SEC college football fans sticking to their off-time passion through the end of the regular season will be rewarded on Saturday watching the Auburn Tigers collide with the Mississippi State Bulldogs in Starkville. After college football gave up on first-year MSU head coach Mike Leach back in October, The Pirate is back walking the conference's planks with swagger after strong showings in November. Coming off The Plains, embattled head coach Gus Malzahn can ill afford to end the year on a three-game losing streak.
Auburn's season on paper has been pretty straightforward, but the diehards know the 5-4 record is a precarious look at the success of the program overall. The fortuitous calls dried up in back-to-back games against No. 1 Alabama (42-13) and No. 5 Texas A&M (31-20) reigniting the War Eagle fan base against their head coach. A six-point lead late in the third quarter against A&M at home quickly turned into an 11-point loss, adding fuel to the hot-seat fire for Malzahn.
When high expectations for the 2020 season were dashed after a four-game losing streak in October, the Bulldogs (2-6) have since turned the corner. A big part of that shift has been the play of freshman quarterback Will Rogers. As Rogers has taken over for graduate transfer K.J. Costello, the Bulldogs' offense has started clicking, and the sustained drives have helped keep a defense fresh for the duration of games. Hopes are once again high in Starkville after consecutive seven-point road losses to Georgia and Ole Miss.
Auburn at Mississippi State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 12 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Auburn -6.5
When Auburn Has the Ball
It is a rarity during the 2020 season to see Auburn excel at the run and the pass in the same game. That lopsided effort was on display last weekend against the Aggies. The three-headed rushing attack led by Tank Bigsby, Shaun Shivers, and quarterback Bo Nix rolled for 196 yards on 30 carries with Nix reaching the end zone twice. But when Nix dropped back to pass, he completed just 15 of 23 attempts for 144 yards. Receivers Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz had a 28- and 24-yard reception for the top pass plays against A&M as all Tiger pass catchers were unable to consistently turn grabs into explosive gains.
Auburn came out of halftime last week hot, getting a three-yard Nix touchdown run and a 24-yard Anders Carlson field goal. But then the offense went cold, punting twice and turning the ball over on downs with 16 seconds left in the game to end the upset bid. With Mississippi State's offense picking up steam, Auburn cannot waste opportunities to put up points.
Which Bulldogs defense shows up will dictate the outcome of the game. If they can pin down the Tigers' rushing game as they did against Georgia (eight net rushing yards allowed), Auburn is in trouble. Nix has hit the 300-yard mark as a passer once this season (vs. LSU), so a Mississippi State game plan that forces the Auburn quarterback to beat the Bulldogs with his arm, may not be the worst strategy. For the season, Nix is sixth in the SEC in passing (222 ypg) and ninth in passer rating (127.5), as he's completing 62 percent of his attempts with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
When Mississippi State Has the Ball
Mike Leach's Air Raid offense does not work without an accurate quarterback who can make the quick reads. It appears Leach has found his gunslinger for the future in freshman Will Rogers. The Mississippi native was slowly brought along but by midseason Leach had put the offense in Rogers' hands. He responded with back-to-back solid showings against Georgia (336 passing yards) and Ole Miss (440), albeit in losing efforts.
If Leach was king for a day, he just might make running the football a crime. The Bulldogs are averaging a mind-melting 23.8 rushing yards per contest. In place of tailbacks running between the tackles, it is an all-out passing attack for MSU with six players logging 31 or more catches on the season. The leaders are Jaden Walley and Osirus Mitchell. Walley is setting the pace in receiving yards (462) but Mitchell is tied with Malik Heath in touchdown catches (3).
Auburn has been strong against the pass this season, limiting teams to 240 passing yards per game, but there is just no comparison when it comes to Mississippi State's pass-happy approach. The Bulldogs are averaging 55 pass attempts per game, the most in the country and 13 more than the SEC's second-place team (LSU) in this respect. The Tigers' linebackers will be put to the test in their drops seeing if they can cover in space. Auburn does have 19 sacks and 27 quarterback hurries in eight games, so expect constant pressure and blitzes on Rogers until he proves he can find the holes in the Tigers' defense.
Arkansas, LSU, and Alabama topped the 300-yard passing mark against Auburn and didn't need that many completions to get there (LSU's 28 were the most). Against Ole Miss, Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers attempted 61 passes, completing 45 of them and taking just one sack. If the Bulldogs' offense continues to perform at a high level, and the run defense gives a good showing, where will the points come from for the Tigers?
If the War Eagles are to avoid a three-game slide to end the season, Bo Nix will have to put together his best all-around effort. Can he do it?
Prediction: Mississippi State 31, Auburn 21
Podcast: CFB Rankings, Coaching Changes and Week 15 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.