The battle for positioning within the SEC West continues on Saturday night with Mississippi State hitting the road for a matchup at Auburn. Alabama clearly owns the top spot in the SEC West, but the question of which team is positioned to be the biggest challenger to the Crimson Tide could be answered on Saturday night in this game.
Mississippi State enters Saturday night’s game looking to get back on track. The Bulldogs soundly defeated LSU 37-7 in Week 3 but fell 31-3 at Georgia last Saturday. A win at Auburn would kick off a favorable stretch for coach Dan Mullen’s team. After a bye week, Mississippi State hosts BYU, Kentucky and UMass and hits the road for a matchup at Texas A&M before the Nov. 11 showdown against Alabama. Mullen’s offense was expected to rank near the top of the SEC this season and it hasn’t disappointed. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald will challenge for first-team All-SEC honors in directing an attack that averages 36.5 points per game. The firepower on Mississippi State’s offense was expected this preseason but concerns remained about the defense. Improving this unit was Mullen’s top priority over the offseason, and the addition of new coordinator Todd Grantham has already paid dividends (14.8 points per game in 2017).
Since a 12-2 record in his first season at Auburn, coach Gus Malzahn is just 26-17 overall and 12-13 in SEC play. Needless to say, 2017 is a critical year for Malzahn and his staff to avoid hot seat talk. The good news? So far, things appear to be going in the right direction. Auburn stumbled 14-6 at Clemson but defeated Georgia Southern 41-7 and beat Missouri 51-14. The Tigers also had a 24-10 win against Mercer, which was filled with sloppy play and something this team can’t afford to have happen in SEC games. With a three-game road trip upcoming to LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M, if Auburn wants to claim the second spot behind Alabama in the SEC West, Saturday night’s game is a must-win situation.
Auburn holds a 62-26-2 series edge over Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have won two out of the last three in this annual showdown between SEC West foes.
Mississippi State at Auburn
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 30 at 6 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Auburn -9.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald
It’s no secret the catalyst behind Mississippi State’s offense is quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior took over the starting job after Dak Prescott departed Starkville and took half of 2016 to find his rhythm within the offense. Fitzgerald ended last season by recording at least 300 total yards in four out of Mississippi State’s final six games. He spent the offseason working to develop as a passer and was sharp in the win over LSU (15 of 23 for 180 yards and two scores). However, Fitzgerald wasn’t quite as effective last Saturday against Georgia. The Bulldogs contained Fitzgerald to 83 yards through the air and just 47 on the ground. Fitzgerald is at his best when he’s handling 10-15 carries a game and getting near the 100-yard mark on the ground. While the junior has improved as a passer, opposing defenses want to keep Mississippi State’s offense in third-and-long situations.
After Fitzgerald was held in check at Georgia, can coach Dan Mullen get the offense on track against a tough Auburn defense? The Tigers have not allowed an opponent to score more than 14 points this season. Additionally, Auburn’s defense held Clemson’s dynamic attack to just 14 points, allow less than 100 rushing yards per game (97.5) and have yet to surrender a play longer than 40 yards. Coordinator Kevin Steele has plenty of speed and athleticism to rotate in the front seven to go against Fitzgerald. But the junior quarterback isn’t a one-man show on offense, as running back Aeris Williams averages 6.1 yards per carry, and the receiving corps is a solid collection of weapons, headlined by Donald Gray.
In Mississippi State’s win over LSU, this offense had success getting Fitzgerald and Williams to the perimeter and in space. Will the Bulldogs have that same type of luck against a suffocating Auburn front seven? If Mississippi State is able to get its ground game going, that will open up play-action plays for Fitzgerald. The Tigers want to keep this offense in third-and-long situations.
2. Auburn’s Passing Attack
In an effort to upgrade at quarterback and generate more consistency out of the passing attack, coach Gus Malzahn landed Jarrett Stidham as a transfer from Baylor in the 2017 signing class. Stidham was one of the top recruits in the 2015 class but left Waco after Art Briles was dismissed as the program’s head coach. With a big-time arm and a lot of untapped talent in a wide-open offense, Stidham was projected to rank among the SEC’s top quarterbacks. But after four games, Stidham is still looking for a breakout performance. Against an overmatched Mercer defense, Stidham threw for 364 yards on 32 completions. However, he did not eclipse more than 220 passing yards in matchups against Georgia Southern, Clemson and Missouri. The sophomore has just 846 yards and three passing scores so far this season but is completing 70.6 percent of his throws.
