A Significant Struggle in Starkville
By Acid Reign
The pre-season ends for the Auburn Tigers, on September 13th, when they travel to Starkville Mississippi, for their first SEC game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Auburn is still smarting from last season’s disastrous home loss to the Bulldogs, and will be out for revenge. A win won’t come easily for either team, though. Both squads, at times, featured hard-nosed defenses last season. Both had porous games, as well, such as Auburn’s 17 point fourth quarter meltdown against LSU, and Auburn allowing 4 straight touchdown drives against Georgia in the second half. MSU failed on defense in more games, giving up 45 against LSU, 38 against South Carolina, 33 against Tennessee, 38 against West Virginia, and 45 against Arkansas.
The Bulldogs will have to overcome the loss of Defensive Coordinator Ellis Johnson, who was hired away by Steve Spurrier during the off-season. Charlie Harbison was promoted to replace Johnson. Harbison has an interesting pedigree, having coached defensive backs at Alabama during the Dubose era, then coaching wide receivers under Mike Shula. Harbison developed such players as D. J. Hall, and Keith Brown. The MSU defense returns 8 starters, but two starting linemen depart including defensive end Titus Brown, who was the unit leader. All of the back seven return, including star senior safety Derek Pegues, but there are depth issues in the secondary. MSU did sign Charles Mitchell, a high-school cornerback who was named the Mississippi player of the year. Mitchell is being counted on to help out immediately.
Mississippi State has struggled to move the football on offense, for most of the Sylvester Croom era, and that trend likely will continue, if MSU’s spring game is any indication. The game ended regulation play in a scoreless deadlock, and had to be resolved in overtime. On the other hand, starting QB Wesley Carroll and monster tailback Anthony Dixon only played a few snaps. The MSU offense took a blow when starting offensive tackle Michael Brown was arrested on a firearms charge, and kicked out of school. Brown, a transfer from Florida, had started 18 games. Reserve defensive tackle Quinton Wesley was also involved in the gun incident, and likewise was expelled. The Bulldogs are counting on signee Templeton Hardy, the 8th best incoming defensive tackle in the nation, to add depth to the defensive line.
The Bulldogs struggled with a rash of injuries and youth on offense, last season. Veteran Michael Henig has given up football, after a hip injury. That leaves sophomore Wesley Carroll as the starter. Carroll was largely a caretaker as a true freshman starter last fall, and more will be expected of him this year. Tailback Anthony Dixon has the size and tools to be a top SEC back, but needs to be more consistent. Dixon also had a bit of the fumble-bug last year, and needs to hold onto the ball better. MSU turnovers played a big part in the number of points they gave up, last year. Taking care of the ball and developing a downfield passing game will be key to returning to a bowl game this year, for Mississippi State.
Auburn defensive line vs. MSU offensive line: MSU fields a bit of an undersized line, losing three starters from last season. Due to the loss of Michael Brown, they will be very young at tackle, starting two sophomores. Auburn counters with talented ends Antonio Coleman, Antoine Carter, and Michael Goggins. Inside, SenDerrick Marks will require a double-team block, and that will leave MSU senior Anthony Strauder to block the Auburn nose guard one-on-one. Auburn will rotate as many as three talented youngsters, there. Advantage: Auburn, possibly by a big margin.
Auburn linebackers vs. MSU backs: MSU starts two behemoths in the backfield, senior fullback Brandon Hart, and junior tailback Anthony Dixon. Both are 240 pounds. Spelling Dixon is another junior, the shifty slasher Christian Ducre. MSU is also hoping that redshirt freshman Robert Elliot will be productive. Elliot is a 190-pound speedster who got a lot of work this spring, while Dixon recovered from minor knee surgery. MSU will try to pound Auburn’s undersized linebacker corps. Auburn does have great depth at linebacker, but they need to get some stops for losses, and keep MSU from grinding out first downs. Advantage: Even.
Auburn corners vs. MSU receivers: MSU returns most of their receivers, but it was hardly a prolific unit. Senior Jamayel Smith is the most dangerous of the MSU receivers, last year catching 33 balls for a 15.5 yard average, and 3 touchdowns. Overall, the top 4 receivers on the MSU depth chart only caught 57 balls for 814 yards, last season. That’s a healthy 14.2 yards per catch, but only 62 yards per game. One reason for the lack of production was a freshman quarterback, and a heavy emphasis on the running game, but these guys weren’t running around wide-open all game, either. Auburn counters with speedy, dangerous corners in Jerraud Powers, Aaron Savage, and Walter McFadden. If MSU has to throw to move the ball consistently, they’re in trouble. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. MSU secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn is young at safety, starting two sophomores. MSU is even greener at tight end, and quarterback. Wesley Carroll is only a true sophomore, and for the most part, he was only asked to hand off and run bootlegs. Chris Relf and Tyson Lee have no experience, except for taking most of the snaps in MSU’s spring game. The MSU staff was hoping for big things out of Relf, especially, but the pair of QB’s produced zero points in regulation. MSU replaces all of their playing rotation at tight end. Sophomore Brandon Henderson has the starting job after spring, and two freshmen are behind him. Advantage: Auburn.
