Quarterback Chris Relf is a weapon.
War Eagle, everybody! It's time for another Auburn football opponent preview. On September 10th, the Mississippi State Bulldogs will visit Auburn in the SEC opener for both teams. Auburn will be coming off an opening tune-up against Utah State. The Bulldogs open a couple of days earlier, with a Thursday night matchup against the Memphis Tigers. Neither team is expected to be greatly tested by their opening cupcakes, but the Bulldogs do enjoy a couple of extra days to prepare.
It's been a tumultuous off-season for the Bulldogs. Nationally, every time Cam Newton and Auburn football were mentioned, the story would end with Mississippi State boosters' involvement. I'm sure it's not the sort of publicity those folks want. There was criticism of coach Dan Mullen's recruiting class. The Texas Longhorns poached defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who was the most successful SEC coach at defending the Auburn offense in 2010. Headlines aside, expect Mississippi State to bring a veteran, hungry team to Auburn. It will be a stern test for the defending national champions, who've lost most of the two-deep that won the title.
To stop the bleeding on defense, coach Mullen hired Geoff Collins from Florida International to co-coordinate with defensive line coach Chris Wilson. Expect the Bulldogs to continue to blitz, playing deep zone behind it. The Bulldogs take a graduation hit in the front seven, which helps an Auburn team featuring three new offensive line starters. Gone are monster defensive end Pernell McPhee, as well as linebackers Chris White, K. J. Wright, and Emanuel Gatling. Mississippi State returns a veteran secondary, and should be able to press when it's needed. The key for the Bulldog defense is to keep Auburn from establishing the running game, and putting the focus on a green quarterback.
On special teams, the Bulldogs return kicker Derek DePasquale, but lose solid punter Heath Hutchins. Chad Bumphis is an experienced punt returner, and there are options on the kick return team. The Bulldogs were fair on kickoff distance and coverage last season, and expect to be similar this season. On punt coverage, the Bulldogs only gave up 5.5 yards per return, and climbed back into last year's Auburn game by capitalizing on a muffed punt.
The Bulldogs are a scary team on offense. When the passing game clicks, it's a unit that can put up big numbers. I've always admired the offenses of coordinator Les Koening, who I think is underrated. He disguises what the offense is going to do as well as anyone in the country. This is a Bulldog team that returns a lot of their key skill players, including quarterback Chris Relf and team-record-setting tailback Vic Ballard. All three receivers return as well. Where the Bulldogs may have problems is on the offensive line. The line has been a concern since in the end of the Jackie Sherrill era, and the Bulldogs finally seemed to have turned the corner last season. Graduation claimed center J. C. Brignone and left tackle Derek Sherrod. A pair of seniors have been tapped to fill those slots, and if the line is able to jell, this could be one of the most potent offenses in the SEC.
Unit Matchups after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. MSU offensive line: Easily the biggest surprise of last season's MSU game was that Auburn held the Bulldogs to 117 rushing yards, and 246 overall. Auburn's defensive line was disruptive, and stuffed the inside runs. The Tigers need a great game from true sophomore tackles Jeffery Whitaker and Kenneth Carter to repeat that feat. There should be an interesting matchup on the left side, where a new Bulldog starter must deal with either Dee Ford or Corey Lemonier, both of whom have been dangerous ends for the Tigers. That starting job will go to either senior James Carmon or redshirt freshman Blaine Clausell. The new Bulldog center will be senior Quentin Saulsberry. Rounding out the Bulldog lineup are sophomore guard Gabe Jackson, junior guard Tobias Smith, and senior right tackle Addison Lawrence. Advantage: Even.
Auburn linebackers vs. MSU backs: This may be one of Auburn's toughest test of the year. The Tigers will go with true sophomore Jake Holland in the middle, and part-time starters Darren Bates, Eltoro Freeman and Jonathan Evans rotating on the flanks. MSU counters with a trio of solid runners, senior Vic Ballard, sophomore LaDarius Perkins, and senior Robert Elliot. That group combined for 1819 yards and 22 touchdowns last season. Add in the fact quarterback Chris Relf is a big solid runner, and you've got a tough assignment for the Auburn linebackers. Advantage: MSU.
