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All indications point to another nail biter this year so brace yourselves accordingly, as these two teams could hardly be any more evenly matched. Mississippi State's offense ranks third in the SEC averaging 541 total yards a game with Auburn just behind at four, averaging 497 a game. Mississippi State is fourth in the conference in scoring, averaging 42.6 points a game while Auburn is fifth, averaging right at 42 points. State's rushing offense ranks third with 272.6 yards a game. Auburn is right behind in this category also, ranking fourth and averaging 268 yards a game. Mississippi State's rush defense is second giving up only 98.2 yards a contest. Auburn is third, giving up 100.2 yards. State's red zone defense is first in the league with opponents only converting 53.8% of the time. Auburn's red zone defense is... you guessed it, second with opponents converting 64.7% of the time in the red zone.
It's amazing how close these teams are in so many categories. It's only fitting that one spot separates them in the poll. This game has the potential to be the best game of any that will take place this college football season. College Gameday is in Starkville for the first time ever, and the atmosphere will be as electric as we have ever seen it. Not only is the top spot for the West on the line, but the winner of this game likely leap frogs Florida State and becomes the number one team in the nation. That seems so surreal to even say those words. From unranked to #1 in the country after three games would have to be the quickest jump in the history of college football, one would think.
Let's take a look at some of the match ups.
Auburn's defense poses a different threat than any the Bulldog's have faced this season. That defensive line has played lights out, and MSU's offensive line will face the toughest test of the season. Auburn has recruited well on that side of the ball for the past couple of years, and it is clearly starting to pay off.
The Tiger defense has been consistent all year long, carrying the team when the offense sputters like at Kansas State, for example. Defensive tackle Montravius Adams, defensive end Davonte Lambert, and linebacker Cassanova Mckinzy have solidified a strong front seven for the Tigers. The loss of Jermaine Whitehead hasn't slowed the secondary down, and they have been impressive as well.
MSU's offense has been as well balanced as you could possibly ask for, and that will continue to be the formula for success no matter the competition. The offense is on pace to break school records for the second straight season. Josh Robinson is still the most underrated player in the SEC, but at some point defenses will start to key on him. Dak Prescott, averaging 335 total yards per game, has vaulted himself to the top of the Heisman Trophy conversation. De'Runnya Wilson has been the leader among the receivers and has been a clear target for Prescott early in games. His 17.6 yards per catch has been complimented by five touchdowns, which ranks second in the league.
Auburn's defensive approach will be to take away the run completely and make Dak beat them with his arm. They will key on Josh Robinson and force Dak to stay in the pocket.
MSU's receiving corps, which proved its depth last week against A&M, will need to have a big game. From all indications, Jameon Lewis will be back this week after sitting out the last game with an injury against Texas A&M. They will not only need him, but they will need him at 100%.
The tight ends for the Bulldogs have been quiet for the most part, but I would expect to see them more involved in the game plan this week. With so much attention placed on De'Runnya Wilson and Jameon Lewis, the middle of the field will open up for the tight ends. Malcolm Johnson is waiting for that first breakout performance this year, and a game like this has his name written all over it.
The pass rush has been mediocre for the Tigers in 2014, and they've gotten to opposing quarterbacks just 10 times. As good as Mississippi State's offensive line has played so far, Dak should have plenty of time to throw the football. I expect to see a lot of pass to set up the run this week. Taking some shots down field early should stop Auburn from loading up the box.
The biggest key for the Mississippi State offense will be to finish drives and punch it into the end zone. We already mentioned Auburn's stout red zone defense, and finishing drives will be easier said than done. With the kicking woes continuing against A&M, Dan Mullen doesn't want to rely on too many field goals. If the ball is outside of the 25 yard line and it's fourth and short, you can bet they will be lining up and going for it. The offense that executes better in the red zone will win this ballgame.
The most intriguing matchup will be the Auburn offense vs. the Mississippi State defense.
