Two SEC West teams suffering disappointing losses last weekend face off on Saturday with the Mississippi State Bulldogs hitting the road to take on the Auburn Tigers.
The division is probably locked up at this point with Alabama sitting atop the standings at 5-1, but second place is more than attainable for both the Mississippi State (5-4, 3-3 SEC) and Auburn (6-3, 3-2) currently looking up at Texas A&M, which sits just one game ahead in the division. Better conference standing means better bowl location — and more money — at the end of the season, so there is plenty of incentive for both teams this weekend.
This will be the 95th all-time meeting between the two SEC West rivals (Auburn leads 67-25-2), with the Tigers winning four of the last five matchups.
Mississippi State at No. 17 Auburn
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 13 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Auburn -5.5
When Mississippi State Has the Ball
It's funny to think that there was a legitimate quarterback competition this past offseason for Mississippi State with some thinking that Will Rogers could potentially lose his grip on the starting job. The sophomore quarterback has played some outstanding football this season, completing 75 percent of his passes with 23 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. Rogers ranks second in the country, averaging 368 yards per game through the air and has thrown four touchdowns in two of the last three games. Against Arkansas last week, Rogers pushed the ball downfield a bit more than he’s accustomed to with an aDOT (average depth of target) at 7.6 yards, which was his highest mark of the season. Auburn is 57th in the country at defending the pass but has not allowed a single passing touchdown in the last two weeks.
As has been the case for years under Mike Leach, his team ranks dead last in the country in run play percentage on offense at a 27.5 percent clip, but his running backs are featured heavily in the passing game. After leading the team in receptions, a year ago, sophomore Jo’quavious Marks is second in both targets (70) and catches (63). Former California transfer Makai Polk has been a welcomed addition to the receiving corps, tied for seventh in the country with 71 catches, while true freshman Rara Thomas has begun to emerge the last three games with four touchdowns in that span.
When Auburn Has the Ball
Nothing went right offensively last week against the Aggies, as Auburn was held to a season-low three points and 226 yards of offense. Normally one of the better teams in the SEC at third-down efficiency, the Tigers were just 4-of-16 on the day and converted just one of three attempts on fourth down. The lone positive on offense for Auburn was the play of sophomore running back Tank Bigsby, who rushed for 69 yards on 15 attempts (4.6 ypc) and has looked healthy the last two weeks following the bye after not being 100 percent earlier in the year. Normally stout against the run, fielding a top-10 defense for much of the year, Mississippi State was gashed last week by Arkansas for a season-high 202 yards and two scores on the ground.
Quarterback Bo Nix had been playing some of his best ball of the season leading up to last Saturday, completing over 70 percent of his throws against Arkansas and Ole Miss, but was harassed all game long against A&M, sacked four times en route to one of his worst performances of the season. Nix should have more time to throw this week with an experienced offensive line ahead of him, as the Bulldogs are just 12th out of 14 SEC teams in sacks (19). Nix would also be aided with better performances out of his wide receivers this week since that group combined for just five receptions against the Aggies. Tight ends and running backs accounted for 15 of the 20 catches.
The last five matchups between Mississippi State and Auburn have all been decided by at least two touchdowns. This figures to be a closer contest, as there is really no particular advantage, either offensively or defensively, between the two teams. The Bulldogs have played well of late, rattling off two straight wins before losing a tightly-contested battle on the road at Arkansas last week, and Will Rogers has been lights out of late at the quarterback position. We’ll go with the home team here in Auburn in a narrow victory, but expect this one to come down to the last few possessions.
Prediction: Auburn 27, Mississippi State 24
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— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.