Auburn corners vs. MSU receivers: Auburn fared surprisingly well against MSU's receivers last season, but dropped balls had a lot to do with it. Auburn should be able to rotate coverage with at least 4 different fast, physical corners this fall. There's plenty of talent there for the Tigers, but only T'Sharvan Bell has extensive experience. The Bulldogs will return 4 talented juniors at receiver: Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark, Chris Smith and Brandon Heavens. None of these guys is big, but they all have speed. With the experience edge, it's Advantage: MSU.
Auburn safeties vs. MSU secondary receivers and quarterback: The difference between this year and the past four or five is that we know who Auburn's starting safeties are coming out of spring, and neither has any health problems. Senior Neiko Thorpe moved over from cornerback and had a successful spring, and sophomore Demetruce McNeal is one of the fastest, hardest-hitting members of the team. The worry is that those two have not played a lot of snaps at safety in the SEC. Generally speaking, locating legitimate secondary threats for the Bulldogs is as easy as seeing which wide receiver lines up in the slot. No Bulldog tight end or fullback caught more than three passes last season, and even starting tailback Vic Ballard only caught ten. At quarterback, senior Chris Relf is the number three returning SEC starter in pass efficiency. Coupled with his running ability, he's probably the most complete quarterback in the league. There is depth at MSU, also. Sophomore Tyler Russell and redshirt freshman Dylan Farve had impressive springs. In addition, blue chip signee Dak Prescott enrolled early and practiced this spring. Advantage: MSU.
Punting: Auburn will field sophomore Steven Clark, who had a several shaky starts last fall. If the A-Day game is any indication, Clark will boast a much stronger leg this fall. For the Bulldogs, sophomore Baker Swedenburg will likely be the new Bulldog starter at punter. In the Bulldog spring game, he hit three punts for a 50.3 average. His shortest punt went 44 yards. The big one was a 63 yard rainmaker. Both teams were capable in coverage last year, with Auburn giving up 4.5 yards per return, and MSU giving up 5.5. Junior Bulldog return man Chad Bumphis gives MSU experience, but his 8.6 yard per return average isn't terribly impressive. It is far better than Auburn's Quindarius Carr, who managed only 5.7 with a number of dropped punts. It's quite possible that redshirt freshman Trovon Reed will be fielding punts for Auburn this fall. Advantage: MSU.
Kickoffs: Auburn sophomore Cody Parkey was used about a third of the time last season, and he averaged 63.2 yards per kickoff. Auburn was second in the SEC last season in kick coverage, helped by a nasty coverage team. Junior Derek DePasquale kicked off a few times for the Bulldogs last season, and had a 59.7 yard average. The Bulldogs finished 10th in the league in kick coverage. Auburn junior Onterio McCalebb figures to be the primary kick returner. McCalebb averaged 28.4 yards per return in 2010. MSU's Chad Bumphis is the most experienced returner back for the Bulldogs, and he averaged only 17.9 yards on 6 returns. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Sophomore Cody Parkey takes over as the Auburn kicker. His only college experience is a couple of extra points kicked late in the Homecoming game. Parkey did hit three field goals on A-Day longer than 40 yards, and is said to have had a good spring. MSU junior Derek DePasquale was deadly accurate last season, hitting 10 of 12 field goals, and all of his extra points. Advantage: MSU.
