Is it me or does it seem the entire mindset around the Auburn football program has changed since last Saturday's opening day win over Louisiana Tech? Who would have thought a win over a WAC team would be such a momentum changer for a program?
On the flip side, the same thing is being felt in Starkville this week. Miss State's win over Jackson State was certainly expected, but the margin of victory was not. Like Auburn, the Bulldogs struggled offensively last season under Sylvester Croom and never put up 45 points during his tenure. While nearly hitting the half century mark against JSU hardly sounds like a feat, for Miss State fans it was Christmas in September.
Using this as the backdrop, both teams enter Saturday's game at Jordan-Hare Stadium sky high and optimistic that things will be different this season. Auburn coach Gene Chizik enters the game a 14 ½ point favorite. Here are some things to watch for Saturday night:
Will Auburn's much heralded freshmen wide receivers have an impact on the game? Terrell Zachery and Mario Fannin stole the show last week. For Auburn to be successful they'll need support from newcomers DeAngelo Benton and Emory Blake. With the opening game jitters behind them, look for both to have catches Saturday.
Can Auburn's defense continue to adjust to being on the field longer due to Gus Malzahn's fast moving offense? The risk with an up tempo offense is that your defense has to be in great shape. Last week, the off-season conditioning program paid huge dividends in the second half.
Malzahn wants things moving even quicker this week. Despite putting up 556 yards of offense, he's still not happy with the tempo. "It really wasn't (fast enough)," said Malzahn. "That's one of our advantages if we can get to the pace we're looking for.
"We weren't really close at times to what we need. Hopefully we'll improve on that this week. We want to snap the football as fast as we can and keep the hammer down and not give them time to look up."
Malzahn says one way to keep things moving is to curb the celebrations at the end of a play. He also preaches the importance of handing the ball to the closest referee once the play is over. Leaving the ball on the ground or tossing it eats up valuable time says the coach. "It shouldn't be (that hard)," said Malzahn. "We've been coaching that since we've been here. We're very precise on our expectations. We've got to do a better job in those areas."
What impact will Eric Smith's return have on the Auburn offense? He has jumped out of Chizik's dog house quickly after his much ballyhooed run-in with the law last month. Coaches have made it clear he will see action against MSU. With Ben Tate and Onterio McCalebb firmly set at tailback, look for Smith to get a lot looks at H-back, helping out Mario Fannin.
Can Auburn's defensive secondary continue to improve against the Florida Lite version of the spread offense? Urban Meyer is quick to give credit to Mullen for helping build the Florida offense into the juggernaut it is today. While it's unlikely anyone will confuse State's offense with the Gators, look for Mullen to give Auburn's defense a lot of different looks that will test the secondary often.
Speaking on The Paul Finebaum radio show yesterday, ESPN on-air personality Kirk Herbstreit said he expects Auburn to begin the year 6-1 and be one of the year's biggest surprises. Herbstreit has been steadfast in his support for Chizik since the day he was hired at Auburn. Let's hope he's right.