Life in the SEC West heats up in Week 5 when a resurgent Mississippi State (3-1, 1-0 SEC) squad travels to unbeaten No. 7 Auburn (4-0, 1-0) in what promises to be a physical divisional showdown. Revenge will be on the minds of the Tigers seeking to avenge a 23-9 road loss to the Bulldogs from a year ago that knocked them out of the AP top 10.
After a defensive collapse in a Week 3 loss to Kansas State (31-24), Mississippi State rebounded last week for a 28-13 statement win against the visiting Kentucky Wildcats. The quandary under center for State appears to be solved with head coach Joe Moorhead giving the start to true freshman Garrett Shrader. The nod turned into a 17-of-22 performance for 180 yards with a team-high 125 yards on the ground on 11 carries, earning SEC Freshman of the Week honors for Shrader. The Bulldogs defense showed up big on third downs allowing the Wildcats to convert just one of 12 such opportunities.
The Aggies held on last week for their second win this season over a ranked team downing then-No. 17 Texas A&M 28-20 in College Station. The Tigers held a 21-3 lead going into the fourth quarter behind a strong ground game that churned out 193 yards, but allowed 17 A&M points to turn what looked like a runway win into a closely contested ball game.
Mississippi State at Auburn
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 28 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Auburn -10
When Mississippi State Has the Ball
Since the Southern Miss game, quarterbacks Tommy Stevens and Garrett Shrader have taken turns running the Bulldogs offense. Against Kentucky, it was all Shrader guiding the team to 421 yards of total offense overcoming an interception and a fumble for the win. Shrader was efficient and State was able to convert on 6-of-10 third-down tries. Auburn is a beast of a different nature on defense than what State has seen so far this season, holding teams to 317 yards per game.
What separates MSU from other teams is their ground attack led by Kylin Hill. Hill is tops in the SEC in rushing yards (551) and is tied for most scores on the ground (5). As a unit, the team is averaging 228 rushing yards per game. Shrader's legs were a difference-maker against Kentucky; can he do enough against Auburn to post similar results? State enters the game with some ailing offensive linemen. Left guard Dareuan Parker and centers Darryl Williams and Evans Wilkerson have undefined lower-body injuries that could hamper their status on Saturday. This is the in-game matchup that matters most, the Bulldogs rushing offense against the Tigers rush defense. Auburn is one of the best in the nation limiting teams to 90 rushing yards per contest.
If there is a weakness in Auburn's defense, it is against the pas as the Tigers have surrendered 227 yards per game through the air. Throwing the ball is not a strength for MSU so far this season. Osirus Mitchell is the top target for State with 17 receptions for 244 yards and three of the team's five touchdown catches. The Tigers have not been hawkish with the ball in the air, seeing only Jeremiah Dinson pick off a pass this season. But the team as a whole has 17 pass breakups and 11 sacks, led by Tyron Truesdell (3).
When Auburn Has the Ball
On paper, Auburn has one of the best rushing offenses in the nation clawing for 260 yards per game. But the Tigers averaged just 4.6 yards per carry on the road last week with a big chunk of that coming on a 57-yard touchdown run by receiver Anthony Schwartz. JaTarvious Whitlow, the SEC’s second-leading rusher (82 att., 408 yds., 4 TDs), never got it going and was held to 67 yards on 18 totes. State did a solid job holding Kentucky to 154 yards on the ground last week. Auburn's ability to control the game on the ground is their key to beating the Bulldogs, but can the Tigers do it?
College football fans rarely get to see two true freshmen quarterbacks squaring off against one another in the SEC. Drilling down, the game pits four-star recruit Garrett Shrader against five-star Bo Nix. So early in the careers for both, neither dual-threat signal-caller has had that big breakout game yet. Nix threw the game-winner against Oregon but his top statistical game was arguably against Kent State, when he completed 12-of-16 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown. Both Nix and backup Joey Gatewood threw touchdown passes against Texas A&M. Can Nix come through with his best all-around performance at home against a solid MSU pass defense?
Thanks to Auburn's ground game, the offense is usually dealing with manageable third-down situations and has been able to convert 48 percent of them. MSU is eighth in the country in getting off the field, as the Bulldogs boast a 24.4 percent conversion rate on third down. On special teams, Anders Carlson has been a reliable kicker for Auburn, converting 5-of-6 field goal attempts with a long of 45 yards. MSU’s field goal team hasn't had as much success with Jordan Lawless and Jace Christmann combining to go 3-for-5 thus far.
This should be an exciting game for SEC and college football fans alike. Both squads are similar in more ways than one depending on the run game on offense with a bend but don't break approach on defense. Which green quarterback can make plays when called upon?
Since 2008, this series has been streaky in a win one, lose one, win two, lose two way with the winner dominating more times than not and the home team winning six of the last eight. Mississippi State's last road win against a top-10 SEC team came in 2014 (LSU). Comparing the schedules, Auburn is more battle-tested and gets the home-field advantage.
Prediction: Auburn 31, Mississippi State 21
— 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.