The Tigers must put more pressure on Tyler Russell this year.
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another Auburn opponent preview. In week three, on September 14th, the Mississippi State Bulldogs visit Auburn at Jordan Hare Stadium. SEC action begins for the Tigers, and it’s an important game for both teams. The winner will be off and running in the league, and the loser will face questions of whether they can compete in a very tough SEC Western Division this season.
Last season was a tale of two different teams for the Bulldogs. They started the season with seven straight wins, and headed to Tuscaloosa to try and stake a claim to being in the upper echelon of the league. Mississippi State then lost five of their last six games, most of them by blowout scores. This year’s team returns 12 starters on the offense and defense, but there are some holes to fill where stars departed.
If last year’s team was covered up early by a soft schedule, this year’s edition will have no such worries. The Bulldogs open in Houston against Oklahoma State, and will find out quickly if their reloading efforts have been enough. The Bulldogs then tune up the next week with Alcorn State, before heading to Auburn. This year’s squad could be better than last year’s, and still leave Auburn with a 1-2 record. And it doesn’t get much easier from there. The Bulldogs do follow the Tigers with four straight home games, against Troy, LSU, Bowling Green, and Kentucky. Then come road trips to South Carolina and Texas A&M. The Bulldogs finish up with Alabama at home, Arkansas in Little Rock, and Ole Miss at home. The Bulldogs will likely be favored only against Kentucky in the SEC, and possibly Arkansas and Ole Miss. Oklahoma State will be very tough, and Troy has had good success against MSU in the past. While head coach Dan Mullen talks of taking the next step and becoming an elite SEC team, reality is that the Bulldogs will need a few upsets to return to a bowl game this season.
Mississippi State’s offense is what has given them a chance to win most games since Dan Mullen arrived in Starkville 5 years ago. This year’s edition will have a veteran offensive line, and an experienced senior quarterback in Tyler Russell. However, the Bulldogs must break in a new receiver corps, as they lost veterans Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark and Chris Smith. Running back LaDarius Perkins is a speedy home-run-hitting back, and he’ll be joined by bulked-up sophomore Josh Robinson.
There are more questions on the defensive side of the ball, where the Bulldogs lost both starting tackles, most of the secondary, and top tackling linebacker Cameron Lawrence. That defense gave up over 30 points against Tennessee, Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU, Ole Miss and Northwestern last season. This produced some assistant coach shuffling, and Mullen brought in Geoff Collins to run the defense. While most folks point towards shoring up the secondary as the top priority, I think producing a stout front seven rotation is more important. The Bulldogs have talent up front, but it is young, and the Bulldog line tended to wear down late in games down the stretch last season.
The Bulldogs were decent on special teams last season, and expect to be again this season. Punter Baker Swedenburg is one of the better punters in the league, and his high kicks resulted in only 6 TOTAL punt return yards against the Bulldogs last season. Sophomore Jameon Lewis gives the Bulldogs a breakaway threat in the return game. The Bulldogs return sophomore kicker Devon Bell, and they hope he improves on his 14 out of 21 freshman field goal kicking performance.
Unit Matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Mississippi State offensive line: Auburn will likely go with a tackle rotation of Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson and Jeffery Whitaker. Dee Ford, Kenneth Carter and Nosa Eguae will be the primary ends. The Tigers have depth beyond those six guys, but none except Ford have distinguished themselves, either. Most of these guys played against Mississippi State last season, and did not fare very well, as the Bulldogs gashed Auburn on the ground, and Tyler Russell had all day in the pocket to complete 20 of 29 throws. The Bulldogs return four starters on the offensive line, junior tackle Blaine Causell, junior center Dillon Day, senior guard Gabe Jackson and senior tackle Charles Siddoway. Sophomore Justin Malone won the starting right guard job in spring drills, and he’s a big 320 pound bruiser. Advantage: Mississippi State.
Auburn linebackers vs. Mississippi State backs: Auburn’s starting linebackers coming out of spring drills are sophomores Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy. Neither has a huge amount of game experience, and it’s a concern going into the season. It’s unlikely that any of Auburn’s linebackers have the speed to chase down senior running back LaDarius Perkins, but they must be able to square up and handle him when he comes through the line. Backup Josh Robinson is a stocky, 5′ 9” 225 sophomore who’ll pound the middle. The Bulldog offense utilizes wide receiver handoffs from time to time, much like Auburn’s. Look for the speedy Jameon Lewis to be featured here. Advantage: Mississippi State.