Punting: Auburn has a trio of capable punters, and good coverage, giving up 6.5 yards per return. By contrast, MSU gave up 9.8 per return. Senior Blake McAdams returns for the Bulldogs, averaging only 39.3 yards per punt. MSU averaged 9.9 yards a return, with dangerous veteran Derek Pegues taking one 75 yards to the house. Auburn counters with veteran Robert Dunn, who averaged 9.4. Advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Senior Adam Carlson returns for the Bulldogs, and he averaged 60.4 yards per kickoff, vs. Auburn’s 57. MSU averaged giving up 20.8 yards per return, to Auburn’s 21.2. MSU will be kicking to (possibly) Tristan Davis, Mario Fannin, or Brad Lester. All have potential. Derek Pegues returned kicks last season for MSU, but this spring’s depth chart lists a pair of redshirt freshmen: Wade Bonner, and Robert Elliot. I think MSU is trying to put more speed on the field here, but inexperienced returners are a huge liability in SEC play. Advantage: Even.
Place kicking: Adam Carlson was excellent for the Bulldogs last season, hitting 10 of 13 field goals, including only one miss from inside 40 yards. Wes Byrum was 17-23, with several clutch kicks for Auburn. Both kickers missed one extra point. Advantage: Even.
Auburn offensive line vs. MSU defensive line: Auburn fields a veteran, nasty bunch, with depth. All five starters return. MSU loses top end Titus Brown, as well as one other starter. However, MSU is huge in the middle. Starters Kyle Love and Jessie Bowman combine to weigh 625 pounds. The backups are both over 290 each. All 4 tackles are experienced and tough. It will be an absolute war, inside, and very fun to watch! At end, the Bulldogs will go with light, 240-pound speed-rushers, senior Tim Bailey and sophomore Brandon Cooper. Lee Ziemba should be able to neutralize the left side, but Auburn is still a bit unsettled at right tackle. Coach Nall is still looking for an alternative to the undersized Ryan Pugh. Running a spread offense, Auburn can’t afford any mismatches against them. Slight Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. MSU linebackers: Ben Tate and Mario Fannin got a taste of MSU’s hard hitting linebackers last fall, and did not fare so well. The addition of Brad Lester will definitely help Auburn, this year. MSU linebackers have been excellent at stopping the run, as well as dropping into a stifling zone. However, the Bulldogs had problems containing well-designed screen passes. It’s a deep and talented MSU corps, led by seniors Dominic Douglas and Jamar Chaney. Given Auburn’s lack of an experienced lead blocker, it’s Advantage: MSU.
Auburn Receivers vs. MSU corners: At this time, a pair of 5-10, not terribly fast corners are listed as starters; Jasper O’Quinn and Marcus Washington. The Bulldogs are hoping that potential All-SEC star Anthony Johnson is full-speed by fall. Johnson is still recovering from a broken ankle suffered during last year’s Egg Bowl. Johnson returned two picks for touchdowns, before he was hurt. If Johnson can return, and recruit Charles Mitchell is ready to start, MSU could be lock-down. If not, there is definite room for Auburn’s veterans Rod Smith, Montez Billings, James Swinton, and co. to operate. Advantage: Even, on uncertainty.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. MSU safeties: The Bulldogs return a pair of veteran, talented safeties; Keith Fitzhugh and Derek Pegues. Pegues had a pick-six that was the difference in the game, against Auburn, last season. These two safeties are good ones, very strong in run support. If there is a weakness, it is against speedy slot receivers running corner or out-routes. Either safety can make a QB pay for a bad throw. Auburn counters with veteran Robert Dunn (who has struggled with his hands throughout his career), Tommy Trott (likewise) and an inexperienced QB, either Kodi Burns or Chris Todd. Advantage: MSU.
This game will be a low-scoring war in the trenches. On paper, Auburn appears to be stronger on both lines of scrimmage, and possibly markedly so, on defense. MSU has advantages in the back seven (if they are healthy) over Auburn’s skill folks. Auburn should be able to contain the MSU offense, but might wear down against the bigger Bulldogs, if the defense is on the field too much. Kicking games are nearly even. This game will likely be decided by a key turnover or two. Whoever takes care of the ball, and knocks out first downs, will win this contest.
Prediction: A tiring Auburn team holds off a late Bulldog drive, and hangs on to win: 17-13.
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