A Tough Road Trip to Starkville (Previewing Auburn at Mississippi State Football)
Mississippi State has typically been much tougher at home
(Photo by Acid Reign)
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another Auburn game preview! On October 6th, Auburn will visit the Mississippi State Bulldogs. The last 2 seasons, Auburn crushed Mississippi State by scores of 38–14 in Starkville and 49–10 in Auburn. Last year’s blowout was Auburn’s biggest margin over the Bulldogs since 1970 and the Pat Sullivan era.
The biggest loss for the Bulldogs during this offseason was head coach Dan Mullen, who left to take the top job at Florida. Mullen’s record at Mississippi State was unprecedented, although he did not win any championships. Still, he had this team bowling every year in the toughest division in football. He did a great job of building the MSU brand with his sometimes over the top enthusiasm. His teams played tough and usually above their aggregate star ratings.
All is not lost, however. MSU made one of the more interesting replacement hires, bringing in Joe Moorhead to coach this team. Moorhead spent the last 2 years as the offensive coordinator at Penn State, and his high-scoring attack made running back Saquon Barkley a household name. Moorhead’s offensive system has been successful at every stop, and he even has head coaching experience and success at Fordham. Mississippi State returns nearly every player of consequence from last season, and Moorhead has a great chance to jump in and have the team play at a high level. If there is a worry about this hire, it would be down the road a few years in recruiting.
Mississippi State opens the season hosting Stephen F. Austin, then travels to Manhattan, Kansas to take on the K-State Wildcats. The Bulldogs recover at home with Louisiana, then travel to Lexington, Kentucky. Florida has a visit in Starkville before Auburn comes to town. Here’s hoping several physical games have the Bulldogs worn down a bit. Auburn will have played Washington in Atlanta and hosted Alabama State, LSU, Arkansas and Southern Miss before traveling to Mississippi State. The Bulldogs will face a very battle-tested Auburn squad.
Coach Moorhead will have a chance to start with a bang on offense. Mississippi State returns big quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who’s one of the more dangerous signal callers in the SEC. Four of five linemen return as well as ace runner Aeris Williams. Where Mississippi State was questionable last season was at the receiver positions. No MSU receiver caught more than 27 balls last season, and the 11.4 yards per catch stat is on the low side. Mississippi State as a team completed only 54 percent of its passes for 6.1 yards per catch.
Defensively, coordinator Bob Shoop should have talent to work with at every level. Shoop is an interesting hire, a guy with SEC experience. Shoop put together some good defenses with James Franklin at Vanderbilt a few years ago, followed Franklin to Penn State and did well there also. The last 2 seasons, Shoop was the defensive coordinator at Tennessee, and well… last year’s Tennessee defense was absolutely awful. Shoop prefers to run a 4–2–5 defense, which will be a bit different from last year’s 3–4 Todd Grantham look.
It’s hard to compare special teams units when a new coaching staff comes in that may do things completely differently. Things are further complicated because Auburn has shifted special teams responsibilties around as well. Both units may turn out very differently this year. Mississippi State returns a good kicker but has to find a new starting punter. Mississippi State has veteran return men and was good on both coverage units last season.
Unit matchups after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Mississippi State offensive line: Auburn brings a big, athletic defensive line back this season. Likely starters at tackle are senior Dontavius Russell and junior Derrick Brown. Junior strong-side end Marlon Davidson was a beast on A-Day. The buck side is a rotation between sophomores TD Moultry and Big Kat Bryant. Auburn can play monster sophomore Nick Coe at any position on the line with great results. Auburn has serious depth all across the line as well. The Bulldogs return 4 starters on the offensive line but must replace a really good left tackle in Martines Rankin. From left to right, the Bulldogs will likely start sophomore Greg Eiland, junior Darryl Williams, senior Elgton Jenkins, senior Deion Calhoun, and sophomore Stewart Reese. This was a solid line a year ago, but these guys lost the battle in the trenches decisively against Auburn the last two years, and might well do so again against the best defensive line Auburn has had in a while. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. Mississippi State backs: The Tigers have a good cross-trained quartet of upper echelon SEC-caliber linebackers. Senior Deshaun Davis leads the bunch, seniors Darrell Williams and Montravious Atkinson are able to play all three positions, and we might see any combination of these players out on the field at a given time. Auburn has lots of depth behind the starters as well. Auburn’s linebackers play with leverage and are sure tacklers. Senior Aeris Williams quietly put together 1,107 rushing yards last season but was held to just 49 yards against Auburn. Sophomore Kylin Hill will spell Williams, and Hill picked up 393 rushing yards during his freshman campaign. This is a solid 1–2 punch for the Bulldogs. Auburn will be better. