This weekend, Davis Wade Stadium will be the venue for a matchup between two SEC West programs looking for a springboard back toward the top of the division standings.
Auburn’s need for a big road win in Starkville is well-documented. If the Tigers can move the ball efficiently and continue playing strong defense against a conference rival, they’ll be a solid 4-2 heading into a much-needed bye week, with some winnable second-half games that could mark improvement in 2016 for the program.
But what about Mississippi State? The Bulldogs are clearly in a transition season after the departure of star quarterback Dak Prescott, and they sit at 2-2 coming off a bye week.
For a better perspective on Mississippi State, this week’s edition of An Opposing View turns toward Joel Coleman, who covers the Bulldogs for their hometown newspaper, the Starkville Daily News. You can follow Joel on Twitter @JoelTColeman for his coverage of Mississippi State as Auburn heads into town this Saturday.
Coleman took some time this week to answer five major questions about the upcoming matchup and give us his score prediction for the 2016 edition of Auburn vs. Mississippi State.
Justin Ferguson: Replacing a program legend like Dak Prescott was always going to be tough. But what have been your early impressions on Nick Fitzgerald? How does his skill set compare past Dan Mullen quarterbacks at Mississippi State?
Joel Coleman: “Fitzgerald has been a pretty pleasant surprise for the Bulldogs. He’s, of course, not Dak. Dak alone gave MSU a chance in virtually every game. Fitzgerald isn’t at that level, but he has been solid. He’s kind of a Chris Relf-like QB for folks who might remember the State QB from 2009 to 2011. Like Relf, Fitzgerald is a bruising runner. He’s a big guy not afraid to take a hit or two. He’s actually a better passer than Relf, though.
“Truth be told, Fitzgerald, just a redshirt sophomore, is probably a little more advanced at this stage of his career than even Prescott was. At the very least, they are kind of on equal footing. Of course, Dak blossomed into the greatest MSU quarterback — and maybe greatest player overall — in MSU history.
“I don’t know if Fitzgerald will ever get to that level, but he’s pretty good. Fitzgerald does miss some throws and, oddly, his receivers have had a ton of drops on balls put right on the money, but of MSU’s questions, QB really isn’t one of them. At least not at the moment.”
JF: The two results for Mississippi State that immediately jump off the page are the nonconference ones — the loss to South Alabama and the shootout road win against UMass. What went wrong for the Bulldogs in those games that were both closer than originally expected?
JC: “First off, there is no excuse for a Southeastern Conference program to lose to South Alabama, particularly a team that has become a perennial bowl team like MSU has. With that said though, several factors played into it. State is a young football team, particularly defensively. Both of State’s starting corners were injured in training camp, forcing MSU’s No. 3 and No. 4 corners to become No. 1 and No. 2 coming into that game. State also had several key players suspended for that contest, including starting D-tackle Nick James and 5-star freshman Jeffery Simmons.
“Despite all that, MSU surged ahead 17-0 by halftime. At that point, the stadium basically emptied on a hot September day in Starkville, and the final two quarters became a glorified practice atmosphere. MSU’s players admittedly backed off and by the time they realized they were in trouble, they were beat.
“I wonder if the atmosphere didn’t factor into the State-UMass game as well. The two teams were playing in front of a bunch of empty seats. That has to be difficult for an SEC team to maintain the same intensity that they’d have in an SEC stadium in front of 60,000 to 100,000 people. By the second half, State flexed its muscle against UMass, but it was just another reminder that this year’s MSU team can be pretty good — see the South Carolina first half and LSU second half — but they are also maddeningly inconsistent.”
JF: Fred Ross should be quite a familiar name to Auburn fans. But who are some of Mississippi State’s lesser-known playmakers on the offensive side to watch in this matchup?
JC: “Donald Gray has solidified himself as MSU’s No. 2 receiver. He’s a guy that has incredibly strong hands and is always a candidate to make a spectacular catch.
“At running back, State pretty much rides a three-headed group of Brandon Holloway, Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams. Holloway’s speed makes him a home run threat both in the running game and in the passing game. Shumpert is a bruiser and good blocker. Williams is kind of a mix of Holloway and Shumpert. None of the three have really cemented themselves as “THE” guy, but Holloway has been a big-play guy before, Shumpert has had his moments in his MSU career and Williams is seen as a potential future star.
“A couple of X-factors for MSU’s offense are receivers Keith Mixon and Malik Dear. They’ll typically line up in the slot and are used in multiple ways by MSU. Don’t be surprised if one or both of those guys catch a few passes or are involved in the running game with some sweeps.”
JF: How has Mississippi State tried to replace the production of defensive stars such as Beniquez Brown, Chris Jones and Taveze Calhoun this season? What’s the biggest strength of this Bulldog defense?
JC: “MSU’s biggest defensive strength is by far its defensive front. D-end A.J. Jefferson leads the SEC in tackles for loss. Nick James is a senior that can eat up space on the inside. Jeffery Simmons doesn’t look or play like a freshman tackle. There is also veteran depth up front.
“MSU’s linebacking corps haven’t been quite as strong as some had thought they would be, but they’re not bad. Richie Brown, last year’s leading tackler, is the leader of the group. Redshirt freshman Leo Lewis is a budding star. I still think the line and linebackers are adjusting a bit to new defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon’s 3-4 sets.
“State’s secondary is suspect to say the least and is easily the weakest link. That group will get a boost this week as expected starting corner, senior Cedric Jiles, is expected to play his first game of 2016. He’s recovered from a broken arm. How much he’ll play remains to be seen, but the group could sure use another body, particularly an experienced one. Even if Jiles plays and is close to 100 percent, I still think the best way to beat this MSU bunch is to throw it all over the field on them.”
JF: How important do you think it was for Mississippi State to get the bye week right before facing Auburn? Do you see that break having a big effect on how the Bulldogs play this weekend?
JC: “I think State needed the bye week. It allowed Jiles and defensive lineman Will Coleman, who also hasn’t played yet this year, the chance to recover and be ready for some action this week. It gave the younger guys a chance to take a breather and start to just kind of enjoy football again.
“I think part of MSU’s 2-2 start is that the younger guys forced into larger roles felt like they had to maintain the exact same level of success as Dak and company. That made them put pressure on themselves that they weren’t ready to handle. Head coach Dan Mullen said he had to remind the guys after the UMass game that it’s OK to have fun playing football. He mentioned how tight the guys seemed.
“In our interview sessions the last two weeks, the team does seem a bit more loose. Now, how will that translate? I’m not sure, but it can’t hurt.”
JF: Give us a score prediction and your thoughts on how you see this game playing out Saturday.
JC: “This is the hardest question of them all. I’ve been going back and forth on it. On one hand, this game is vitally important for MSU’s bowl chances and it’s at home. The team seems to be growing more comfortable in their own skin and some guys are getting healthy. All that makes me want to say State wins.
“Conversely, I just think Auburn’s defense might be good enough to just shut State down. Auburn had a chance to beat State last year and last year’s State team was better and last year’s Auburn squad was probably a little worse.
“Now that State has taken a step back and Auburn a little step up, I think I lean towards Auburn barely. I’ll say the Tigers win, 20-17.”