Auburn's offense has not been as explosive as last year's team that averaged 328 yards a game on the ground. The offensive line had major struggles on the road at Kansas State, and that game raised many question marks. The offense has come back to life since then, however, and the Tigers have scored 40+ points in consecutive games against LA Tech and LSU.
Nick Marshall got off to slow start after sitting out the first half against Arkansas in the opener. The senior quarterback then picked back up where he left off last year, posing a threat as both a runner and a passer. He had 119 rushing yards last week against LSU. Cameron Artis-Payne has led the running backs with almost 600 yards on the ground. He's no Tre Mason, but Artis-Payne is still one of the better backs in the SEC. The Tigers have one of the best wide receiver combos in the country with Sammie Coates and D'haquille Williams. The two combine for 127 yards a game.
Mississippi State's defense has had its struggles at times in the secondary, with a pass defense that ranks dead last in the SEC. Granted, a lot of those yards have been racked up in garbage time after the Bulldogs have built an enormous lead.
However, the Bulldogs have excelled in defending the run, getting to the quarterback, and forcing turnovers. Their 18 sacks and 9 interceptions both rank second in the league.
Preston Smith continues to be one of the best defensive ends in the country with 3.5 sacks, 5 quarterback hurries, two interceptions, a forced fumble, and two blocked kicks. He has lived in opponent's backfields. Benardrick McKinney is still on pace for a possible first round draft pick. He leads the team with 36 tackles and 6 tackles for loss. Chris Jones and Kaleb Eulls haven't put up eye popping stats, but they have done an excellent job clogging up the middle of the line and allowing their teammates to make plays.
Gus Malzahn is one of the brightest offensive minds in college football. His creativity to disguise plays and offer multiple looks within one play makes their offense difficult to defend. They have a finesse style but can also pound it right at you with the power run game.
Auburn's offense, much like Mississippi State's, is well balanced and has multiple weapons. That's why it is difficult to judge what the Tigers will try to do come Saturday. It's not like last week when everybody in the world knew A&M would come in and sling the ball around all day.
We all know how much the Tigers like to run the football. But with receivers like Coates and Williams, there will be no shortage of passing plays on Saturday.
Auburn's struggles running the ball on the road at Kansas State have to be a concern for them. If they put up the same type of performance this week, I like Mississippi State's chances. The Mississippi State defensive line has to be licking their chops for this one.
The game likely comes down to Nick Marshall's arm. He single handedly beat Mississippi State through the air in last year's game. That will be what the Bulldogs will challenge him to do once again. Marshall is not the type of quarterback to consistently throw for 300 yards, and the chance of that happening two years in a row are low.
Putting the Tiger offense in 3rd and long situations and limiting big plays will be the key to success on defense. The MSU defense has given up a few more big plays this season than Geoff Collins would like. Red zone defense will be just as crucial. Like we mentioned earlier, the offense that converts more in the red zone will likely win this game.
All in all, this game couldn't be more evenly matched. The two teams more or less mirror each other in every aspect. With the recent history between the two, there's no reason to think this game won't once again come down to the wire.
It's War Eagle vs. Hail State, in the spotlight of the college football world, playing for the #1 spot in all the land. The stakes couldn't be any higher.
Numbers to Know
The number of seasons since this matchup produced one of the most
awesome gruesome results ever created on a college football playing surface: A 3-2 win by Auburn. Fast forward the clock six seasons and these two teams are now ranked #3 and #2, with offenses that both average over 40 points per game. My, how things have changed.
Surprisingly where Auburn ranks nationally in rushing yards per game. Their 268 yards per game is also only good enough for fourth in the conference thus far. The Tigers were held to just 128 rushing yards total several weeks ago against Kansas State which is likely what is dragging that average down a bit.
The number of drives that the MSU defense held Texas A&M without a touchdown last Saturday after the Aggies scored on the opening possession. By that time, MSU was already up 34-10, so the score didn't matter at all, either. That's a big difference from how MSU has responded in previous years following a bad start like they had on the opening drive. MSU will need another big performance from the defense against that talented Auburn offense on Saturday afternoon.