Nick Fitzgerald (above) is a key performer for the Bulldogs.
Auburn (3-2) at Mississippi State (2-2)
Series Record: Auburn leads 61-26-2
Last Meeting: (2015) Mississippi State 17-9
About the Teams:
*Coach Dan Mullen of Mississippi State is 57-37. Gus Malzahn is 39-18 all-time and 30-15 at Auburn.
•The last time out Auburn defeated Louisiana-Monroe 58-7 while Mississippi State had a bye week. The Bulldogs defeated UMass, 47-35, in their fourth game.
•Auburn is 61-26-2 vs. MSU, but is 1-3 during the last four meetings.
•Mullen coached MSU teams have been extremely competitive vs. Auburn with a 3-4 record. During the previous seven meetings, Auburn has scored 173 points and Mississippi State has scored 175.
•MSU sophomore quarterback Nick Fitzgerald has completed 60 percent of his passes for five touchdowns with only one interception. He is the No. 8 rated passer in the conference.
•Fitzgerald is also the Bulldogs’ leading rusher with 329 yards on 47 carries. Brandon Holloway is MSU’s second-leading rusher with 191 yards on 41 attempts.
•Senior Fred Ross leads the Bulldogs with 25 receptions on the season for 288 yards and four touchdowns.
•MSU's top three tacklers are linebackers with Richie Brown leading the way with 28 stops
*End A.J. Jefferson leads the conference and the Bulldogs with nine tackles for loss through four games.
•Auburn’s Sean White is the No. 3 rated passer in the conference at 153.6. He is averaging 197 yards passing per game while completing 68 percent of his throws. His primary target has been senior Tony Stevens, who has hauled in 21 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns this season.
Sean White will be facing the Bulldogs for the second time.
•AU backup quarterback John Franklin III could see action this week. Offensive Coordinator Rhett Lashlee commented this week about the possibility of scheming to utilize Franklin's explosiveness on the field. Franklin has been directly involved in 26 offensive touches, resulting in 276 yards and two touchdowns.
•Kerryon Johnson is the No. 3 rusher in the conference, averaging 103.4 yards per game on 5.1 yards per carry for the Tigers. Kamryn Pettway sat out last week, but is expected back this Saturday. He is averaging 84 yards per game at 6.5 yards per rush.
•Auburn has produced 29 plays of 20 yards or more, which is No. 2 in the conference. The Tigers will face a Bulldog defense that has surrendered 17 such plays in four games, which is No. 4 in the conference.
•Auburn leads the SEC in rushing and will face the No. 4 ranked run defense in the conference in MSU.
•Auburn has the No. 4 rated pass offense in the conference, facing a Mississippi State team ranked No. 12 in pass efficiency defense.
•During the six meetings between Malzahn and Mullen, Auburn has averaged 434 yards and 27 points per game to the Bulldog’s averages of 381 yards and 25 points.
•Malzahn’s offense at Auburn has averaged 228 yards rushing against Mississippi State.
•Mississippi State under Mullen is 6-3 in games following a bye week.
How They Match Up...
•Auburn is No. 4 in the SEC in total offense and will face an opponent ranked No. 4 in total defense. MSU is No. 7 in total offense and will face an Auburn defense ranked No. 5 in the conference.
•Auburn is scoring 28 percent more than its opponent allows while holding the opponent to 40 percent below its scoring average. Mississippi State has scored 28 percent more points than its opponent typically allows, but its defense is allowing nine percent more than its opponent’s scoring average.
•MSU is No. 2 in the conference in tackles for loss, facing an Auburn offense ranked dead-last in the conference in allowing tackles for loss.
•Auburn is No. 4 in the conference when it comes to third down defense and MSU is last in third down offense. Limit the big plays and Auburn’s defense could be big this Saturday.
•Auburn is No. 1 in the conference when it comes to first downs per game on offense and No. 3 defensively. Mississippi State is No. 6 offensively and No. 8 defensively.
Keys to Victory...
•During the last 35 meetings in this series the team with the most rushing yardage is 28-7, winning 80 percent of the time.
•During the last 35 meetings against MSU, Auburn is 19-6 when holding the Bulldogs under 150 yards rushing and 5-5 when it doesn’t.
