What To Watch: Mississippi State at Auburn

Auburn, Ala.--Vanderbilt Coach Woody Widenhofer tried a fake punt and a fake field goal last week vs. Auburn to try and give his Commodores an edge over the Tigers.

The first fake worked, but the other didn't and Widenhofer's team dropped to 0-2 in league play.

If the Commodores, a team who won't challenge for league supremacy, will pull out those stunts against the Tigers, then there is no telling what Mississippi State Coach Jackie Sherrill will try to do as his Bulldogs, a preseason pick by many to capture the West, look to escape from the SEC Western Division cellar with a win over Auburn Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Mississippi State has won four straight in its series with Auburn, but the Bulldogs have not dominated the Tigers and their abundance of fortune in the series might catch up to them Saturday. The Bulldogs have gotten off to a shaky start this season dropping their first two league contests to South Carolina and Florida and if they want to remain in the hunt for a trip to Atlanta then a victory over the Tigers is essential. The urgency of the game gives the Bulldogs a reason to pull out anything and everything in the their playbook to make it possible.

And to what measures Sherrill will go in order to secure the victory is one of many things to watch when the Bulldogs and Tigers square off in "The Jungle" at 6 p.m. in a nationally-televised game on ESPN 2.

A Difference Maker

One area where the Bulldogs will try to gain a distinct edge over the Tigers is on special teams. Sherrill coaches the Bulldogs' special teams and his units are notorious for making a difference in the outcome of ball games whether its blocking a kick or executing a successful fake. Mississippi State got its go-ahead touchdown in their season-opener win over Memphis on a blocked punt which was returned six yards by Nathan Jackson for a TD. Auburn Coach Tommy Tuberville is so concerned with special teams that he has benched punt return specialist Joe Walkins in favor of one of two juniors Roderick Hood or Marcel Willis. Walkins, a redshirt freshman, muffed a return vs. Vanderbilt which led to a two-play, 21-yard Commodore TD drive which tied the game at 14 midway through the third quarter.

Keep in mind that Tuberville wants to beat the Bulldogs for more reasons than getting his team off to a 3-0 start in conference. The special teams standoff might turn into a "whatever you can do, I can do better contest" between the two coaches who have been less than cordial going back to Tuberville's days as a head coach at Ole Miss. Auburn kicker Damon Duval has been consistent when it comes to place kicking and punting, but the junior has had his ups and downs when called on to execute a fake. The Tigers were stuffed on a fake field goal attempt at Syracuse earlier this season, but that doesn't mean Tuberville won't have something in store for the Bulldogs this Saturday. Duval has rushed for a touchdown and thrown for another during his career on successful fakes. For the Bulldogs, poor place kicking might give Sherrill even more reason to try something fancy. Mississippi State kicker John Michael Marlin is just one of four on field goal attempts this season.

What It Boils Down To

Like so many games in the SEC, unless you are playing Florida, the winner is likely to be the team that runs the ball better. This game should be no different. Mississippi State has a solid combination of Dicenzo Miller, who is expected back after missing last week's debacle at Florida with a high-ankle sprain, and Daunte Walker. Auburn counters with a trio of backs who have shown signs of brilliance at different times early in the season. Redshirt freshman Ronnie Brown is expected back in the lineup after missing the Vanderbilt game with quad and shoulder injuries. Brown is the Tiger's leading rusher this season with 198 yards on 42 carries. He along with sophomore Casinious Moore and freshman Carnell Williams will look to solve a Bulldog rush defense which has allowed 100 yards rushing in just eight of its last 16 contests. Under Sherrill, Mississippi State is 56-14-1 when it outrushes the opponent and just 12-36-1 when it does not. Miller and crew outgained the Tigers 135 to 18 last season in the Bulldogs' 17-10 victory. Both teams' offenses should be licking their chops after watching each team's rush defense give up big chunks of yardage in its last two games. Mississippi State lost those two games surrendering 238 yards to South Carolina and 133 to Florida. The Tigers gave up 226 yards in a loss to Syracuse and 188 in a victory at Vanderbilt.

The Pride Factor

Which team wants it the most? That could be the deciding factor in this contest. The Bulldogs are coming off an embarrassing loss to Florida and are in jeopardy of seeing their season go up in smoke after losing two straight conference games. The Bulldog seniors have never lost to Auburn beating the Tigers in four straight contests dating back to 1997. On the flip side, the Tiger seniors have never beaten Mississippi State and they have been overly vocal about that in preparation geared toward the Bulldogs. Another streak the Tigers have going is a nine-game home winning streak at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Auburn has not lost at home since Alabama beat the Tigers 28-17 in 1999.

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