With a record of 2-4 that includes victories in its last two games over Vanderbilt and Memphis, Mississippi State is hoping to win three games in a row for the first time since the 2000 season and also end a nine-game road losing streak in the SEC.
To accomplish that feat the Bulldogs will need a big game out of senior quarterback Kevin Fant, one of the SEC's top passers. This season he is averaging 257 yards per game and has thrown 12 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. His top game this season came in a 42-35 loss to Houston when he threw for 321 yards and three touchdowns on 20-29 passing. For his career the 6-2, 207-pound Fant has thrown for 5,022 career yards and has 31 touchdowns. He has thrown a touchdown pass in seven straight games, a school record.
Kevin Fant is expected to test the Auburn secondary.
When Fant loads up you can bet his first target is going to be senior split end Justin Jenkins (6-1, 210). The speedy Jenkins is the SEC's top receiver this season with 40 catches for 616 yards and seven touchdowns. With six games left he is already one catch away from moving into the Top 10 in single season receptions in Mississippi State history and one touchdown grab away from tying his personal-best of eight scores set in 2001. For his career Jenkins has 117 catches for 1,712 yards and 15 touchdowns. He is just two touchdowns shy of catching Eric Moulds for first place on the all-time chart.
Jenkins isn't the only weapon at Fant's disposal as speedy Ray Ray Bivines is a very capable complement with 20 catches for 268 yards. Also chipping in at receiver and getting the job done has been McKinley Scott (6-0, 197, Jr.), Tee Milons (5-9, 165, So.) and former Auburn quarterback recruit Omar Conner (6-0, 199, Fr.). The trio has combined to catch 33 passes for 383 yards and two touchdowns.
"They'll run the ball," Auburn Coach Tommy Tuberville said. "They are pretty much balanced. They have a good quarterback and real good receivers. They'll spread it out and run a lot of shotgun. I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot of draw plays and screen passes to slow us down on the rush."
At tight end the Bulldogs have one of the top players in the league in senior Aaron Lumpkin. The 6-4, 259-pounder and brother of former Ohio State standout Jonathan Lumpkin has 11 catches for 121 yards and two TDs this season. Both touchdown catches came in last week's victory over Memphis. It was the first time in the Sherrill era that a tight end caught two touchdowns in the same game and the first time in a quarter of a century that it has happened at Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs don't just live and die by the pass though as tailbacks Jerious Norwood (6-0, 192, So.), Fred Reid (5-9, 180, Jr.) and Nick Turner (5-10, 182, So.) have the ability to take it the distance on any carry. This season Turner and Norwood have each carried the ball 72 times with Turner going for 441 yards and six touchdowns while Norwood has added 337 yards and one touchdown. Throw in Reid's 16 carries for 86 yards and you have a very capable backfield if they can stay within striking distance in a game, which hasn't happened much this season.
Up front center Blake Jones (6-2, 290, Sr.) is the veteran of the group and also the runt of the group. The biggest of the group is true freshman Donovan Davis (6-7, 335) at right guard and right behind him is left guard Will Rogers (6-4, 326, Jr.). Rounding out of the offensive line are right tackle David Stewart (6-6, 302, Jr.) and left tackle Richard Burch (6-5, 319, So.). Sophomore Chris McNeil (6-3, 287) is the top backup at both guard and center while Davis is the backup at tackle as well as his duties at guard.
To say the Bulldogs have struggled defensively would be a huge understatement. This season they are allowing 474 yards and 34 points per game to opponents, much of which has come through the air. Starting a pair of freshmen in the secondary, Quinton Culberson (6-0, 216) at cornerback and Jeramie Johnson (6-0, 197) at safety, the Bulldogs have been torched for an average of 318 passing yards per game this season, last in the SEC.
Rounding out the secondary for the Bulldogs are cornerback Odell Bradley (5-10, 180, Sr.) and free safety Kevin Dockery (5-10, 181, So.). A bad sign for the defense is that Bradley (41 tackles, two interceptions), Dockery (40, one) and Culberson (35, zero) are all among the top five tacklers for the Bulldogs through six games.
That is because of a defensive front that has been very inconsistent this season against the run and shown little pass rush. With just eight sacks this season, the Bulldogs have allowed opposing quarterbacks the time to look downfield and hit for big plays, which they have done early and often. The leader of the group up front is powerful senior defensive end Tommy Kelly (6-6, 303). A massive player that has a habit of taking plays off, Kelly has 33 tackles this season with two sacks.
Rounding out the starting front four for the Bulldogs are freshman defensive end Deljuan Robinson (6-4, 290) at end and Lennie Day (6-3, 261, Sr.) along with Ronald Fields (6-2, 296, Jr.) at tackle. Fields has 35 tackles and one sack this season with four tackles for loss. The top reserve is sophomore defensive end Willie Evans (6-2, 263). The athletic lineman has 30 tackles and leads the team with three sacks.
The strength of the Mississippi State defense is at linebacker where senior T. J. Mawhinney (6-1, 235) is one of the top players in the SEC this season. Through six games he has 56 tackles and one caused fumble. For his career he has double-digit tackle games 15 times in his 23 starts. Mawhinney finished second on the team in tackles each of the last two seasons.
Jackie Sherrill is in his 13th season as head coach at Mississippi State. He has been a college head coach for 26 seasons.
Joining Mawhinney in the starting lineup are Jason Clark (6-1, 245, Sr.) and Marvin Byrdsong (6-2, 240, So.). Clark has 27 tackles this season to go with three tackles for losses, two fumbles caused and two pass breakups. Byrdsong has 34 tackles and two tackles for a loss. The top reserve is sophomore Clarence McDougal, who shares time with Clark at strongside linebacker. The 6-1, 215 sophomore has 38 tackles this season and has started two games.
Special teams is one area that the Bulldogs are solid with kicker Brent Smith one of the top players in the country at his position. This season the 5-10, 208-pound senior is a 5-6 in field goals with a long of 47 yards and has made all 15 extra-points. In his career Smith has made 21-26 field goal attempts with two of the misses coming outside 50 yards. Punter Robert Wallis has also been solid this season, averaging 44.3 yards this season on 22 punts.
This is a game the Tigers should have the upper hand on both sides of the ball, but Mississippi State is a dangerous team with its back to the wall. Hoping to salvage a season with a victory over a ranked Auburn team, the Bulldogs may come into this game with both barrels loaded and ready to fire.