Every year, we are taught the same lesson as college football fans. Expect the unexpected. Don't try to simply use logic to pick games and predict outcomes. Last week was our first lesson of 2014.
I always laugh at ESPN and other media folks who try to pick the season's games before it plays out. I get that we all are bored in the offseason and need chatter, but it's ridiculous. Every team's schedule changes as the season unfolds, in the sense that certain games expected to be monumental end up average and certain overlooked games wind up looming large.
Auburn in 2014 is no different. South Carolina was considered potentially Auburn's toughest opponent. Now, it can be argued they are the easiest remaining conference team on the schedule. And all of the sudden this week, Auburn travels to Starkville in a matchup no one saw coming.
I'm no expert on Mississippi State football history, but I can safely say it's the biggest game State has played in my lifetime (since 1989). State controls it's own destiny to every desirable location. They've proven to be a worthy opponent by defeating LSU in Tiger Stadium at night and following that up with an impressive victory over Texas A&M. The Bulldogs began the season as a talented team, but now they have belief which makes them even more dangerous.
When I watch Dak Prescott play, I see some similarities to our own Cam Newton - though I do believe Cam is/was better. He's a very dangerous dual threat in a productive system. He's the unquestioned leader of the team. He elevates the play of those around him. He's near impossible to hold to zero and negative plays in the running game.
State has capable playmakers in running back Josh Robinson and receivers De'Runnya Wilson and Jameon Lewis. Chris Jones, a likely future first round NFL draft pick, leads a talented defensive front that gave Kevin Sumlin's offense a lot to handle in the first half of last week's game.
The real question to be answered Saturday is whether State is ready to take that next step that Dan Mullen has talked so often about. Their stated goal is to get to Atlanta for the first time since 1998. A win over Auburn would clear them of half of the SEC West hurdles on their schedule.
This is a huge swing game in the SEC West, where the winner jumps into the drivers seat for a little while longer and the loser basically ends up two games behind.
If Auburn can find a way to win this game, they will be 6-0 heading to the bye week controlling their own destiny. A loss will force them most likely to win out and get plenty of help from Mississippi State's future opponents.
The Tigers arguably played their most complete football game in a decade last Saturday night against LSU. They have tons of momentum and the current players are used to the big stage. Their experience on the road against Kansas State will undoubtedly help them. Though they are a slight favorite, they will be able to enter the game with an "us against the world" mentality as the entire college football landscape focuses on the historic day in Starkville.
Gus Malzahn clearly is getting a handle on what our offense will morph into as the season progresses. To me, this is where we truly learn about this much improved Auburn defense. Giving up 14 points (as is their season average) is probably asking too much. I'll take anything in the 20's against this high-powered Mississippi State offense.
On offense, we are realizing that our biggest playmakers are on the outside at wide receiver. State's secondary can be a weakness, and I expect Marshall to be able to find some big plays down the field. Auburn will need to run more effectively than it did in Manhattan, Kansas a few weeks ago.
I fully expect a four quarter game. I doubted Mississippi State, but their win over A&M convinced me that this team is for real. However, I also think if both teams play their best, Auburn comes out victorious. Here's what I'll be watching for from my couch in Tennessee:
- Weather the storm - In a game like this with emotions running high, it's important to have a short memory and survive the first quarter on the road. Auburn crippled LSU last week with an explosive first quarter, and it's important that Auburn gets comfortable within the game and settles in quickly on both sides of the ball.
- Limit Prescott's Explosive Runs - Auburn did this masterfully against Jake Waters of Kansas State. Can they repeat their discipline in rush lanes and solid tackling against Dak? That will go a long way towards how successful Auburn's defense can be.
- Offensive Line (In Pass Protection) - Usually we are talking about the offensive line opening up holes for the running game. While that's important, Nick needs time to find our athletic receivers downfield against State's secondary. The Mississippi State defensive line is arguably the best Auburn will face all year, and Auburn needs to answer the challenge by keeping the Auburn offense even with or ahead of the down and distance.