordan-Hare on game days. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia where he spends way too much time reading about college football on the internet and teaching his children to love Auburn football.
Previous Wishbone columns are waiting for you here.
* Football rankings guru Richard Billingsley says Auburn should claim century-old crown: ‘My national championship for Auburn in 1913 is a very valid national championship’
* Auburn wore green jerseys TWICE in the 1930s
* Auburn coach car endorsements of yesteryear
* Gus Malzahn in college
* That time a cow won Miss Auburn