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn corners vs. Mississippi State receivers: Auburn has a fairly good combination of starting corners in juniors Javaris Davis and Jamel Dean. Junior Jeremiah Dinson could move over from safety, if needed. Sophomore converted wide receiver Noah Igbinoghene turned heads this spring and could be a co-starter on either side. John Broussard Jr. provides quality depth. Senior receiver Jesse Jackson led the Bulldogs with 27 receptions a year ago but only for 276 yards and no scores. On the other side, sophomore Reggie Todd had 14 receptions for 160 yards and a single touchdown. That’s not a lot of production returning. I think the Bulldogs are counting on JUCO transfer Stephen Guidry to play immediately. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. Mississippi State secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn’s starting unit features juniors Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas at safety. Thomas was an experienced backup last season, and Dinson played nickel back. Dinson can play every position in the secondary well but has missed considerable time with injuries over the past 3 seasons. Sophomore Jordyn Peters is listed as Auburn’s top nickel back as of now. Auburn is very young behind the starters. In the slot for MSU, experienced juniors Keith Mixon and Deddrick Thomas return. That pair combined for 40 catches for 502 yards and 5 touchdowns. At tight end, the Bulldogs return junior Farrod Green and senior Justin Johnson. Green had 9 catches last year, and Johnson had 8. The Bulldogs never really seemed to develop a go-to guy in the receiving corps last season. Senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is a different matter. While his passing numbers were pedestrian, he’s a tough guy to bring down in the pocket, and he’s explosive as a runner, producing 984 rushing yards last season, with sacks figured in. He also proved to be valuable in the red zone with 14 rushing touchdowns. Advantage: Even.
Punting: For now, sophomore Aiden Marshall is the starter, backed up by Ian Shannon. Both were inconsistent last year and didn’t do much to impress in Auburn’s A-Day game in bad weather. Australian import Arryn Siposs is expected to come in and win the starting punting job this fall. Last season, Shannon averaged 39.8 yards per punt, and Marshall averaged 39.4. Mississippi State must replace Logan Cooke, who had a great senior season. The man tapped to do it is sophomore former kicker Tucker Day. Mississippi State was good in coverage, allowing 9 returns for a 4.8 yards per return average. Auburn was not good last season, giving up 11.4 yards per return. Auburn is still looking for a replacement return man. MSU returns junior Deddrick Thomas, who is an interesting case. Thomas returned 6 punts last season. Of those 6, 5 of them totaled just 21 yards. The remaining return went 83 yards for a touchdown. Advantage: Even.
Kickoffs: Auburn redshirt freshman Anders Carlson has no experience, but given his displayed leg strength on A-Day, I think kicking a lot of touchbacks should be a given next season. Also, there is a new fair catch rule in effect this season that puts the ball at the 25. I think we will see a lot of fair catches on anything fielded inside the 5. Sophomore Jace Christmann takes over for Logan Cooke on kickoffs for the Bulldogs. Auburn will return kickoffs with sophomore Noah Igbinoghene, who averaged 23.8 yards per return last season despite only fair-to-poor blocking. MSU has experienced return men in sophomore Reggie Todd and junior Keith Mixon. That pair averaged only 18.5 and 17.8 yards per return, respectively. Auburn was awful on kick coverage, giving up 27.2 yards per return last season. Fortunately, the Carlsons can produce a lot of touchbacks. MSU was pretty good, limiting opponents to 17.9 yards per return. Advantage: Even.
Place kicking: Anders Carlson of Auburn has no experience, but he did hit 4 of 4 in bad weather in Auburn’s spring game. I watched him in warmups, too. His only miss in practice was from 53 yards, hitting the upright. Sophomore Jace Christmann had a great freshman campaign for the Bulldogs last season, hitting 12 of 14 field goals and all of his extra points. Advantage: Mississippi State.
Auburn offensive line vs. Mississippi State defensive line: It’s still not settled who’ll start for Auburn on the line, although the starters looked decent on A-Day. Auburn is set at the guard spots with veteran juniors Mike Horton and Marquel Harrell. Left tackle seems solid with junior Prince Tega Wanagho, who reputedly took the next step forward this spring after struggling last season in limited starts. Right tackle was a battle between freshmen Austin Troxell and Calvin Ashley. Both had good moments, but Auburn turned around and signed graduate transfer Jack Driscoll from UMass. Driscoll played last season against SEC foes Tennessee and Mississippi State and allowed just 1 quarterback pressure. Center is another big question mark for Auburn. Junior Kaleb Kim and redshirt freshman NickBrahms were battling for the starting job, but both went out with injuries and may or may not be back for the season opener. Converted H-back/tight end/walk-on Tucker Brown started on A-Day and actually did a good job. By midseason, I’m confident that line coach J. B. Grimes will have a strong offensive line out there. Grimes did a really solid job with the Auburn line in his previous stint from 2013–2015. Grimes was greatly missed the past couple of seasons! Mississippi State should have a great defensive line this season. At tackles, the Bulldogs have junior Jeffery Simmons, and senior Cory Thomas. Ends will be seniors Montez Sweat and Gerri Green. Those 4 players contributed 38.5 tackles for loss last season. There is plenty of experienced depth on this Bulldog line, too. Advantage: Mississippi State.
