AUBURN, Ala. — One team is going to leave Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday afternoon (kickoff at noon ET, ESPN) after securing an important “three in a row.”
If it’s Auburn (3-2, 1-1 SEC), it’ll be its third straight win after a frustrating start to the 2016 season. It would mark another important victory for Gus Malzahn and the Tigers, and one that would lead the program into a key bye week before the rest of its SEC schedule.
But if it’s Mississippi State (2-2, 1-1 SEC), it’ll be the third straight win over Auburn in a series that has historically been dominated by the Tigers. Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs provided an incredible atmosphere the last time these teams met in Starkville, and they’re now out to prove they still are capable of creating chaos in the SEC West.
This is an intriguing matchup that favors a road team with more momentum and looks ideal for another tight contest in what is becoming the norm for the rivalry. Let’s break it all down, position-by-position, in this week’s matchup preview.
Auburn: Sean White ranks first in the SEC in completion percentage and third in quarterback rating through the first five weeks of the season. Since using a quarterback carousel in the season-opening loss to Clemson, Auburn has put its faith in White, and he’s delivered as an efficient and still-improving passer. Off the bench, the Tigers can use John Franklin III’s blinding speed in his return to Mississippi after his high-profile days on the Netflix series Last Chance U.
Mississippi State: After not playing much in MSU’s season-opening loss to South Alabama, Nick Fitzgerald has come along as the clear winner in the Bulldogs’ quarterback battle with Damian Williams. He’s completing 60 percent of his passes for 5 touchdowns and 1 interception, but the recent win against UMass is the only time he’s thrown for at least 200 yards in his career. On the ground, Fitzgerald leads all MSU rushers with 329 yards on 47 carries.
Auburn: Kerryon Johnson has rushed for 126 yards more than all of Mississippi State’s running backs combined this season. The sophomore is on his way to becoming the next great Tiger running back with 517 yards and 6 touchdowns in the first five games of the season. Kamryn Pettway got some much-needed rest for a bruised quad injury last week and will be set to go with his 6.46 yards per carry average. Kam Martin and Stanton Truitt will be there for further depth following Malik Miller’s surgery.
Mississippi State: The bulk of Mississippi State’s rushing production has gone to Fitzgerald, with senior running backs Brandon Holloway and Ashton Shumpert averaging a combined 84 yards per game this season. Both backs have the speed to produce big plays.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Auburn: Senior Tony Stevens has broken out as the leader the Auburn receiving corps needed with team highs in all three major categories (receptions, yards and touchdowns). Kyle Davis is a big-play threat at 25.43 yards per catch, and Ryan Davis is starting to become Auburn’s go-to weapon on short- to intermediate-range throws. These receivers still have a lot of inexperience as starters, so they’ll have a bigger spotlight on them for their first game away from home. As for Auburn’s tight ends, that’s a bigger mystery.
Mississippi State: Fred Ross had a 1,000-yard season last year as Dak Prescott’s primary target, and he’s in a good spot to repeat those numbers with Fitzgerald this fall. Ross has 25 receptions for 288 yards and 4 touchdowns in four games, making him one of six receivers in the SEC with that many scores. Donald Gray is an effective No. 2 with an average of 14.33 yards per catch. Tight ends Farrod Green and Jordan Thomas have each scored touchdowns.
Edge: Mississippi State
Auburn: The high rates of sacks and tackles for loss allowed in the first three games of the season are starting to come down for the Auburn offensive line. The unit failed to generate much punch up front in the win against LSU, but overall, the Tigers are ranked 13th nationally in adjusted line yards — a Football Study Hall advanced stat that measures how much line play goes into the success of a rushing attack. Center Xavier Dampeer will make his first career road start, along with right tackle Robert Leff. Keep an eye on those two, especially in passing situations.
Mississippi State: In terms of pass protection this season, Mississippi State has been far more consistent than Auburn. The Bulldogs have allowed just 2 sacks per game, and that’s including a bad night against LSU in which they allowed 6. Like Auburn, Mississippi State returned three starters up front this season. That much experience at home should go a long way for a Bulldogs team looking for a big SEC West win.
