Despite not beating Auburn since 2007, the Bulldogs have come close the past two seasons, including last year's 41-34 loss that featured a goal-line stand by the Tigers to preserve the lead. Safety Ryan Smith was the hero for the Tigers, tackling MSU quarterback Chris Relf on the one-yard line as time expired to seal the victory.
Relf is gone and so is Mississippi State's primary ball carrier from last season, Vick Ballard, who rushed for 135 yards and 21 carries. Relf threw for 195 yards and rushed for 106 more on 27 carries as the Bulldogs produced their high point total in games vs. Auburn dating back to 1998.
The projected starting running back for MSU in 2012 is LaDarius Perkins, who played a small amount in last season's contest. On 11 carries he rushed for 78 yards and a score against the Tigers.
Tyler Russell is expected to take over the quarterback duty. Despite not seeing the field against Auburn in 2011, the junior played in nine games, completing 69-129 passes for 1,034 and eight TDs. Russell will have experienced help with all three MSU starting receivers from 2011--Chris Smith, Arceto Clark and Chad Bumphis--returning.
A week after nearly falling in the 2011 season opener to Utah State and only having 86 yards rushing as a team, Auburn's Michael Dyer exploded for 150 yards and two TDs on 18 carries, leading the Tigers in rushing against MSU. Dyer won't be back for the rematch, but the Tigers return senior tailback Onterio McCalebb, who contributed 68 yards on 11 carries vs. the Bulldogs. Tailback Tre Mason added 14 yards on three carries, but contributed in a bigger way with a kickoff return for a touchdown.
Cameron Lawrence should be a key performer this season for the Bulldogs.
Mississippi State's defense held Auburn to 381 yards in 2011, 150 yards fewer than the Bulldogs recorded. MSU is expected to have another strong defense in 2012, including returning starting linebacker Cameron Lawrence, who led the Bulldogs in three categories with 14 tackles, 3 1/2 tackles for a loss and a sack against Auburn a year ago.
Despite the high-scoring game last season, Auburn's past two trips to Starkville have been defensive battles, ending 3-2 and 17-14 both in the Tigers' favor. With a strong defensive front of upperclassmen returning for Auburn, Mullen may need to look farther down the schedule for a win against an SEC West team not named Ole Miss in 2012.
Key Players to Replace: QB Chris Relf threw for 1,212 yards, 10 TDs and nine interceptions on 114-190 passing last season as the starter, also finishing third in rushing with 375 yards and two TDs on 123 attempts. Vick Ballard rushed 193 times for a team-leading 1,189 yards and 10 TDs. CB Charles Mitchell recorded 95 tackles in 2011, second best on the team, and a forced fumble.
LaDarius Perkins runs a drill with Mississippi State running backs coach Greg Knox yelling instructions.
All-Star Candidates: Running back Ladarius Perkins (87 attempts, 452 yards, 2 TDs); wide receiver Chris Smith (35 receptions, 330 yards, 2 TDs); wide receiver Arceto Clark (30 receptions, 442 yards, 4 TDs); Chad Bumphis (25 receptions, 339 yards, 3 TDs); linebacker Cameron Lawrence (123 tackles, 6 TFL, 2 INT, 2 forced fumbles); linebacker Brandon Wilson (94 tackles, 2 1/2 TFL); defensive back Johnthan Banks (71 tackles, 8 TFL, 3 sacks, 5 INT, 3 forced fumbles)
Series Results:Auburn leads 60-23-2
Sept. 1--Jackson State at Mississippi State
Sept. 8--Auburn at Mississippi State
Sept. 15--Mississippi State at Troy
Sept. 22--South Alabama at Mississippi State
Oct. 6--Mississippi State at Kentucky
Oct. 13--Tennessee at Mississippi State
Oct. 20--Middle Tennessee State at Mississippi State
Oct. 27--Mississippi State at Alabama
Nov. 3--Texas A&M at Mississippi State
Nov. 10--Mississippi State at LSU
Nov. 17--Arkansas at Mississippi State
Nov. 24--Mississippi State at Ole Miss
Texas A&M at Mississippi State-Texas A&M, which enters the SEC West a season after going 7-6 overall in the Big VII, appears to be MSU's best chance at Mullen's first victory over a West team other than Ole Miss. The Aggies will have to replace QB Ryan Tannehill and RB Cyrus Gray, but do have big-time receiver Ryan Swope back.
While the Bulldogs travel to Tuscaloosa the week before facing the Aggies and to Baton Rouge the week after, MSU has a slight advantage through scheduling. Texas A&M plays host to LSU and travels to Auburn before playing the Bulldogs, then travels to Alabama afterward in four straight weeks. That grind of that schedule may be too much for the Aggies to overcome.
Dan Mullen's Bulldogs finished 7-6 overall last season and were 2-6 in SEC games.
Mississippi State at Ole Miss-Mullen has a perfect 3-0 record against Ole Miss as coach of the Bulldogs and it is likely his record will remain unblemished in 2012. Ole Miss looks like a team that will struggle to compete with other SEC opponents this year.
Worth Noting: Artificial noisemakers were banned at SEC games in 1974, which made Mississippi State's tradition of bringing and ringing cowbells against league rules. An exception was made for the Bulldogs in 2010, allowing fans to ring their bells during pregame activities, at halftime, during timeouts and after the Bulldogs score. The penalty for a violation of the rules is supposed to be $50,000 per game, but so far, despite some inappropriate bell ringing, the Bulldogs have avoided fines.
The Challenge For Auburn: Starkville may not be as tough of an atmosphere for visiting teams as some other SEC venues, but the Bulldogs have a history of playing much tougher at home and should make Auburn work to escape Davis Wade Stadium with a victory. Mississippi State can look past season-opening opponent Jackson State to concentrate on the Tigers while Auburn does not have the same luxury with a tough matchup scheduled for Sept. 1st vs. Clemson.