At 211.5 passing yards per game, Auburn ranks fifth among SEC teams. But there’s still room for this offense to grow over the next couple of weeks and connect on more big plays downfield. Stidham’s performance isn’t necessarily to blame for the development of the passing game. The offensive line has struggled to provide time to throw, and the receiving corps is inexperienced.
In last week’s win over Missouri, Stidham turned in a flawless performance. He connected on 13 of 17 throws for 218 yards and connected on a 57-yard bomb to Nate Craig-Myers and a 58-yard strike to Kyle Davis. Is this the week Stidham and the passing game takes a significant step forward? Mississippi State ranks eighth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and has allowed three passes of 40 yards or more. Georgia averaged 22.3 yards per completion against the Bulldogs last Saturday, so Stidham and his receivers should have opportunities to connect downfield.
In order for the passing game to take off, Auburn needs to stabilize its ground game and offensive line. However, there are signs the pieces are starting to fall into place for coordinator Chip Lindsey. With a healthy backfield and Stidham coming off a strong performance against Missouri, Mississippi State figures to have its hands full in the secondary.
3. Auburn’s Offensive Line
With three returning starters, along with the addition of two graduate transfers, the line was expected to be a strength for coach Gus Malzahn’s offense. Braden Smith was regarded as one of the nation’s top returning linemen, and seniors Darius James and Austin Golson were both projected to take a step forward in their development. Fast forward to Week 5, and the Auburn front five is still trying to find the right mix and perform up to preseason expectations. James was injured in the win over Mercer, opening the door for Jacksonville State graduate transfer Casey Dunn to start at center.
Through four contests, Auburn has allowed 16 sacks (most in the SEC) and 28 tackles for a loss. Additionally, the ground attack is averaging just 4.2 yards per play – down from 5.5 last season. Of course, it’s also worth noting the Tigers gave up over half of those 16 sacks (11) against Clemson. If that game is excluded, Auburn has surrendered just five sacks in three games.
Saturday night’s matchup against Mississippi State won’t necessarily answer all of the questions about this unit, but a good performance against a solid front seven would be a boost as the heart of SEC play approaches. The Bulldogs have forced 23 tackles for a loss and generated seven sacks so far this year. While it’s still only Week 5, the early returns on new coordinator Todd Grantham have been positive for Mississippi State. Grantham’s defense is limiting opponents to 14.8 points per game and 3.2 yards per carry. The run defense struggled (203 yards allowed) in last week’s loss to Georgia but has the necessary pieces to give Auburn’s offensive line trouble. Lineman Jeffery Simmons (2.5 sacks) is a disruptive force up front, with linebackers Dezmond Harris, Leo Lewis and Gerri Green helping to plug the gaps against the run.
Auburn’s backfield has had its share of injuries in 2017 but could be close to full strength on Saturday. Kamryn Pettway (1,224 yards last season) and Kerryon Johnson (895) have only played in two games this year. Kam Martin (210 yards in 2017) is the leading rusher but is likely to return to the No. 3 role with Pettway and Johnson closer to full strength.
Is this the week Auburn’s rushing attack takes off? That depends on how well the front five in the trenches perform against a solid Mississippi State defensive line. In addition to pass protection, the Tigers need the offensive line to mesh and open up more holes for the ground game, which will take some of the pressure off of quarterback Jarrett Stidham.
If Auburn’s defense contains Nick Fitzgerald and Aeris Williams on the ground, the final score will look a lot like last week’s game in Athens. However, the guess here is Mullen and his staff will find ways to get Fitzgerald some open running lanes on the edge, and the Bulldogs will have more success in moving the ball. However, Auburn is simply the better team. The Tigers do just enough on defense to keep Fitzgerald in check, and Stidham delivers another solid performance to help Malzahn’s team move to 4-1.