AUBURN, Ala. — It’s the first road week edition of the Auburn Mailbag here at SEC Country, and everyone’s got Starkville on their minds.
That’s at least the case for the reader questions for this Friday, aside for the usual non-football one I save for the end. With Auburn now hours away from kickoff in Davis Wade Stadium against Mississippi State, this mailbag could double as a cowbell.
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@DanInNC_Ohrly21: I feel AU should win comfortably but leery Mullen and Stark won’t be accommodating … How hard do you see this 1st road trip being?
Well, I’m not of the opinion Auburn should win comfortably over Mississippi State this weekend. Yes, the Bulldogs’ Week 1 loss to South Alabama sticks out, but this team has grown since then. There are reasons why Auburn is only favored by 2.5 points right now.
The two things that stand out for me about this matchup are Auburn finally hitting the road with a lot of first-year starters and the offense being unproven in the red zone against a Power 5 defense.
Sean White has made several starts away from home, but his center and his right tackle haven’t. Neither have several of his top receivers or the entire running back corps beside him. How will they handle the volume of the crowd and the cowbells in Starkville? That’s an adjustment the Tigers have to make in order to get this victory.
The red-zone successes against Louisiana-Monroe were good. But Mississippi State ranks 22nd nationally in red-zone defense this season. The Bulldogs have a tough run defense that will make things tough for a run-first unit inside the 20-yard line. Auburn has the talent edge here, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see another close one in what has been a tight series over the last several seasons.
@Timothy_Mathis: Would a (convincing) win this week make you feel better about Auburn’s chances against Arkansas/Ole Miss coming up?
Yes. Absolutely. If Auburn goes into Starkville this Saturday and convincingly beats Mississippi State with more great defense and effective red-zone offense, it would cause me to recalibrate my perception of the Tigers in the second half of the season.
But even if Auburn plays a tight game against Mississippi State, I think it still has a good opportunity to knock off Arkansas. The Razorbacks are tough, but there are some holes to exploit, especially on that defensive side. TCU and Texas A&M moved the ball well on the Razorbacks with their spread attacks. Add in the fact Auburn would be at home and coming off a bye week, I would like the Tigers’ chances.
Ole Miss is such an intriguing matchup. In the first halves of games this season, Ole Miss looks like one of the best teams in the country. That offense is phenomenal and would arguably be the toughest test Auburn’s defense faces all season. But they’ve been prone to slumping second halves in every game except for the one against Georgia. If Auburn can roll with the punches early in Oxford, look out.
More to your original question, though, a convincing win against Mississippi State would put Auburn in the conversation for the third-best team in the SEC West — one that it would put to the test in the rest of October. A defense that continues to click at this level and an effective offense that can take full advantage of its opportunities can hang with anyone on Auburn’s schedule. That’s what makes this road trip so important.
@guitarist1984: What is Auburn’s biggest X-factor on offense against Mississippi State?
Let’s stay on the topic of red-zone offense for this one. I think Auburn’s biggest X-factor is the use — or non-use — of the tight end position inside the 20s.
If you read my feature on the disappearance of the tight end in Auburn’s passing attack, you know that the Tigers haven’t had a completion at the position since the Outback Bowl at the end of the 2014 season. Auburn’s personnel has been heavily affected by departures, and Jalen Harris is the only true scholarship tight end on the roster.
The tight end used to be such a huge factor in the red zone for a Gus Malzahn offense. Harris has the potential. He’s proven to be a hard worker in run-blocking, and he has the frame to get things done as a passing target.
Mississippi State will make things tough for Auburn on the ground, especially inside the red zone. Freeing a tight end for routes could lead to a key play or two in scoring position. It’s a huge X-factor in the sense that it might not be used at all like Auburn’s last 18 games. However, this is the perfect matchup to bust those calls out for the first time in a while.
@CooperShoemaker: Do you think we will see Kam Martin in more jet sweeps this week?
This is quite a timely question from Cooper, because Malzahn addressed something related to this Thursday night on Tiger Talk.
This question was posed to Malzahn: who is Auburn most comfortable with running the speed sweep? Malzahn, in classic fashion, didn’t want to tip his hand too much, but he said he was comfortable with “two or three guys” in that role, and that didn’t include Kerryon Johnson. The starting running back sometimes gets that sweep when Auburn comes out in a 5-wide set.
If I had to determine what Auburn has as its speed sweep power rankings, I’d go with Stanton Truitt at No. 1, Martin at No. 2 and Eli Stove at No. 3. All three are quick and can be extremely dangerous in space. I think Truitt is more comfortable at that spot because he’s a converted slot receiver, but Martin has plenty of speed to burn.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Martin get more touches, because he’s now the No. 3 true running back on the roster after the injury to Malik Miller. Truitt might get the first nod on sweeps, but expect more carries to go Martin’s way over the next few weeks.
@_sam_butler: What is your favorite movie of the last 5 years?
Two movies immediately jumped to mind when I first saw this question from my good friend Sam, who covers Auburn football for my former employer, the Auburn Plainsman.
The first one was Spotlight. Yes, that’s super-cliche for a journalism guy to say. But it was legitimately an awesome movie, and it won Best Picture! It told the story straight without overselling it for added drama, and it was gripping throughout. I’m obviously biased because of the journalism angle, but it’s one of the few movies that I’ve rewatched several times over the last few years.
The second one was Nightcrawler. That’s another movie that I watched over and over, even though I knew the ending after my first viewing. I will go to my grave unreasonably mad that Jake Gyllenhaal got absolutely nothing in terms of awards for Lou Bloom. Everything about him in that movie was phenomenal, and the story remains incredibly intense every single time I watch it. (It, unsurprisingly, is loosely tied to journalism — but a terrifying version of it.)
I’m going with Nightcrawler as my final answer. Gyllenhaal got robbed.