NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 30: Mississippi State Bulldogs cheerleaders celebrate after a touchdown against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during play at the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl at LP Field on December 30, 2011 in Nashville, Tennessee. Mississippi State won 23-17.
This week, I'm speaking with Mark Thomas of For Whom the Cowbell Tolls, SB Nation's Mississippi State blog. We discuss State's loss of Chris Relf, the Bulldog defense and just how big the Auburn game is for State fans and players. For more Auburn-Mississippi State game coverage, check out SB Nation's game page.
Quarterback Chris Relf and running back Vick Ballard are gone. I know Tyler Russell, a more of a traditional pocket passer who has seen playing time before, is stepping in for Relf. Who is the favorite to step up and replace Ballard? How different will the State offense look this year with a brand new backfield?
Prior to our opener against Jackson State I would have most likely told you the guy to replace Vick Ballard was Nick Griffin. Now, that guy may be Derrick Milton, the redshirt freshman out of Pineville, Louisiana. Don't get me wrong, LaDarius Perkins is our #1 guy, but he is more of a scat back type than a between the tackles type back like Ballard was. I think you'll see a good compliment this year of Perkins mixed with Milton and/or Griffin, and probably some Josh Robinson sprinkled in. State does have questions marks in spots this year, but RB is not one of them. Unless the question is how can we get them all on the field?
Offensively, I expect things to have a different feel this year for sure. Chris Relf was a freight train with cleats and the ability to occasionally pass. Dan Mullen used Relf to compliment his skill set, which was running the football in the option game. This year, like you pointed out, State trots out a QB with a completely different skill set. Tyler Russell isn't completely a Jared Lorenzen type runner, but he is certainly not a Relf, Denard Robinson, or even (sniffle) Cam Newton type runner either. Russell's talent rests in his arm, and with senior WR's all over the field to go with our (finally!) possession receiver in Joe Morrow, I would expect to see State throw the ball around more this year. When we do run it, expect to see more handoffs, counters, and pitches out of the shotgun rather than what you saw last year with the spread option. Although Mullen's offense is built better to suit a guy like Relf (and he'll move back towards the traditional form of the offense when Dak Prescott takes over), but he also knows he has to tailor it specifically to fit what he is working with at the QB position. Russell is too good of a passer to have him running option, and Mullen knows that.
Wide receiver Chad Bumphis returns for what seems like his 100th year of eligibility. He's a known playmaker that will draw plenty of attention from the Auburn defense, but who are some offensive players the Auburn D may not be ready for?
A guy that in State circles is known as the wildcard for this offense is Jameon Lewis. Now, Jameon hasn't necessarily come into that role by producing a TON of big offensive plays, but the talent and ability is there. He's definitely an x-factor type guy. He's built like Bumphis but a bit more compact and shifty, and if he gets the ball he is definitely capable of doing some special things (Brent Musburger voice). I would also watch out for Joe Morrow. He's a young guy (RFr.), but his talent and size has State fans excited to see what he can do this year.
Last year, Auburn scored 41 points against State, but the Tigers' offense looks much different this season. Has the Bulldog defense improved, and does it match up well against Auburn's pro-style attack?
I'm kind of holding my breath on that one. Last year Auburn's offense went up and down the field on us with ease, and that really surprised me. Not that I didn't think you guys had talent on offense, it's just I thought the game in general would be a bit more low scoring. For whatever reason we are of the mindset to play our CB's about 10 yards off the ball, and you guys as well as LSU took advantage of it pretty regularly last year, and we never changed it up one bit, which just aggravates the mess out of many of us. I know Kiehl Frazier didn't have the best game of his career last week, but he still worries me. That and the speed sweep, Dyer ripped us a new one on that last season. Although I would be very surprised to see 41 points again against our defense this year, Auburn having some success wouldn't surprise me either. But, I do feel like our secondary is very good, and could give a young QB in Frazier quite a hard time Saturday.
What's the biggest thing about Auburn that worries you? What might Auburn have or do that State would really struggle with?
I think the speed sweep scares me as well as the quick slants, due to our bend don't break mentality on defense. To be completely honest though the biggest thing that scares me about Auburn is the mental block we seem to have in beating you guys. Not that you guys have not deserved to win the last several matchups, but it always seems like we are so close to victory against y'all but just can not get over that final hump to seize a victory. In both of the last games, we had a chance late to either win or sent it to overtime and came up short. So I guess what worries me the most about Auburn is Auburn, and can we get past the hold you guys seem to have on us.
I did, several years ago, get over the worry that I would never be as fashionable as Gene Chizik, though. That's just never gonna happen for me.
This game has become pretty big for folks in Starkville recently. Has it become the biggest game on State's schedule? Do the players and coaches care about the Auburn game as much as the fans do?
I think with its position on our schedule and the string of recent close losses I think this has absolutely become one of if not the biggest game of the season for us. Last year State fell short by 6 inches, then had to turn around after such a tough loss and play LSU 5 days later at home. I'm not saying State beats LSU if they beat Auburn by any means, but I think it kind of directs the season in either an upturn or downturn. Now, that wasn't the case in 2010 as we won 9 games despite losing to Auburn, but still it seems it could have been a jumping off point last year. I am fairly sure the players want this one badly as well. Chad Bumphis talked about crying in the locker room last year after that loss, it was just tough on everyone. And I think for Mullen, he may play it off like another game, but he wants it just as bad too. Not to mention a win against Auburn would get the "has not beaten an SEC West opponent outside of Ole Miss" monkey off his back as well. I think there are a lot of people who are just ready to see us beat Auburn, fans, players, and coaches alike.
How do you think the game will play out, and how confident are you in a Bulldog win?
I think the conditions are as good as they'll ever be for State to win. We're at home, against an evenly matched opponent and our players are motivated to win this game. They know how close we've come in the last two matchups, and I really think they want this one badly. I think the game probably goes more like the 2010 version rather than 2011 with it being in the teens scoring wise, and I think a TD wins it for us (/crosses fingers). I'm gonna go with 21-17, Bulldogs.