Many people thought a 2-1 start would be possible for the 2015 Auburn Tigers, but no one expected the way in which Auburn has gotten to this point. After another embarrassing loss in Death Valley, Auburn fans have a new starting quarterback to support and so many unanswered questions.
I keep thinking that surely a roster with players who experienced 2012 and a coaching staff with Will Muschamp and Gus Malzahn won't allow the program to sink to such depths again. But the performance in Baton Rouge certainly brought back those painful memories of irrelevance and hopelessness.
This is a huge swing game against Mississippi State. Lose it (especially in blowout fashion) and even the most ardent, positive supporters will begin to come to grips with a lost season full of expectations. But if Auburn can somehow manage to win, the schedule sets up nicely to build momentum and regain some confidence.
Sean White will get his shot to start the game as the signal caller. Many wondered why he didn't play last week, but I like that Gus now has a week to prepare him for a home game and install a game plan that works for his skill set. His presence will also amp up the crowd for Jordan Hare's first night game of the season, at least early on.
How will having White in the backfield affect the offense? We can all have our opinions, but it's hard to say until we see him on the field against an SEC defense. Will an attempt to protect Sean lead to more dependence on the run game? Peyton Barber has shown an ability to carry a heavy load. Can we get Duke Williams, Jason Smith, and other playmakers involved?
One thing the offense hasn't done very well this year is control the ball. It's hard to do a lot of things offensively when you're going three and out or turning the ball over. Getting into (and then converting) manageable third downs will be key. Will we see pace and the hurry up no huddle?
Defensively, who's going to play the way Will Muschamp expects? Personnel changes have been hinted at. To me, the issues start up front. Limited pass rush and a struggle to contain outside runs have consistently burned this defense. Justin Garrett returns this week. The team's tackling looked decent through two games but then was exposed by Leonard Fournette. To be fair, I expect him to do that to other teams as well.
Gus and Will seemingly making changes points to the important nature of this game. I think they see this as perhaps the best opportunity to begin to correct the issues of recent weeks. Standing in their way is a desperate Mississippi State team, who also lost to LSU. The loser is likely out of the SEC West.
The Bulldogs hopes center around Dak Prescott. But perhaps it's the supporting cast around him that will have to take steps forward to give State a chance to compete with the top teams in the SEC West. After looking lifeless for most of the LSU game, they nearly rallied and stole the game.
De'Runnya Wilson is the kind of receiver that has torched Auburn in past years. He's probably their biggest proven weapon outside of Prescott. Defensively, Manny Diaz is back as defensive coordinator. He did a good job against Malzahn's offense in 2010. He's got stud defensive lineman Chris Jones at his disposal.
State looked average beating Southern Miss on the road and blew out Northwestern State last week. This will be their first real road test, but they have a quarterback with loads of experience and confidence.
Here are some keys to an Auburn victory:
1. Quick Start - Who can step up and make a play early? No one did in Baton Rouge and the game was over soon after it started. I anticipate the Auburn crowd being willing to loudly support this team, but they have to stay in the game early and show each other that this game will be different.
2. Over 200 yards rushing - Establish the run and give Peyton Barber and the other backs a chance to ease the burden on Sean White. Is this the game the offensive line begins to gel? Will we see Jason Smith in the Wildcat or at QB for a few snaps?
3. Force turnovers - So much focus has been on the offense giving the ball away. But the defense has forced only one turnover in the last two games. Coaches have said previously their goal is three per game. A few big plays by the defense, like in the Louisville game, would go a long way towards stabilizing the team.
Hoping for the best on Saturday night, War Eagle everyone.