Bulldog Visitors to End September (Previewing Auburn vs. Mississippi State)
Nick Fitzgerald leads a rebuilding MSU offense
(AP Photo, Jim Lytle)
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another Auburn football preview! On September 30th, Auburn will host the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Last season’s game against the Bulldogs was expected to be a struggle in Starkville. Instead, Auburn ripped into home-standing MSU and tore out to a 35–0 halftime lead. Auburn coasted to a 38–14 victory. The Bulldogs suffered through a rebuilding year and hope to be a little stronger earlier in the season this year.
The Auburn Tigers will have opened the season with Georgia Southern, then traveled to Clemson. Auburn will then enjoy an early homecoming game against Mercer before traveling to Missouri prior to the home clash with Mississippi State. Auburn’s schedule at this point looks manageable. Mississippi State’s gets difficult pretty quickly. MSU opens with Charleston Southern, then travels to Rushton, Louisiana to take on Louisiana Tech as part of a CBS double-header. The Bulldogs then host LSU, followed by a trip to Athens, Georgia.
Last season, Mississippi State improved on offense greatly as the year went on. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald came out of nowhere to lead the Bulldogs, and this year he’s being touted as an All-SEC candidate by many pundits. There were some questions going into the offseason. A banged up offensive line and receiver corps had difficulty handling a Bulldog defense that was allowed to blitz in the spring game. Bulldog fortunes on the offensive side will depend on how many guys return healthy this fall, and whether the younger players continue to improve.
Defense was really the biggest issue for Mississippi State last season as they gave up 31.8 points per game, including 35 to Umass, 38 to Auburn, 40 to Kentucky, 41 to Samford (!), 51 to Alabama, and 58 to Arkansas. Tackling in the secondary was subpar, and the Bulldogs gave up 4.8 yards per rush.
This season, MSU poached defensive coordinator Todd Grantham away from Louisville. Grantham was able to improve defenses at Georgia and Louisville by installing a complex 3–4, multiple front blitzing scheme. The only caveat is that it sometimes takes a while for the players to learn such a system. For that reason, it’s better to be playing the Bulldogs in September than November. The defense had 5 interceptions in the Bulldog spring game, including 4 off of starter Nick Fitzgerald. A couple of the picks were returned for touchdowns.
The Bulldogs are rebuilding their special teams again this season after losing kicker Westin Graves and top return men Fred Ross, and Brandon Holloway. Junior Malik Dear was expected to be a major contributor this fall, but he spent the spring game on the sideline with a knee brace on.
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 junior Dontavius Russell and sophomore Derrick Brown. Sophomore strong-side end Marlon Davidson was a beast on A-Day. The buck side will likely be manned by a combination of junior Jeffery Holland and senior transfer Paul James III. Auburn has a good bit of depth behind the starters as well. Senior Martinez Rankin played center this spring, but I think Head Coach Dan Mullen would like to see the veteran slide out to left tackle this fall. My best guess, from left to right, would be Rankin at tackle, junior Elgton Jenkins, junior Deion Calhoun, moved over from right guard to center, sophomore Darryl Williams, moved up at right guard, and redshirt freshman Greg Eiland getting the start at right tackle. The Bulldogs do have fairly decent depth on the line. The key will be getting a group to gel in September. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. Mississippi State backs: The Auburn Tigers have a good cross-trained quartet of upper echelon SEC-caliber linebackers. Junior Deshaun Davis, senior Tré Williams, junior Darrell Williams and junior Montravious Atkinson can play all three positions, and we might see any combination of these players out on the field at a given time. The Bulldogs are very solid at running back, with a trio of good players, led by junior Aeris Williams. Sophomore Nick Gibson and junior Dontavian Lee are also very capable. Advantage: Even.
Auburn corners vs. Mississippi State receivers: Auburn has a fairly good combination of starting corners in junior Carlton Davis and sophomore Javaris Davis. The Tigers are hoping that Jamel Dean will be healthy this fall as he is one of the fastest players on the team. Sophomore Jeremiah Dinson could move over from nickel back, if needed. The leading returning Bulldog receiver returning is senior Donald Gray. Senior Gabe Myles is said to have improved this spring, and sophomore Jamal Couch is a big target. Junior Malik Dear could be a factor if he heals by September. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. Mississippi State secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn’s starting unit features seniors Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts at safety, and sophomore Jeremiah Dinson at nickel back. There’s not much depth beyond senior Nick Ruffin, who’ll probably see as much playing time as the starters. The Tigers are solid here as long as no one gets hurt. Sophomore Keith Mixon will likely get the nod at slot receiver, and the Bulldogs have several tight ends that were thrown into the fire pretty green last season. We could see sophomore Farrod Green, senior Jordan Thomas or junior Justin Johnson at various times. Junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald leads this offense. What’s worrisome is that coach Dan Mullen’s big-armed, running quarterbacks tend to have a production jump in their second season of starting. Fitzgerald threw for 2,423 yards last season and ran for 1,375. He threw some bad interceptions in the spring game, but a lot of it could have been young receivers not being on the same page. Advantage: Even.