Edge: Mississippi State
Auburn: Senior defensive tackle Montravius Adams is playing the best football of his career, and junior defensive end Carl Lawson is producing at the level worthy of his preseason hype. Together, they’ve become an effective duo in pass-rushing situations. Auburn can rotate plenty of highly touted players in its defensive line, including former 5-star prospects Derrick Brown and Byron Cowart. Marlon Davidson continues to play above expectations as a true freshman starter.
Mississippi State: Auburn has Carl Lawson, and Mississippi State has A.J. Jefferson. The senior defensive end has a SEC-best 9 tackles for loss and an additional 3 sacks this season, leading the way for a strong Bulldogs front that doesn’t allow many big plays on the ground. Mississippi State has veterans in bunches along the defensive line, and true freshman Jeffery Simmons has made a big impression.
Auburn: The biggest and most pleasant surprise of Auburn’s first half of 2016, the linebacking corps has played above expectations under first-year coach Travis Williams. Sophomore Deshaun Davis, while undersized, is a highly reactive playmaker who talks a lot of trash and backs it up. Junior Tre’ Williams has experience in playing on the road, and sophomore Darrell Williams continues to impress. This has been a sure-tackling unit that rarely makes mistakes. If the linebackers can continue to produce like this away from home, Auburn’s defense could be something special.
Mississippi State: Mississippi State returned some key experience at linebacker this season and has done a decent job adjusting to the new scheme from defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon. Richie Brown is a tackle machine, and J.T. Gray isn’t too far behind him in the stats. Leo Lewis is tied for second on the team in tackles as a redshirt freshman. “Viper” Jonathan Calvin has 4 tackles for loss. There are still some issues with MSU’s linebackers as they continue to make their transition, but they’re far from weak links on the roster.
Auburn: Auburn’s secondary took a step forward in 2015, and this year’s unit has continued that momentum. The Tigers have only given up 4 passing touchdowns this season and rank 28th nationally in yards per attempt allowed with 6.2. Carlton Davis will be a good matchup on Ross, and Rudy Ford is playing at a high level. The biggest issues facing this secondary are the lack of interceptions and the occasional breakdown at safety. Even with those problems, this is a confident bunch.
Mississippi State: Mississippi State’s defensive backfield hasn’t played at full strength all season as senior Cedric Jiles missed the first four games with a broken arm. In his absence, the Bulldogs have allowed at least 200 passing yards to all four of their opponents, 9 combined touchdowns and a 60 percent completion percentage. Jiles’ return will be a boost to this unit, but there are more problems here than just the absence of one experienced corner.
Auburn: Daniel Carlson is no longer perfect after his blocked long-range field goal attempt against Louisiana-Monroe. He still ranks third nationally in made field goals this season with 12 and has been automatic from anything inside 50 yards. Kevin Phillips is having a stronger season and rarely allows opponents to get returns on his punts. Ford and Johnson are combining for 18.56 yards per kick return, and Marcus Davis finally got a couple of chances to make an impact on punt returns last week.
Mississippi State: Kicker Westin Graves missed two field goals, including a potential winner from 28 yards out, in a 21-20 loss to South Alabama in Week 1. Since then, he’s hit all of eight of his attempts. Punter Logan Cooke is averaging 40.6 yards this season and has allowed only three short returns. The Bulldogs haven’t gotten much in the return department from Holloway, Gray and Ross.
The Bottom Line
Auburn traditionally has the talent advantage over Mississippi State, and that’s the case for the majority of the positional units that will take the field in Starkville. But the Bulldogs have the home-field edge against a Tigers team that will have quite a few key players making their first road starts in SEC play.
This was supposed to be a reloading year for Mississippi State after the departure of top players such as Dak Prescott, Chris Jones and Taveze Calhoun. A couple of odd performances against nonconference opponents bookended a near-comeback against LSU and a win over struggling South Carolina. There are still quite a few question marks about Dan Mullen’s 2016 team.
Still, Mississippi State has won the last two games in this series for a reason, and it’s coming off a much-needed bye week. If Auburn keeps it up on defense and finds a way to keep the red-zone momentum rolling on offense, the Tigers should take the victory by a couple of scores. However, an unusually late road debut for Auburn and an early kickoff could easily keep this one tight throughout.