The rugged SEC West doesn’t provide any breaks on the schedule for any of the division’s seven teams, and Saturday night’s matchup between Auburn and Mississippi State is already shaping up to be a critical game for both teams.
Preseason expectations were high for the Tigers, but coach Gus Malzahn’s team is 2-1 and reeling from a blowout defeat at LSU last Saturday. Even though Auburn is 2-1, this team was a play or two away from losing to Jacksonville State and didn’t play particularly well in the opener against Louisville. Malzahn’s high-powered offense hasn’t performed up to its normal level, so the Tigers will make a quarterback change this Saturday. Jeremy Johnson was benched in favor of redshirt freshman Sean White.
Related: SEC Week 4 Predictions
For Mississippi State, the Bulldogs are quietly 2-1 but lost its SEC opener to LSU 21-19 on Sept. 12. Even though coach Dan Mullen’s team won 10 games last season, Mississippi State was picked by most to finish last in the SEC West. A win over Auburn would help the Bulldogs in their quest to contend in this division once again.
Auburn holds a 61-25-2 overall edge in the all-time series against Mississippi State. However, the Bulldogs won last year’s meeting 38-23 in Starkville.
Mississippi State at Auburn
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Auburn -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Auburn QB Sean White
After Jeremy Johnson’s struggles against LSU, coach Gus Malzahn and coordinator Rhett Lashlee decided to make a change at quarterback. Johnson was hyped as a preseason Heisman contender, but the junior seems to be dealing with a lack of confidence and struggled with turnovers (six interceptions on 72 pass attempts). Will White provide a spark for this offense? The redshirt freshman has yet to take a snap in his college career but was regarded as a four-star prospect in the 2014 signing class. The priorities for White seem simple for his first start: Take care of the ball and produce a few big plays that have been missing from the offense so far. Mississippi State’s defense is limiting opponents to 4.9 yards per play through the first three games, and coordinator Manny Diaz could throw a lot at the redshirt freshman in his first start.
2. Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott
While Auburn is breaking in a new quarterback, Mississippi State has one of the nation’s top passers on its side. Dak Prescott has started 23 games for the Bulldogs and earned first-team All-SEC honors last season. Even though some of the pieces around Prescott were a concern this preseason, having a senior quarterback can alleviate some of those issues. Auburn’s secondary has allowed only one play of 30 yards or more in 2015, but this defense has had its share of issues stopping mobile quarterbacks. Prescott is averaging eight carries a game, and the senior could push that total closer to 10 on Saturday night.
3. Turnovers and the Supporting Cast
Turnovers are always an important part of any game, but this area is of particular concern on Saturday night with Mississippi State and Auburn both ranked near the bottom of the SEC in turnover margin. Can the Tigers avoid the errors that have plagued this offense in 2015? And considering this is White’s first start for Auburn, Mississippi State cannot afford to give the redshirt freshman any easy opportunities for points. In addition to the turnover battle, the supporting cast for both quarterbacks should be a deciding factor in this game. Mississippi State has produced more big plays on offense so far this season and has a deeper group of skill players. Can Auburn get 100 yards from running back Peyton Barber? Is this the week receiver Duke Williams breaks out?
This one could go either way. Is Auburn capable of getting its offense back on track with a quarterback change? If White struggles, is Jeremy Johnson ready to ignite the offense off the bench? On defense, the Tigers are going to miss standout end Carl Lawson for the third consecutive game. Mississippi State has a clear advantage at quarterback, and its defense has allowed only three plays of 30 yards or more so far this season. Not much separates these two teams, but the guess here is Auburn rallies behind White at home for a close win.