Mississippi State got their first win of the season last week defeating Alcorn State, 51-7. They now take on their first SEC opponent of the year with a road game at Auburn.
Who: Mississippi State (1-1) vs. Auburn (2-0)
Where: Auburn, Alabama; Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451)
When: Saturday, September 14; 6 p.m CT on ESPN2
Series Record: AU leads, 60-24; The Last Time: MSU, 28-10 in Starkville.
Mississippi State got back into their winning ways with a victory in game two against Alcorn State. The win and the way they got it took the sour taste of Oklahoma State out of the mouths of fans and players alike for the most part. Now they can start to regain full confidence with a win in the first SEC game of the season against Auburn and I have three ways they can do that.
This game symbolizes a new season. Outside of a huge win, the OSU ball game mattered very little. The games that count the most from here on out are conference victories and making sure they take care of business in the games they should win. This is a relative toss up game for most people with the Bulldogs favored to lose in Vegas. Last season, Dan Mullen got his first win against an SEC West opponent not named Ole Miss in that game against Auburn in which he called probably his biggest win since being at MSU. A lot of fans scoffed at that suggestion when looking at Auburn's 3-9 record in 2012 and how poorly they played in that game.
The fact of the matter is, Mullen had to get over that hump against Auburn. For the three years prior, MSU played well against Auburn but came up just short every time. Fans were beginning to think that they might not ever beat the Tigers, but they did. This is another big step. It's a winnable game for MSU as Auburn is still trying to find themselves as a young team. Going on the road and winning an SEC game in a hostile environment against a team as underdogs would calm naysayers down a bit. Now, my three keys to victory.
Utilize the Passing Game : Normally I would say that MSU needs to have a big day on the ground to win. I think that's still the case here, but they can open up the run game with the pass against an Auburn defense that hasn't exactly had a lockdown in the air. They've played two pass-happy teams early, mind you, but MSU has better weapons than both of those programs and can really exploit players in the secondary who aren't quite acclimated to the Ellis Johnson defense just yet. The Bulldogs won't be able to move the ball consistently if they just try to pound the football in the running game because Auburn has a lot of talent up front and will be looking for that early. Tyler Russell being back out there at 100% would be more than ideal for MSU and I think that he has a chance for a big day. If all things are clicking in the passing game, look for MSU to put up some big numbers and allow the running backs some big holes as well.
Pressure Marshall: Auburn has a tremendous weapon in Nick Marshall at quarterback. The JUCO transfer has been all around the southeast. Marshall was actually playing in the Georgia secondary before going the JUCO route where he became a quarterback. He won the starting quarterback job at Auburn just a couple of weeks before the season and has had mixed results. He's a tough player to contain when he gets out of the pocket and can use his legs to extend plays and make something out of nothing. In the passing game, he's still working to get things under control. He has a cannon for an arm but the accuracy isn't there yet and they've slowly brought him along there using the running game to move the football.
MSU needs to put pressure on Marshall and, even though he can make plays out of the pocket, they can force him to make mistakes. I think they can use Chris Jones off of the edge with Denico Autry and the rest of the defensive line to put pressure on him. Linebackers like Zach Jackson and Matthew Wells need to contain Marshall and cut off his running lanes. If you can shut down Marshall you have your first shot at shutting down the Auburn offense.
Score Early: Two years ago, everything was set up perfectly for MSU to go into Auburn and get a big win over the Tigers. The pressure was on for them to come through and they immediately dug themselves into a hole. Auburn scored 14 points before the Bulldogs could blink and State was already at a disadvantage. The crowd stayed in that game throughout and MSU couldn't pull away once they got the lead.
Today, MSU has to get off to a great start. The last time MSU pulled off a win at Jordan-Hare was in 2007 when they got off to a good start and took the lead early. Auburn fought from behind the rest of the game. Same could be said of MSU's win at the Swamp against Florida in 2010 where they had an early 10-0 lead that they never relinquished. If they get the ball first, the Bulldogs need a long drive ending in a touchdown to set the tone early. If they do that, I see it being a tough hole to come out of for Auburn. Take the fans out of it and the young players will be much more discouraged.
Prediction: I haven't really felt conflicted on this ball game since seeing both Auburn and MSU play in week one. I think that there are several things that the Bulldogs have to get fixed, but I also feel like Auburn has a bit more. They've started off 2-0 against Washington State and Arkansas State, but this will be their first serious challenge as they start SEC play. Neither team had a physical defense to combat their offense, so what do they do if they get hit in the mouth early? I think that's something we will find out on Saturday because I believe MSU will come out ready to play from the first whistle with a lot of players that were at Jordan-Hare two years ago.
If MSU does all three of the things that I mentioned above, I think they start off 1-0 in SEC play and are on the fast-track of bowl eligibility. This is a huge game moving forward and I think the Bulldogs get it done and defeat Auburn in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1997-2000. MSU, 27-23