•From 1992-2016, Auburn is 53-5 in conference play when the Tigers possess a pass efficiency rating of at least 130 and rush for at least 150 yards.
•Protecting the football is always a priority, especially with Auburn having at least one turnover during 10 of its last 11 games. Malzahn as Auburn's head coach is 20-7 in games in which the Tigers don’t lose the turnover battle and 10-8 in games they do. MSU is No. 2 in the conference in turnover margin and Auburn is currently No. 13.
•Limiting the MSU’s running game will be essential. Mullen's Bulldogs are 40-10 in games they rush for 200 yards or more and 15-26 when they don't.
What to Watch...
•Fitzgerald has accounted for 54 percent of the Bulldog’s total yardage. Limit the quarterback’s production and Auburn is victorious.
•Auburn has generated 13 plays of 30 yards or more, but faces a defense that has allowed only five big plays. The Bulldogs have produced only six plays of 30 yards or more while Auburn has surrendered 13 such plays.
•Mississippi State is No. 12 in the conference in red zone defense (touchdown percentage). The Bulldogs’ struggles could bode well for the Tigers, who have struggled to score touchdowns inside the red zone.
•Auburn has rushed for 45 percent more yardage than the opponent allows while the Tiger defense has held its opponent to 12 percent below its rushing average. Mississippi State has rushed for 21 percent more than its opponent allows while holding its opponent to 17 percent below its rushing average.
•The rushing margins and standards project Auburn to rush for 160-225 yards and for MSU to have 188-192 yards.
•Taking the scoring margins and percentages of both teams and it projects two possible scores. Auburn wins 29-17 or 34-20 for an average score of 31-19.
Both teams come into the contest with one conference loss, which means a second conference loss likely eliminates either team from the divisional race.
Auburn and MSU share one common opponent in LSU, which Auburn defeated 18-13 and Mississippi State lost to 23-20. Against Power-5 opponents Mississippi State ranks higher than Auburn in total offense and total defense. The strength of schedule is clearly in favor of Auburn, currently No. 35 nationally compared to MSU, which is ranked No. 102 by the NCAA.
Auburn is more battle tested than the Bulldogs, which should offset the Tigers playing on the road for the first time this season. With the way both offenses have performed, it likely means a low-scoring game. If it becomes a low-scoring affair, the more physical team is likely victorious.
Kamryn Pettway is a sophomore running back.
Resting Pettway last Saturday was an excellent move on the part of the Auburn coaches as he will be the focal instrument to pound out Auburn's running game. The Bulldogs are not an explosive offense, but have been highly efficient. Auburn’s experience defending mobile quarterbacks Deshaun Watson of Clemson and Trevor Knight of Texas A&M should benefit the Tigers in maintaining control over Fitzgerald. Auburn tackling well should minimize a Bulldog offense currently ranked No. 101 in generating plays of 30 yards or more.
On paper MSU appears to have the better defense, but strength of schedule tells a different story. The average ranking of Auburn’s opponents in total offense is No. 66. Mississippi State has faced an average ranking of No. 104. Auburn’s defense is holding its opponent to 40 percent below its scoring average and MSU is allowing its opponent to score nine percent more than its scoring average.
Last season each team generated three scoring drives. The Bulldogs scored two touchdowns and one field goal. Auburn was limited to three field goals in a 17-9 defeat. Mississippi State without Dak Prescott, its 2015 star quarterback, is nowhere close to being the same caliber of offense and Auburn is a better defensive team in 2016. Look for Auburn to generate five scoring drives and for Mississippi State to be limited to three.
The difference in the game could come down to red zone performance. Five scoring opportunities translate to 15-35 points for Auburn and three scoring opportunities for Mississippi State translates to 9-21 points. Taking a young team to Starkville will be a challenge for the Auburn coaching staff, in particular for an offense trying to establish its identity. For this reason I expect a conservative approach on offense based on Auburn’s confidence the defense will continue to play well. Auburn 23, Mississippi State 17
Around the Southeastern Conference:
LSU over Florida
Texas A&M over Tennessee
Vanderbilt over Kentucky
Alabama over Arkansas
Georgia over South Carolina
Season Record: 42-10