Auburn corners vs. Mississippi State receivers: Auburn is surprisingly deep at corner, and will need good play from starters Chris Davis and Jonathan Mincy to slow Mississippi State down. From all indications this spring, Auburn corners are tackling well. The starting MSU wide receivers coming out of spring are sophomore Joe Morrow, and juniors Jameon Lewis and Robert Johnson. These three combined for 32 catches last season in reserve roles, but will have to step up this season. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. Mississippi State secondary receivers and quarterback: I’m lumping “star” Justin Garrett in with the safeties, because Mississippi State will likely use a number of three and four receiver sets. This may be another game where one will see both stars on the field, Garrett and Robensen Therezie. Both have the speed to stay with wide receivers, and Therezie does have a cornerback background. Junior free safety Jermaine Whitehead has really come on this spring, so the real question is who will play strong safety. Right now, converted corner Joshua Holsey is atop the Auburn depth chart there, but senior Demetruce McNeal will return this fall and likely make a serious run. Mississippi State has junior tight ends Malcomb Johnson and Brandon Hill, who combined for 15 catches last season. Running back LaDarius Perkins was a threat catching the ball last season, and bears watching. Likely the biggest receiving threat from the slot will be the speedy Jameon Lewis. He’ll be a tough matchup for a safety or a star. Senior quarterback Tyler Russell returns for the Bulldogs, and his task over the summer is to try and gell with the new starting receivers. Russell protected the ball pretty well last season with only 10 interceptions, but he’d like to improve on his 58.6 pass completion percentage. Advantage: Mississippi State.
Punting: Auburn returns senior punter Steven Clark, who hit the ball well again this spring. Clark tends toward towering balls that can’t be returned. Clark had 70 punts for a 39.8 yard average, but only 5 were returned, for a total of 4 yards. Mississippi State’s Baker Swedenburg had similar return numbers, with 57 punts and only 6 yards on 13 returns. Swedenburg wins the distance battle, with a 41.1 yard average. Advantage: Mississippi State.
Kickoffs: Auburn didn’t score enough to generate many kickoffs in 2012, but when they did, Cody Parkey nailed 33 of 48 of them for touchbacks. The Bulldogs’ Devon Bell hit 13 touchbacks on 64 kickoffs. When Parkey wasn’t putting the kickoff in the stands, Auburn gave up only 16.6 yards per return. Mississippi State gave up 20.2. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Auburn’s Cody Parkey was 11 of 14 on field goal attempts, and perfect on his extra points. Devon Bell hit 14 of 21 field goal attempts, including only 6 of 10 from 30-39 yards. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. Mississippi State defensive line: Auburn’s starting A-Day unit of sophomore Greg Robinson, redshirt freshman Alex Kozan, junior Reese Dismukes, junior Chad Slade, and sophomore Patrick Miller looked dominant. In addition, the 2nd line did well against the starting D-line. Tapped to start at tackle for the Bulldogs are junior P. J. Jones and sophomore Kaleb Eulls. Junior Denico Autry was a beast at defensive end towards the end of last season, and he’ll be joined by junior Preston Smith at the other end spot. There’s young talent behind those guys, but it’s unproven. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Mississippi State linebackers: Auburn finished spring with a trio of dangerous running backs, and more are on the way this fall in the incoming class. Junior Tre Mason is a 1000 yard incumbent, JUCO transfer Cameron Artis-Payne wowed the A-Day crowd with his power and agility, and junior Corey Grant is a threat on the outside. In addition, the Tigers will have bruising senior H-back Jay Prosch paving the way. Benardrick McKinney and Deontae Skinner return at linebacker for the Bulldogs, and they’ll be joined by junior Matt Wells. That’s 178 returning tackles in the starting linebacker corps. Advantage: Even.
Auburn receivers vs. Mississippi State corners: Auburn’s starters on the outside post-spring are juniors Jaylon Denson and Trovon Reed, neither of who have done much previously on the field. Backups Sammie Coates and Ricardo Lewis should add an explosive dimension when they sub in. Post spring corner starters for the Bulldogs are juniors Jamerson Love and JUCO transfer Justin Cox. It’s green against green here, but I like Auburn’s talent. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Mississippi State safeties: Auburn has some matchup nightmares as secondary receivers, starting with C. J. Uzomah and Quan Bray. Few safeties can keep up with either in a foot race. If a team puts extra corners in to shut that down, Auburn will run over them. Put in beefier safeties, and those guys will be wide open. The real question is who’ll pull the trigger for the Auburn offense. The QB competition is said to be neck and neck between junior Khiel Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace. Neither distinguished himself on A-Day. The race will become five-headed for a while when the newcomers arrive this fall. Senior free safety Nickoe Whitley returns for the Bulldogs, and he had 3 picks and 3 pass breakups last season to go with his 88 total tackles. Junior Jay Hughes has been tapped as the starting strong safety. He had 31 tackles off the bench, but no passes defended. Advantage: Auburn.
Expect a high scoring game in this contest, as both teams feature powerful offensive lines, difficult to defend offenses, and dangerous skill players. While the offenses look capable, the defenses are unproven. Auburn has a bit of a special teams edge. It’s difficult to pick against a veteran senior starter at quarterback vs. Auburn’s questions there.
However, I think this game is really important for a lot of Auburn’s returning players from last season. The second half of last year’s game in Starkville is really where the season started going bad. Before that, it was high expectations. Afterwards was doubt, as the Bulldogs pretty much had their way in the second half. The Tigers should be sky-high to try and redeem themselves this year at home.
Prediction: With a raucous home crowd behind them, the Tigers overcome all obstacles. Both teams score seemingly at will, but in the end the Tigers prevail, 41-27.