Punting: Sophomore Ian Shannon will likely get the nod as Auburn’s starting punter after a couple of years of waiting in the wings. Shannon looked good on A-Day a year ago in warmups. The Tigers gave up only 19 punt return yards last season, on 6 punts for a stifling 3.2 yards per return. The Tigers are still auditioning for the punt-returner job. It’s thought that senior Stephen Roberts has the inside track after returning 6 punts last season for 100 yards. MSU returns senior Logan Cooke at punter. Last season, Cook averaged 40.0 yards per punt. Bulldog coverage was almost as good as Auburn’s, allowing only 4.0 yards per return. The Bulldogs must replace Fred Ross as the return man, and the likely nod will go to senior Donald Gray. Advantage: Even.
Kickoffs: Daniel Carlson was very good kicking off last season, notching 57 touchbacks on 72 kickoffs. When Auburn did allow returns, opponents averaged only 18.0 yards per return. Junior Kerryon Johnson is Auburn’s most experienced return man, and he averaged 22.2 yards per return last season. Logan Cooke handled nearly half of the Bulldog kickoffs last season and should handle the bulk this season. Cooke had 14 touchbacks on 25 kickoffs. MSU allowed 20.1 yards per return. The most dangerous of the return men was Keith Mixon, who averaged 25.2 yards per return. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Auburn sophomore Daniel Carlson is the man for Auburn. Carlson was 28 of 32 on field goals and perfect on extra points. One of Carlson’s misses was a block by Vanderbilt on what would be an illegal play this season due to a rule change. Some sources say that Mississippi State will apparently start freshman Tucker Day right out of the gate. Others think senior Logan Cooke is more likely. Advantage: Auburn.
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 pretty good on A-Day. It seems the tackle spots are set with seniors Darius James and Braden Smith. Senior Austin Golson will likely start at center although Auburn is bringing in senior transfer center Casey Dunn from Jax State. If Dunn starts, Golson could move to guard. Also transferring in this fall is former Florida State starting guard Wilson Bell. Bell is expected to start at one of the guard spots. If Dunn does not beat out Golson, the other likely starting guard would be sophomore Mike Horton. It will be interesting to see how the Bulldogs transition here. Typically, Grantham likes to have a big, space-eating noseguard. Sophomore Jeffery Simmons has gained weight and is listed at 307 pounds. That won’t be any advantage against Auburn’s front. Penciled in at end spots are sophomore Fletcher Adams, junior JUCO transfer Chauncy Rivers. MSU has depth at every position. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Mississippi State linebackers: Auburn features junior H-back Chandler Cox blowing open holes. Running behind the big H-back will be massive junior Kamryn Pettway, and the shifty junior Kerryon Johnson is in reserve. The Bulldog linebackers were the strength of the team last season and could be again if they develop within the new scheme. Inside backers should be sophomore Leo Lewis and senior Dezmond Harris. Outside should be juniors Gerri Green and Montez Sweat. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Mississippi State corners: At the end of spring, it looked like Auburn’s two starting outside guys were sophomores Nate Craig-Myers and Darius Slayton. Both guys can fly and have good height and great hands. Redshirt freshman Marquis McClain had a great A-Day and is someone to watch out for on the outside as well. Throw junior Jamal Peters, redshirt freshman Cameron Dantzler, senior Lashard Durr and senior Tolando Cleveland in a bag and shake. They all should play and should be better than last season thanks to experience. Still, they have a tough unit to cover in this game. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Mississippi State safeties: Auburn has potential threats here, starting with wickedly fast junior slot receiver Will Hastings. Sophomore Eli Stove can also fly. Tight ends Jalen Harris and Sal Cannella are expected to be a big part of the passing game as well. Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham is likely the starter in the opener. In 6 games as a freshman at Baylor, Stidham was electric. That trend continued during A Day this spring as Stidham was deadly accurate and showed great mobility. At safety, the likely starters for MSU are juniors Brandon Bryant and Mark McLaurin. Jonathan Abraham and J. T. Gray provide depth. Advantage: Auburn.
I think Auburn has a good chance to put up a lot of points in this game if not forced into mistakes from furious blitzing. The real question will be stopping the MSU offense, particularly if its line and receivers are healed. The MSU offense has been a threat nearly every year that Dan Mullen has coached there.
The Bulldogs should come in and play hard. They will need this game, after a couple of tough SEC matchups. And, their schedule does not get much easier the rest of the way. Only UMass and Brigham Young remain out of conference, and the season-ender at Ole Miss might be the easiest SEC game left for them.
Prediction: With the package of screens Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey uses, Auburn should be able to hurt the Bulldogs when they blitz. The Tigers run away from the Bulldogs, 45–20.