A Showdown in Starkville!
Auburn’s last visit wasn’t so great.
(Photo by Acid Reign.)
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another Auburn opponent preview. On October 11th, Auburn continues its SEC schedule with a tough road trip to play Mississippi State in Starkville. I’ve seen some projections that both teams will be undefeated coming into this game, but I’m not so sure I’m buying that. The Bulldogs play LSU in Baton Rouge before playing Auburn, and under head coach Dan Mullen, they haven’t beaten a Top-25 opponent since taking out Florida in 2010. Mullen’s record against Top-25 opponents is just 2-22.
The Bulldogs open with home cupcakes Southern Mississippi and UAB, before traveling to Mobile to play South Alabama. Then, State is put to the test when they visit LSU in Baton Rouge on September 20th. A week to recuperate follows, then the Bulldogs host Texas A&M. Some folks think that without Johnny Manziel, the Aggies will be down. I’d caution such folk to look at Aggie coach Kevin Sumlin’s record. He’s lost good quarterbacks before, and keeps right on cranking out big numbers on offense. After Texas A&M, the Bulldogs host Auburn. The Tigers will have faced Arkansas and San Jose State at home, Kansas State on the road, Louisiana Tech for homecoming, then LSU. The concern for Auburn is the road trip to Starkville, right after a physical game with LSU.
Every preseason look at MSU focuses first on returning junior quarterback Dak Prescott. Some believe he’s the best returning signal-caller in the league. Prescott battled injury last season, but led some big wins that got the Bulldogs to a bowl game. Prescott’s rushing numbers were second only to Auburn’s Nick Marshall, but only finished 11th in the SEC in passer rating. There’s talent returning among the offensive skill players, but it’s important to recognize that MSU returns only 6 starters on offense, and they’ve had questions on the line this past spring. One of the more dangerous problems was one with bad snaps that cropped up. Shoring up the center position will be a prime focus in fall camp. The Bulldogs must also replace leading running back Ladarius Perkins.
On defense, the Bulldogs return 19 of 22 players on the two-deep depth chart, and most folks expect the Bulldogs to be tough on defense. Experience is a plus, and these guys last season held Auburn to 24, Alabama to 20 and Ole Miss to just 10 points. On the other hand, they allowed 59 to LSU, 51 to Texas A&M, and 34 to South Carolina, so it’s a mixed bag. Mississippi State held Auburn to just 120 rushing yards last season, and Tre Mason had just 34 yards on the ground. Look for the Bulldogs to again try to make Nick Marshall beat them with his arm.
Special teams are somewhat of a concern for the Bulldogs. They’ve had snap problems on kicks this spring, also. Last season, a trio of guys managed just 10 of 21 field goals. Mississippi State was just average on kickoffs and punts, and got very little out of the return game, even with the talented, speedy Jameon Lewis fielding both punts and kickoffs. Coverage, at least, was solid. Much like Auburn, MSU special teams are a work in progress.
Unit matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. MSU offensive line: Auburn’s final starting lineup on Labor Day weekend is a bit up in the air, at this point. I’d expect senior Gabe Wright to start somewhere, either at tackle or end. Expect tackles Angelo Blackson, Jeffery Whitaker, Montravius Adams, and Ben Bradley to all play prominent roles. LaDarius Owens will likely anchor the run-stopping end spot, with Elijah Daniels now the likely rush end starter. Carl Lawson may be a factor by October, but he’s coming off spring knee surgery. Mississippi State has some questions on the offensive line. Starting senior center Dillon Day is expected to be fully recovered from an arm injury suffered during the spring, and that should shore up the snap problems seen in practice. Tackles will be seniors Blaine Causell and Damien Robinson, and the likely guard starters will be sophomore Jamaal Clayborn and senior Ben Beckwith. This was a fairly even match last season, with Auburn handling MSU running backs. However, they got little pressure on Dak Prescott, allowed him to rush for 134 yards, and tallied no sacks. Advantage: Even.
Auburn linebackers vs. MSU backs: Auburn’s starting linebackers coming out of spring drills are juniors Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy. Both are veteran, athletic SEC players, looking to make the next move up. I feel like they’ll do a better job this season containing scrambling quarterbacks. Senior Nick Griffin and junior Josh Robinson are capable runners for MSU, with Robinson giving the Bulldogs some speed, there. MSU doesn’t typically use a fullback, and relies mostly on a single tight end, so lead blocking will be at a premium. The Bulldogs try to keep teams from loading the box with multiple receiver sets, and motion. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn corners vs. MSU receivers: Auburn is again fairly deep at corner, with veteran Jonathan Mincy locking down one spot, and either junior Joshua Holsey or junior Jonathan Jones at the other spot. Senior converted wide receiver Trovon Reed also looked pretty good in spring drills here. Auburn should be able to run with any receiving corps, and play physical run defense on the edges. Mississippi State has a deep receiving corps, headlined by seniors Jameon Lewis and Robert Johnson. Add in junior Joe Morrow, and sophomores Fred Brown and De’Runnya Wilson, and you’ve got a bunch that is tough to contain. Auburn was able to stay with the Bulldog receivers for the most part last season, giving up 213 passing yards and only a couple of big receptions. Advantage: Even.
