Auburn’s schedule shook out weirdly this season, as the Tigers have zero home games after today until November. That means they’ll have to make this evening count when Mississippi State comes into town.
Last year, the Bulldogs rolled past Auburn in Starkville in a frustrating game. Auburn missed a wide open touchdown pass on a trick play, fumbled another touchdown away at the goal line (resulting in a touchback), and got screwed after Mississippi State was awarded a touchdown at the goal line when Nick Fitzgerald was clearly short. Even with those moments, Auburn trailed 16-9 late and only lost after a clinching touchdown run by Fitzgerald late. To be fair, Kevin Steele got out-schemed by Joe Moorhead, and the Auburn defense gave up 349 rushing yards, while only gaining 90 on the ground themselves.
if you watched Gus Malzahn’s press conference earlier this week, he remembers that loss, and so does the rest of the team. Auburn was pushed around and manhandled, and those memories have allowed the Tigers to focus on the task at hand tonight.
Mississippi State’s an old rival, and we add another chapter tonight at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Auburn and Mississippi State have played for over a century, and the Bulldogs were one of the teams that the Tigers played every season. It’s been a fairly lopsided matchup over the years, with Auburn owning a 60-29-3 edge in the series. Since Gus Malzahn arrived at Auburn as offensive coordinator in 2009, it’s been a more competitive series, but that first meeting between Malzahn and Dan Mullen was when we really got the first glimpse into the recent Auburn offensive attack.
That was the game where we saw ESPN fooled by ball fakes and misdirection as the Tigers clowned the Bulldogs 49-24. The next season, Auburn’s game against Mississippi State was one of the closer affairs in a national championship season, and in 2011 Ryan Smith stuffed Chris Relf at the goal line as time expired. Drama continued in 2013 when Gus returned to the Plains as Nick Marshall hit C.J. Uzomah in the final seconds for the win, and 2014 saw a #2 vs #3 matchup that MSU won.
THINGS TO WATCH TONIGHT: It’s a different affair this year than it was last year. In 2018, Mississippi State boasted some of the best defensive talent in the country. Jeffrey Simmons, Montez Sweat, and others headlined one of the nation’s top units. They’re gone now. Instead, it’s Auburn with the superstars on that side of the ball. Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson have won the last three SEC Defensive Linemen of the Week awards, and Tyrone Truesdell has turned from walk-on into leading sacker on the defensive line.
Offensively, Mississippi State might have a similar style of quarterback under center if Garrett Shrader plays, but word is that Tommy Stevens might be able to play tonight. Shrader’s the freshman signal-caller who’s played well, but a hostile environment might turn him into a wide-eyed kid. What MSU is going to lean on tonight is their running back Kylin Hill, who may very well be the best back in the SEC. At the very least, he’s leading the way in yardage.
What’s important to note is that the Bulldogs don’t do some of the important things that they did last year. The rushing defense isn’t great, they don’t stop third downs all that well, and the offensive line has allowed a little more penetration than they did last year. The passing game’s only real threat it Osirus Mitchell, who’s caught 17 passes for 244 yards and 3 touchdowns (the next receiver in line has just 7 catches).
For Auburn, the improvements have been tangible. Obviously, an undefeated season is great, but you could see the cracks in each successive win. Against Oregon, we played a terrible first quarter, so slow starts were a concern. The next week, we couldn’t generate anything in the rushing attack against Tulane, and it felt like you had to discount the successes against Kent State because of the quality of the competition.
Last week, however, Auburn was able to make some marked improvement in many areas. The offensive line opened holes against a pretty good A&M defense, and Auburn stopped what had been a pretty solid Aggie attack. Bo Nix didn’t get rattled at all in a tough road environment, and Auburn did a much better job of spreading the ball around, especially in the running game. With Boobee Whitlow not getting many carries early, he was fresh late and led the clinching drive in the fourth quarter.
Tonight, things ought to play right into the Tigers’ hands. First of all, Mississippi State’s strength in the running game should be nullified by Auburn’s defensive prowess. It would take an unprecedented improvement in the passing game for Mississippi State to threaten the Tigers in that regard, and while Nix hasn’t thrown for many yards, he’s been super close to hitting some of the killshots. He missed three deep balls last week that could’ve gone for touchdowns, so maybe a home crowd will allow him to settle down a bit to hit an open receiver. It can’t be overstated how important it is to have a mostly-healthy Anthony Schwartz and Seth Williams on the field at the same time.
Overall, this is a game that many are saying Auburn is overlooking because of the potential top ten showdown in Gainesville next week. If you pay any attention whatsoever to Auburn, you know that this team was embarrassed by last year’s outcome, and they want to make amends tonight.