AUBURN, Ala. — If Auburn’s win against LSU two weekends ago was the momentum-changer, this matchup can cement the quick turnaround.
For the first time this season, Auburn (3-2, 1-1 SEC) is heading away from the Plains. The Tigers will visit Mississippi State (2-2, 1-1) inside cowbell-clanging Davis Wade Stadium (noon ET Saturday on the SEC Network).
The Tigers are coming off back-to-back wins. The Bulldogs are refreshed from a bye week as they look to defeat Auburn for the third year in a row. Six of the last nine meetings in this SEC West rivalry have been decided by a possession. The experts in Las Vegas think this showdown will be another close affair.
Here are 5 Key Things to watch from an Auburn perspective when the Tigers roll into Starkville:
1. Keep turning red-zone trips into touchdowns
After scoring 6 touchdowns on its first 22 trips inside the red zone, Auburn’s offense found a better formula for success against Louisiana-Monroe. The Tigers scored 4 touchdowns on 4 red-zone possessions in the first three quarters. Only a goal-line stand against a walk-on running back in the waning moments kept them from perfection.
FERG’S FILM ROOM: Why Auburn’s red-zone offense worked against ULM
Doing the same thing against Mississippi State is a different challenge. The Bulldogs are ranked 23rd nationally in opponent red-zone conversion percentage, but they drop to 79th nationally in touchdown percentage on those trips. Auburn hasn’t averaged 80 percent or better in touchdown percentage against a Power 5 opponent since a multi-overtime shootout last season at Arkansas.
Auburn’s successes in the red zone against Louisiana-Monroe came down to better execution against a lesser-quality opponent. The Tigers must keep that high level of execution when it comes to run-blocking and decision-making because the Bulldogs know how to force stops in the shadows of their goal posts.
2. Take those chances past the sticks
Sean White averaged 14.1 yards per passing attempt against Louisiana-Monroe, and John Franklin III placed a beautiful 39-yard touchdown bomb on his only pass of the day. Auburn has placed a greater emphasis on throwing the ball downfield more as a younger receiving corps gets more experience. The trip to Mississippi State will be a great barometer of that progress.
South Alabama’s quarterbacks completed 70.6 percent of their passes for 285 yards in their season-opening upset of Mississippi State. Two weeks ago, UMass threw for 4 touchdowns against the Bulldogs. Mississippi State allowed 48 passes of 10-plus yards through its first four games. That per-game average would rank among the bottom 10 teams in the FBS.
The Bulldogs secondary hasn’t given up a bomb of 30-plus yards this season, but chances should be there for those intermediate to long passes. If White can convert them, that’ll open things for the running game against a Mississippi State defense that ranks 37th in the FBS in rushing yards allowed per carry.
3. Give John Franklin III some more shots
Yes, Franklin’s pair of highlight-reel touchdowns last Saturday came against Louisiana-Monroe but consider his body of work through the first five games. Even without his 80-yard touchdown, Franklin is averaging 8.2 yards per carry. He led Auburn on its best drives in a loss to Texas A&M and has shown he can make good throws.
Auburn’s coaches and Franklin haven’t ruled out him playing some other position on offense to utilize his game-breaking speed. (Imagine what he could do on one of those speed sweeps Auburn likes to run.) There’s also the possibility of him throwing the ball on a gadget play or two.
White has been ultra-efficient as Auburn’s starting quarterback this season, and he’s starting to take control of the offense. Taking him out in the middle of drives isn’t the best for the flow of the offense. But Franklin has shown he’s too big of a talent to leave on the sidelines for most of the game.
4. Get after Nick Fitzgerald
Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald has two SEC starts under his belt: a home win against South Carolina and a failed road comeback against LSU. In the latter matchup, LSU sacked the Mississippi State passer 6 times, holding him to a 50 percent completion rate with 120 passing yards.
Auburn’s defensive front has the talent to get after Fitzgerald, especially with the way Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams have played in the last two victories. The Tigers should attack him in waves and try to make him as uncomfortable as possible.
The secondary will have its hands full with Fred Ross and Donald Gray, the only two Mississippi State wide receivers who have more than 4 catches this season. Auburn’s biggest strength should be able to help the defensive backfield by wreaking havoc on the offensive line and trying to replicate some of the damage Arden Key & Co. put on the Bulldogs several weeks ago.
5. Adjust to life away from Jordan-Hare Stadium
Opening a season with five consecutive home games is rare, and it makes for quite an October adjustment for the Tigers. Auburn hasn’t played away from Jordan-Hare Stadium, and now it has to get ready for Mississippi State’s famed cowbells.
Auburn’s offense has struggled in SEC play this season without a hostile crowd trying to affect its play. Several first-time starters will be tasked with keeping the momentum from back-to-back wins going and doing it in a situation they haven’t experienced as college players.
It will be vital for Auburn to roll with any punches it faces away from home and keep frustrations from reaching a boiling point. Those kind of situations can derail games, especially for teams that rely on new starters in several key positions. This should be another tight SEC West affair, and there’s an extra amount of pressure on the visiting Tigers.