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Mississippi State: A Must Win for Auburn?

Three Games in and Nine to Go

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The game Saturday started off . . . poorly.

Auburn's official first half highlight reel includes the opening kickoff, one reverse and two excellent punts.  That's a slow news day.

Not shown on this highlight reel was Leonard Fournette's nearly 200 yards of rushing.

In the second half, Auburn's offense showed signs of life.  Jeremy Johnson ran like his job was on the line and managed one long touchdown run.  His running opened up more in the passing game.  Johnson went 5 for 7 for 64 yards and 2 TDs in the second half.  These numbers may not seem like much but it felt like the whole team was awake and trying for the first time this season.

Kerryon Johnson showed why the coaches are so high on him in an exciting kickoff return.  The defense was too worn out to show improvement but the fight was there.In some ways, this game reminded Auburn fans of the 2013 game where Auburn was blown out of the soggy stadium by halftime but fought back the whole game.  That game became the catalyst for a remarkable season as Auburn caught fire and went to the BCS Title Game.  Auburn fans were proud of the team after that game but feel uncertain about the team now.  Why?

1. In 2013, our expectations were lower.

I've said it before and I'll continue to say it, expectations are the thief of joy.  In 2013, Auburn fans were hoping for six wins and a bowl.  When Auburn started 3-0 and showed fight against LSU, we started thinking that we could win 7-8 games which would have been considered a very successful first year for Malzahn.

In 2015, Auburn fans expected 10-12 wins and an SEC title.  Jacksonville State adjusted those expectations downward.  LSU seemed to confirm that a 7-8 win season could be Auburn's ceiling this year.

2. In 2013, we left LSU with an established offensive identity.

When we last left Baton Rouge, we knew what Auburn would do on offense for the rest of the season.  Nick Marshall and Tre Mason were going to run the ball all day long.  We knew they could do that on a high level and that we would be favored to win 8 games and should be competitive even in the long-shot games.  Despite the offensive highlights, we don't have the same certainty in 2015.  Is Peyton Barber going to be the work horse Malzahn has always relied on in the past or will it stay QB by committee?  What does our run/pass balance look like moving forward?  The only thing certain is that the staff has decided that JJ isn't such a lights out passer that he can't take a few hits in the running game.  The rest remains to be seen.

3. In 2013, we left LSU with an established defensive identity.

Like on offense, we knew what we had on defense when we left Baton Rouge.  We had a great edge rush and an opportunistic secondary.  Like the offense, the defense simplified its playbook and focused on doing a few things well for the rest of the year.  The defense continued to improve throughout 2013 but it was never great.

This year, we don't even know who is going to be available to play.  Until we get Carl Lawson healthy and the freshmen get some more playing time, the defense is a big upside-down question mark (upside down because the English language doesn't have adequate punctuation to express my surprise and disbelief at the bad luck and poor execution our defense has shown since Lawson was injured).

So where does this leave us?

Like The Playmaker, I'm not worried about the program or the team.  The team hasn't quit and there's no indication that anything is structurally wrong inside the program.  Malzahn has put together a fantastic staff and our freshmen are playing well.  We've had some bad luck with injuries and we haven't gotten the production we hoped for out of any of our preseason skill position starters on offense.  I am, however, deeply concerned about this season.  Let's look at our remaining schedule and divide it into categories:

Auburn's Remaining Schedule
Very Likely Losses Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss
Likely Losses Texas A&M
Toss Ups Miss State
Likely Wins Arkansas, Kentucky
Very Likely Wins Idaho, San Jose State

All of this is based on what we know as of today, September 22, 2015.  This Auburn team could get hot as the freshmen get more playing time like last year's Texas A&M team or the 2006 Georgia team.  They could fall inexplicably off the table like the 2008 Auburn team.  They could stay steady like the 2003 Auburn team.  But as of today, this is my best effort at how Auburn would do against our remaining opponents based on what we've seen on the field.

If we beat Miss State, Auburn would be favored to finish with seven wins.  This would be an extremely disappointing season but it would get us to some bowl that isn't located in Shreveport or Birmingham.  Beating Miss State also gives us the right to dream bigger.  If we beat State, winning against Arkansas and Kentucky feels much more certain.  It's possible that the offense finds itself, gets hot, and we win one or more of the games that I have marked down as losses based on our performance to date and we go to a good bowl.

If Auburn loses to Miss State, we have to beat both Arkansas AND Kentucky on the road (or steal a win in College Station) just to be bowl eligible.  Both Kentucky and Arkansas are struggling and I like our chances but I will feel a lot better about life if Auburn beats Miss State.

Miss State isn't a must win.  But if we lose, almost every game from here on out becomes a must win to salvage something out of this season.