Auburn safeties vs. MSU secondary receivers and quarterback: Senior Jermaine Whitehead anchors one spot here, and Auburn will feature either junior Joshua Holsey, or JUCO transfer Derrick Moncrief at the other position. Moncrief was a beast in spring drills, this year, and Holsey is a veteran. Mississippi State took a blow after spring, with tight end Artimus Samuel leaving the team. Senior tight end Malcomb Johnson caught 30 balls last season, and was a reliable third-down option. Senior Brandon Hill returns from a foot injury suffered last season. MSU likes to swing passes to running backs, and will throw to Griffin and Robinson. Those two combined for 15 catches off the bench last season. Dak Prescott is expected to have a big season in 2014, and he was tough for Auburn to chase down last season. Advantage: Mississippi State.
Punting: Auburn must start a new punter, here, going with redshirt freshman Jimmy Hutchenson, who had a really solid A-Day game. Devon Bell punted about half the time for MSU last season as a pooch punter, and had a 41.2 yard average on 24 punts. He also generated 9 fair catches, and killed 14 inside the 20. Both Auburn and MSU were stifling on coverage. Auburn gave up only 5 returns all season, for 35 yards. Mississippi State gave up 6.0 yards per return. Auburn is still auditioning punt returners to replace Chris Davis. MSU returns Jameon Lewis, who averaged just 2.3 yards per return last season. Advantage: Mississippi State.
Kickoffs: Auburn must replace veteran kicker Cody Parkey, and will do it with redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson. Junior Devon Bell handled kickoffs for the Bulldogs last season, nailing 25 touchbacks on 66 kickoffs. MSU coverage gave up 20.4 yards per return, while Auburn gave up 25.8. Auburn senior Corey Grant ripped off 5 returns for a 32.0 yard average for Auburn as the top guy coming back. MSU counters with Jameon Lewis, who had 19 returns for a 23.5 yard average. Advantage: Mississippi State.
Place kicking: Auburn redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson is the man for Auburn. He hit a monster 51 yard field goal this year in the Auburn A-Day game, but also missed an extra point. Mississippi State has settled on sophomore Evan Sobiesk for the kicking job this spring. Sobiesk hit on 3 of 6 field goals last season, and has shown a strong leg during spring drills. Advantage: Even.
Auburn offensive line vs. MSU defensive line: Auburn returns 4 starters on a road-grading, violent offensive line. Greg Robinson moves on to the NFL, but Auburn has talent to replace him. From left to right, it’s sophomore Shon Coleman, sophomore Alex Kozan, senior all-SEC Reese Dismukes, senior Chad Slade, and sophomore Avery Young, with junior Patrick Miller still in the hunt to perhaps unseat one of the tackles for a starting job. MSU is stout up front, returning senior end Preston Smith, sophomore A. J. Jefferson and junior Ryan Brown outside. In the middle, senior Kaleb Eulls is a veteran, and he’s joined by the talented sophomore Chris Jones, who has reportedly gotten much stronger this past off season after a good freshman season. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. MSU linebackers: Although Auburn lost Heisman finalist Tre Mason early to the NFL draft, Auburn should be fine here with seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant. Grant was this year’s A-Day star, looking even more explosive and unstoppable. Add in a corps of talented newcomers, and it’s no secret Auburn will be able to tote the rock again this season. H-back is a bit thinner. Senior blocking specialist Brandon Fulse moves from end/receiver to take over the starting nod, but depth behind him is questionable. Junior Benardrick McKinney led the team in tackles last season, and anchors the middle of the Bulldog defense. He’ll be joined by senior Matthew Wells, and sophomore Ritchie Brown. This bunch can run, and they are physical. Advantage: Even.
Auburn receivers vs. MSU corners: Auburn juniors Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis developed into one of the more dangerous receiving duos in the SEC, last season. Add in monster transfer D’haquille Williams, and this unit became downright scary this spring, with lots of depth behind the big three. Senior Jamerson Love is a solid cover man, with quick feet. On the other side, junior Taveze Calhoun is a tall, rangy corner that should be able to match up height-wise with Auburn’s bigger guys. Still, Auburn has a serious weight advantage on both sides, and should win physical matchups. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. MSU safeties: Auburn senior tight end C. J. Uzomah is a nightmare for safeties to cover. When Auburn needed to go to him late in games last season, C. J. was there every time to haul in the score. Auburn also has senior Quan Bray in the equation, who’s been the career quick screen guy. When guys start to clamp down on him, he can get open down the field. Auburn returns senior quarterback Nick Marshall, and he’s easily the most dangerous guy returning at the position in the SEC this fall. With a spring spent working on a shaky passing game, the sky’s the limit this fall. Marshall was devastating running the zone-read option last fall. The Bulldogs counter with junior Kendrick Market, and sophomore Deontay Evans. Advantage: Auburn.
After battling LSU, this definitely shapes up as a trap game for the Auburn Tigers. Auburn’s last three trips to Starkville have been tough games in a hostile, loud environment. These games resulted in 3-2 and 17-14 wins, and a blow-out loss in 2012. Both teams have the following week off, and will be able to throw in maximum effort.
I expect Auburn to move the ball on most teams next fall, and MSU will be no exception. What the Tigers must do is hold onto the football. All eyes will be on the Auburn defense. If they can keep Dak Prescott in check, Auburn will win comfortably. If Prescott has a big night, this is anyone’s ball game. The Bulldogs will need this game, if they are to move into the upper echelon of the SEC West. Should MSU lose to LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn, it will be another 6-8 win season for Dan Mullen, and folks will again be wondering if he’s reached his limit at Mississippi State.
Prediction: This turns into a game with offensive fireworks, but Nick Marshall again leads Auburn to the win in the final minutes. Tigers take it, 38-34.