Auburn backs vs. Mississippi State linebackers: Auburn features senior H-back Chandler Cox, a 4-year starter, blowing open holes. The real question is who will carry the ball. Junior Kam Martin is blazing fast but has had durability issues in the past. Junior Malik Miller has size, power, and a few carries here and there but hasn’t been used much. Sophomore Devan Barrett has been moved to receiver. Auburn played freshmen JaTarvious Whitlow and Asa Martin a lot on A-Day. Both were suspect in pass blocking and running sideways or backwards. Whitlow dropped several passes. The best A-Day runner for the second year in a row was junior walk-on C. J. Tolbert, who had 137 yards. Tolbert is on the small side and didn’t have an actual carry in 2017. We do know, after watching the Gus Malzahn offense for 8 years at Auburn, there will be a bell-cow running back identified, tearing SEC defenses up as long as the offense is balanced. MSU returns junior Leo Lewis and sophomore Erroll Thompson, a pair of good veterans. Sophomore phenom Willie Gay will provide quality depth. Advantage: Even.
Auburn receivers vs. Mississippi State corners: At the end of spring, it looked like Auburn’s two starting outside guys were juniors Nate Craig-Myers and Darius Slayton. Both guys can fly, have good height, and great hands. Redshirt freshman Marquis McClain had the catch of the day on A-Day and is someone to watch out for on the outside as well. Senior Jamal Peters gives MSU an experienced, rangy corner on one side. Senior Chris Rayford will start on the other side. Surprisingly, Rayford played in 13 games last season but finished with no pass breakups or interceptions. Peters had 1 interception and 2 pass breakups. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Mississippi State safeties: This is a strength-against-strength matchup with lots of experience on both sides. Auburn senior Ryan Davis shattered the team single-season receptions mark last year with 84 catches. Teams that gave Davis a cushion last season got eaten up 5 to 10 yards per quick pass. Teams that tried to press were often burned for touchdowns. Auburn depth at the slot took blows with both Will Hastings and Eli Stove having knee injuries and surgeries this spring. Both did a ton of damage last year. Auburn has moved running back Devan Barrett to the slot for depth. Barrett has good hands and is a good runner, but he’s not the breakaway threat the guys above him are. Auburn’s tight end is senior Jalen Harris. Teams can key on him as a blocker only. I think Auburn has targeted Harris maybe 3 times in his 3 years as a starter. Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham had a slow start and a propensity to take hits last season but heated up by about game 4 and lit up some SEC secondaries. He’s mobile in the pocket and can make every throw. MSU has veterans at safety and returns a lot of tackles. We look for seniors Mark McLaurin and Jonathan Abram to start at the safety spots and junior Brian Cole to start at nickel. Cole had no stats last season, but the 2 safeties combined for 150 total tackles and 17 passes defended. McLaurin had 6 interceptions. Whether having a pair of safeties leading the team in tackles is a good thing or a bad thing is an open question. Advantage: Auburn.
Starkville and the cowbells give Mississippi State a big homefield advantage, to be sure. However, Auburn has controlled the last 2 matchups pretty handily, and I see no real reason that should not continue. Auburn has the added advantage of not having to learn new systems on either side of the ball this year. MSU has both issues with a completely new coaching staff.
The Auburn defensive plan the past couple of years was to keep the top on the defense, make Nick Fitzgerald go through his progressions, and watch for him to take off. Both years, Auburn has plugged the run very well and kept Mississippi State from making many big plays. The idea is to make them work down the field patiently without making mistakes. The Bulldogs have not consistently finished drives against Auburn, but I do see a lot of veterans on this offense this year.
Offensively, I’ve felt the last couple of seasons that Auburn had disadvantages up front against MSU’s defense. It hasn’t mattered. Auburn has been able to spread the ball around and win matchups in space consistently, and I expect that to continue this year with veteran quarterback Jarrett Stidham.
Prediction: The Bulldogs benefit from good play calling and execution on offense, but the 4–2–5 has historically proven to be a poor choice to stop the Malzahn offense when it is run well. Auburn runs away with it, 41–27.