Auburn offensive line vs. MSU defensive line: Like last season, this is a critical matchup. The MSU line forced the worst Auburn offensive outing of the season. Inside, Auburn came out of spring with sophomore Blake Burgess starting at center, with senior Jared Cooper and junior John Sullen at the guard slots. Only Sullen has significant front-line playing time. Tackles will be seniors Brandon Mosley and A. J. Greene. Last season in Starkville, Greene was making his second start, and left tackle Lee Ziemba left the game with an injury midway through. That left Mosley and Greene out there, and it was pretty ugly for Auburn against MSU's ends. Mosley improved by leaps and bounds as the season went on, while Greene was lost in game three to a gruesome foot/ankle injury. Greene is back to take Ziemba's left tackle spot, and he looked good on A-Day, probably the most consistent of all of the linemen. At least Greene and Mosley have both been under fire in the SEC, and know what to expect. The Bulldog tackles, juniors Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox, are veteran, solid players. They are the fireplugs of a defense that only gave up 3.6 yards per rush. Senior Sean Ferguson is a good returning defensive end starter. The other side is still a toss-up between juniors Trevor Stigers and Shane McCardell. Frankly, the biggest relief here is that Auburn does not have to face departed end Pernell McPhee, who wreaked havoc last fall. Advantage: Even.
Auburn backs vs. MSU linebackers: The Tigers return the one-two punch of Michael Dyer and Onterrio McCalebb at running back, and will look to the incoming signing class to fill out the depth chart. The Bulldogs had to replace all three starting linebackers. Coming out of spring drills, sophomore Chris Hughes, senior Brandon Wilson, and junior Cameron Lawrence are the new Bulldog starters. Wilson and Lawrence have experience, but Hughes has little. The Malzhan offense is not kind to young linebackers. It's very easy to bite on fakes and be out of position, or hesitate and be run over. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. MSU corners: Auburn will rely heavily on returning veteran Emory Blake, and intriguing prospects DeAngelo Benton and Quindarius Carr. Mississippi State returns junior Corey Broomfield, who'll almost certainly be matched up on Blake. Broomfield had 3 interceptions, and 6 pass breakups last season. On the other side, the Bulldogs will field junior Jonathan Banks, who had 3 interceptions and 7 pass breakups. Banks is a tall corner, at 6'2". He'll likely be matched up on Auburn's taller guys like DeAngelo Benton. Advantage: MSU.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. MSU safeties: Auburn's most notable returning secondary receiver is tight end/h-back Phillip Lutzenkirchen, who was a clutch go-to guy last year. About half of his catches resulted in touchdowns. The Tigers also have options from the speedy Trovon Reed to the 290 pound H-Back LaDarius Phillips. Auburn is still in the midst of a quarterback race, but junior Barrett Trotter seems to have the upper hand at this point. Regardless of whether Trotter or sophomore Clint Moseley start, Auburn will field a quarterback with three year's worth of experience practicing the Gus Malzhan offensive system. MSU will field a pair of good senior safeties, Charles Mitchell and Wade Bonner. As a starter, Mitchell had 93 tackles last season. Bonner is a veteran player also. The real question is size and speed. Auburn can mismatch both guys pretty well underneath. Auburn found out last year, though, you are not beating MSU deep. Advantage: Even.
Common sense says that Auburn has won nine of the last ten from the Bulldogs, and will win again. Common sense is overrated in football. The stronger, more experienced team usually wins, as long as they don't lose the turnover battle. Some folks believe that home field advantage is worth seven or more points, and Auburn is at home in this one. I'll buy that with a young quarterback, but this is not Chris Relf's first rodeo. The only places Auburn appears to have clear advantages is with Dyer and McCalebb against MSU's linebackers, and I think we have the edge on kickoffs. Everywhere else, the Bulldogs appear to be equal or superior. The key for the Tigers is going to be moving the chains and not giving the ball away.
Auburn's first four games of the season are going to be tough, but it's a chance for our young players to learn rapidly against a trio of bowl teams. It's a near-certainty that Auburn will be a lot better team at the end of November than in September, and it's important that all of us fans keep that in mind.
Prediction: The Tigers move the ball, and dominate time of possession against the Bulldogs. Youthful mistakes happen though, and Auburn loses 21-16.