War Eagle, everybody! It's now time to preview Auburn's September 8th matchup against the Mississippi State Bulldogs. For most of the last ten years, these two teams have squared off early in the season. Auburn has won nine of the last ten. What's certain is that the loser can forget contending for the division title, and work on struggling toward a bowl bid. Neither team did as well as they had hoped last season, and I think both fan bases are expecting more wins in 2012.
Auburn coach Gene Chizik and MSU coach Dan Mullen were both hired in 2009, and will be in their 4th season this year. The window to blame previous administrations is nearly closed, as both coaches will have 4 recruiting classes in camp this fall. On paper, Auburn has recruited far better, averaging in the national top ten. The Bulldogs tend to finish somewhere around 30th. We'll get another test of how important recruiting is in this game this fall. In Dan Mullen's 4th season, he is still looking for his first win over an SEC West team not named "Ole Miss."
The Tigers have really struggled the past two years against the Bulldogs. In fact, it seemed from this chair that Auburn was out-played in many ways in both games, but made just a few less mistakes with the game on the line. For the Bulldogs in 2010, it was dropped balls. In 2011, it was strange offensive decisions on the goal line late. Prior to this game, Auburn will have played on the big stage in Atlanta against Clemson. MSU opens at home against Jackson State. I suppose Memphis hasn't been enough of an opening challenge for them lately!
Despite losing Chris Relf and Vic Ballard to graduation, Mississippi State appears to be loaded with dangerous playmakers on offense. The real question is consistency. Can the Bulldogs reduce the number of dropped passes, missed throws, and turnovers? There's little doubt that speedy Bulldog players like Chad Bumphis, Jameon Lewis, and Ladarious Perkins will have a bushel of long-range scores. The big question for the Bulldog offense is the line. Senior Tobias Smith has been there, but he's still rehabbing a knee injury. The depth chart in the spring consisted of a redshirt freshman, experienced junior Gabe Jackson, and three sophomores. In the Bulldog spring game, veteran junior quarterback Tyler Russell hit only 24 of 43 passes and was sacked 5 times. That's not a terrible amount of sacks, particularly if it's touch football like many spring games. Still, most who watched that game remarked on the pass rush. The 55 percent completion percentage is more worrying.
On defense, the Bulldogs lost six starters to graduation, and frankly had difficulty tackling in the spring game. The real surprise of the spring was true freshman tackle Quay Evans, who came up with three sacks in the spring game. He may start this fall, which gives one an idea of the issues facing the defensive line. There's experience returning, but not a big-time guy like Fletcher Cox has been the past few seasons in Starkville. The back seven has capable cornerbacks in junior Corey Broomfield and senior Jonathan Banks, but there are a bunch of new starters otherwise. Banks also is the top punt returner, and is taking snaps at wide receiver.
MSU fielded surprisingly good special teams in 2012, with good coverage on both kicks and punts. Jonathan Banks is one of the better punt return guys coming into 2012 in the SEC, and Jameon Lewis and Ladarius Perkins can take a kickoff to the house. Junior punter Baker Swedenburg was solid last season, but the Bulldogs are still mulling over the kicker position. The incumbents weren't good in the spring game. Junior Brian Egan had a short field goal blocked, and missed two extra points. Egin was the kickoff specialist last season, and averaged the 6 yard line. The additional 5 yards on kickoffs this year should help.
Unit Matchups after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. MSU offensive line: A front four of junior Dee Ford, junior Jeffery Whitaker, sophomore Gabe Wright, and junior Corey Lemonier should be pretty special, and Auburn is at least two deep behind the starters. While Mississippi State should be decent at guard with Tobias Smith and Gabe Jackson, the other three starters are question marks. Starters coming out of spring are sophomore Dylan Day at center, and sophomores Blaine Causell and Damien Robinson at tackle. Day and Causell have experience, which should help. Auburn should be able to mismatch this group on the edge. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. MSU backs: Auburn should have some combination of Darren Bates, Jake Holland, Kris Frost and Jonathan Evans starting for this one. Junior MSU tailback Ladarious Perkins is wicked fast, but it remains to be seen if he can be an every down tailback. Providing depth are redshirt freshmen Nick Griffin and Josh Robinson. Advantage: Even.
Auburn corners vs. MSU receivers: This was an area where Auburn was torched last season, but much of it was due to a non-existent pass rush. This season, Auburn has the depth to keep corners fresh. Sophomore Robensen Therezie and junior Chris Davis have the speed to match up with anyone, and there's fast, talented guys two deep behind them. MSU has a pretty talented group of receivers, but for one thing: they have trouble catching the ball. They get open, and have speed. The three seniors Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark and Chris Smith have been playing for years. They got a serious challenge this past spring from sophomore Jameon Lewis and redshirt freshman Joe Morrow. Lewis may be the fastest player on the Bulldog Roster. It's strength against strength, in this matchup. Advantage: Even.
Auburn safeties vs. MSU secondary receivers and quarterback: Right now, sophomore Erique Florence and junior Demetruce McNeil are penciled in as Auburn starters, but expect sophomore Ryan Smith to play a lot, and also walk-on Trent Fisher. Auburn's young here, and the safeties in vanGorder's system have to make a lot of defensive calls. You'll usually see one of the receivers in the section above line up in the slot, and they will be trouble for a slower safety to cover one on one. The Bulldogs return sophomore tight end Malcomb Johnson and senior fullback Sylvester Hemphill. Johnson had 11 catches in 2011, and Hemphill had 1. Junior Bulldog quarterback Tyler Russell has had a good bit of experience the past two seasons, throwing for 1034 yards and 8 touchdowns off the bench last season. He hit 69 of 129 passes last season, for a pretty dangerous 8.0 yards per pass. Bulldog receivers don't always catch his balls, but when they do, things happen down the field. Advantage: MSU.
