Welcome to Upset Alert, a weekly column about a Saturday favorite liable to get knocked off by the underdog.
I’ve picked against Tennessee the last two weeks, and the Vols have miraculously avoided defeat in both cases. In Week 3, I picked Missouri, which fell to Georgia by one point after Jacob Eason’s 4th-and-15 touchdown heroics took place.
So let’s stay away from the confusing SEC East entirely — especially given the crazy weather conditions that may come into play — and stick with a division that makes a little more sense. Mississippi State is a 2.5-point home underdog against Auburn by most measures. Here are three reasons why the Bulldogs can pull above .500 in Week 6.
3. Refueled, re-energized
Since 2011, Mississippi State is 6-1 coming off a bye week. Yes, the 47-35 win over Massachusetts was ugly, awful and a head-scratcher. Whatever negative descriptor you want to use applies. But let’s take that game for what it really was: A long road trip to play an opponent the Bulldogs probably overlooked.
Mississippi State racked up 598 total yards and made 3 interceptions in that game. A couple of bad defensive plays, a couple of surprisingly good throws from the UMass quarterback and nine Mississippi State penalties for 90 yards kept the score much closer than it should have been.
This is, quite simply, a young team realizing what it takes to win consistently at the FBS level. Coach Dan Mullen and key leaders on the team said as much after that game, which I think served as a wake-up call heading into their bye week. The Bulldogs are a missed field goal against South Alabama and 4 more points in Death Valley short of being 5-0. They’re flawed, but they’re improving each week.
2. Winning in the trenches
By now, everyone’s aware that Gus Malzahn’s typically efficient offensive line has been a sore spot in 2016. The Tigers have allowed 40 tackles for loss (122nd, FBS) and have kicked 10 red zone field goals (2nd, FBS) this season. They are averaging 2.48 yards per rush and are 9 of 16 passing in the red zone, as well, much of which comes back to the offensive line.
Coincidentally, defensive line play has been a major strength for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs rank third among SEC teams in tackles for loss (33) and have two dangerous pass rushers in A.J. Jefferson (3.0 sacks) and former junior college standout Jonathan Calvin (1.5 sacks).
Auburn has some explosive receivers who could easily take advantage of a weak Mississippi State secondary, but will Sean White have time to hit them? Can Kerryon Johnson get going if he’s being stopped behind the line of scrimmage? The Tigers have beaten up on a couple of weak foes in Arkansas State and Louisiana-Monroe. They’re averaging only 3.8 yards per carry in two SEC games. This offense has struggled against Power Five competition.
1. The young gun at quarterback
Nick Fitzgerald deserves more credit. The redshirt sophomore only has three career starts to his name. His talent is already evident, and the growth is slowly happening before our eyes.
He has crossed the 100-yard rushing mark in two of Mississippi State’s last three games. He’s completing 60 percent of his passes, to go along with 5 touchdowns to just 1 interception. He’s shown poise on the road while trailing LSU and in the minor scare at Massachusetts.
Auburn’s defense will test him. Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams are elite linemen, and the cornerback of Carlton Davis and Joshua Holsey has been a pleasant surprise under coordinator Kevin Steele.
But the Tigers have been susceptible to the run this season — Texas A&M and LSU both went over 200 yards — and the dual-threat abilities of Fitzgerald have been vital in Mississippi State averaging 220 yards rushing per contest. If the Bulldogs can continue quickening their offensive tempo, that could wear down the Auburn defensive as the game progresses.
Saturday’s game in Starkville could involve a few more points than some think because of that, and with underrated weapons on both sides, taking the over (53.5) wouldn’t be crazy. Still, I’m going with the ever-so-slight under.