Mississippi State hosts Auburn for a critical SEC showdown on Saturday night in Week 6 action. The Bulldogs enter on a two-game losing streak and are struggling to find the right mix on offense under first-year coach Joe Moorhead. The Tigers already have one defeat in SEC play and can’t afford another if they want to compete with Alabama and LSU in the West Division. This meeting is a must-win matchup for both teams.
Mississippi State’s hire of Moorhead drew plenty of praise this offseason, but he is off to a slow start. After opening the year with a 3-0 mark, the Bulldogs have lost back-to-back games. Kentucky handled Mississippi State on the line of scrimmage for a 28-7 victory, and the Bulldogs fell 13-6 to Florida and former coach Dan Mullen last Saturday. Following Saturday’s matchup versus Auburn, games against LSU and Texas A&M await this program, so Moorhead and the staff have to get the offense going in order to avoid a losing record going into November.
As mentioned previously, Auburn is in a must-win situation every week to keep its CFB Playoff and SEC West title hopes alive. Another loss in conference play would put the Tigers two games back of LSU and Alabama, which is likely too big of a hurdle to clear, especially with a matchup against Georgia on tap for November. Just like Mississippi State, coach Gus Malzahn’s team is looking for the right answers on offense. Auburn has scored less than 25 points in three out of its five games this season and managed only 24 points in last week’s win over Southern Miss.
Auburn holds a 63-26-2 series edge over Mississippi State. The Tigers have won three out of the last five in this series, including a 49-10 victory last season.
Auburn at Mississippi State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 6 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Auburn -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Mississippi State’s Offense Find its Rhythm?
Mississippi State’s offense might be the biggest surprise in the SEC this year. After averaging 26.3 points in SEC contests last fall, the Bulldogs are averaging only 6.5 through two contests in 2018. Additionally, this program has watched its yards per play total dip to 3.4 in league matchups, and after giving up 11 sacks in eight SEC contests last year, the offensive line has already surrendered nine in just two games.
The struggles of Mississippi State’s offense are even more surprising considering the track record of Moorhead at Fordham and as the offensive coordinator at Penn State, along with the team’s personnel. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was projected as a candidate for All-SEC honors in the preseason, Kylin Hill and Aeris Williams are an effective one-two punch at running back, and the line was expected to rank among the best in the league. Instead, the offense has struggled with protection, the receiving corps has to get better and play with more overall consistency, and Fitzgerald is still adapting to the new offense. All of those factors have contributed to the Bulldogs’ sluggish offense so far.
Unfortunately for Moorhead and Mississippi State, the going isn’t going to get any easier this Saturday. Auburn’s defense has dominated at the line of scrimmage, recording 15 sacks and ranking second in the SEC by holding teams to just 92.8 rushing yards a contest. Additionally, the Tigers lead the conference in scoring defense (12.6 points a game allowed).
In order for Mississippi State to win, the line has to win its share of battles up front and give Fitzgerald time to throw and make the right reads in this offense.
Related: College Football Week 6 Predictions
2. Auburn’s Offensive Line and Ground Attack
Similar to Mississippi State, a good chunk of Auburn’s issues on offense (not all) come back to the trenches. The Tigers have allowed 10 sacks through five games and average 4.2 yards per rush (13th in the SEC). Also, Malzahn’s offense has been held under 100 rushing yards in back-to-back games.
Adding to the uncertainty surrounding this unit are injuries to starting tackles Jack Driscoll and Prince Tega Wanogho. The availability of both players is key, as Mississippi State’s defense is allowing only 3.3 yards a rush and has generated 14 sacks. Even if Wanogho and Driscoll are in the lineup, Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat will be a handful off the edge for Auburn’s offensive front.
In addition to the injuries in the trenches, Auburn could be without running back JaTarvious Whitlow. The freshman leads the team with 326 yards and four touchdowns through five games this year, with Kam Martin (253 yards) and Shaun Shivers (151) next up on the depth chart. After being held under 100 yards in back-to-back games, it’s critical the Tigers get this area back on track. Assuming Whitlow doesn’t play, can Martin or Shivers find running room against the Bulldogs’ tough defensive front?
3. Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham
With points expected to be at a premium, Stidham could be the deciding factor for Auburn. The junior edges Fitzgerald in terms of passing ability and has passed for 963 yards and five touchdowns through the first five games of the season. Stidham is completing 63.1 percent of his passes and has not tossed an interception in each of his last two games. However, the junior tossed two picks in the loss to LSU and can’t afford to give a struggling Mississippi State offense any short fields to work with on Saturday night.
Auburn and Mississippi State expected to own two of the SEC’s top offenses in 2018, but these two teams enter Saturday night’s matchup searching for answers. However, it’s unlikely either program finds the answers to their question marks on offense this weekend, as both defenses present challenges with a standout front. With a tight game anticipated, one or two plays on offense might be enough to win. Assuming that’s the case, Stidham’s passing ability is just enough to lift Auburn to a close victory on Starkville on Saturday night.