Punting: Auburn returns Ray Guy finalist Steven Clark, who hit the ball well again this spring. Clark tends toward towering balls that can't be returned. Auburn punted 72 times last season, and only allowed 10 returns for 62 yards. Clark pinned 33 of those punts, nearly half, inside the opponent's 20. Mississippi State returns junior Baker Swedenburg, who had a solid 41.8 yard average last season, with 19 pinned inside the 20. MSU gave up just 5.0 yards per return. On returns, Jonathan Banks and Chad Bumphis spearheaded a return group that averaged over 11 yards, and took two to the house. Auburn's Quan Bray averaged just 7.4 yards per return. Advantage: MSU.
Kickoffs: Auburn junior kicker Cody Parkey was a weapon last season on kickoffs, hammering 38 touchbacks on 66 kickoffs. With the tee spot moved from the 30 to the 35 yard line this season, Parkey could improve that ratio, unless the coaches decide more sky-kicks are in order. Auburn's spring game didn't provide any clues, there. MSU's Brian Egan was pedestrian, averaging the 6 yard line, with 6 touchbacks on 60 kicks. MSU was better in coverage, giving up only 20.0 yards per return, to Auburn's 22.1. The Bulldogs have the dangerous Ladarius Perkins and Jameon Lewis returning kicks, but too often those guys were having to dodge tackles before they were even to the ten yard line. MSU averaged only 18.5 yards per return. Auburn utilized several guys over the course of the season. Trey Mason averaged 26.4, Onterio McCalebb averaged 30.7, and Quan Bray averaged 24.2. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Auburn junior Cody Parkey was 13 of 18 on field goal kicks last season, while MSU's junior Brian Egan was 0 of 1 on a short one, last season. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. MSU defensive line: Auburn's starting offensive line for A-Day from left to right was redshirt freshman Greg Robinson, senior John Sullen, sophomore Reese Dismukes, sophomore Chad Slade, and true freshman Patrick Miller. I'll be shocked if Miller is still starting in the Georgia Dome, but stranger things have happened. The most likely result is for Slade to move to right tackle, and either sophomore Eric Mack or redshirt freshman Christian Westerman to start at right guard. In any event, Auburn is very young, if talented on the o-line. The good news is that most of these guys were bloodied early and often last season. The Bulldogs will have difficulty filling the shoes left by departed NFL star Fletcher Cox, but there are some guys who've stepped up this spring. Senior tackle Josh Boyd has been there for a while in the middle. Your starting lineup should be Boyd and senior Devin Jones in the middle, and sophomore Kaleb Eulls and JUCO transfer junior Denico Autry on the edges. MSU has been good at times on the D-line, but consistency has been an issue over the past few years. Advantage: Even.
Auburn backs vs. MSU linebackers: Speed back Onterio McCalebb has been a factor for 3 years in the Auburn offense, and should be again. There was a battle in the spring for the "between the tackles" back, between sophomores Tre Mason and Corey Grant. Sophomore Mike Blakely provided elusiveness in the A-Day game. Junior All-American transfer from Illinois Jay Prosch has been a one-man wrecking crew at fullback. Although there's returning experience in the Bulldog linebacking corps, they've had to fill a hole in the middle. The starting lineup from strong side over coming out of spring is senior Cameron Lawrence, sophomore Ferlando Bohanna, and junior Chris Hughes. Lawrence led the team with 123 tackles last season. Bohanna and Hughes combined for 10. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. MSU corners: uburn senior Emory Blake is a proven weapon, but he spent much of last season banged up. A second outside receiver has yet to step up, although Auburn has talented candidates. The speedy sophomore Trovon Reed has the most explosiveness, if he can manage to stay healthy. Senior Travante Stallworth looked good in the A-Day game, and has a good bit of game experience. MSU's duo of senior Jonathan Banks and junior Corey Broomfield combined last season for 130 tackles and 19 passes defended. Advantage: MSU.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. MSU safeties: All eyes will be on the Auburn quarterback, at this point likely to be sophomore Khiel Frazier. Frazier looked good this spring, and is an athletic guy. There are worse places than Starkville to be making one's first SEC start. Ask Clint Mosley. The chief Auburn secondary receiver is senior tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen, who has had a great Auburn career thus far. Lutz will likely be a high NFL draft pick in 2013. Senior Louis Watson and sophomore Jay Hughes are penciled in as Bulldog starters post-spring. Those two combined for only 20 tackles last season. Advantage: Auburn.
With the cowbells clanking and yet another inexperienced starting quarterback for Auburn, this game will be another difficult SEC road opener. Both teams have some questions on defense, and the hope is that Blake/McCalebb/Reed/Bray and the Auburn big play contingent can duke it out with the Bumphis/Clark/Perkins/Smith group. Bulldogs have the edge in quarterback experience, but Auburn seems to have an edge in the trenches. Auburn also seems to have an overall edge in special teams, with the Bulldog uncertainty in the kicking game.
When all is said and done, football is a game that is won in the trenches, and Auburn should prove on a hot September day to be more talented and deeper there than the Bulldogs. It's also important to note that Auburn has not lost in Starkville this in this century! I think coach Gene Chizik and his staff will have the team ready. It's certainly an important game. Should the Tigers start the season 0-2, with LSU and Arkansas looming in games 4 and 5, 2012 could be a disaster on the field. It's absolutely imperative that Auburn play well in Starkville, and use a big win on the road as a springboard back into title contention in the SEC West.
Prediction: Auburn's defensive line takes over, and MSU can't mount the late game comeback. The Bulldogs gash the Tigers at times, but Auburn prevails 31-23.