Auburn, Ala.--A win is a win, as they say, but a nail biter against Mississippi State like Auburn's victory over Kansas State won't be a good sign for the Tigers this Saturday in its SEC opener. Obviously a follow-up loss after the South Florida game wouldn't be a good sign either against 1-1 Mississippi State.
Looking to find any sort of offensive identity before a brutal stretch of games starting with a Sept. 29 visit to The Swamp, Auburn is still searching for offensive signs of life and it needs to find firepower quickly.
Where else to start than in the running game? Auburn has outrushed Mississippi State in the last six games in the series, and the Tigers have won all of those contests. Before that, the Bulldogs controlled the ground and the series, winning four straight over Auburn from 1997-2000. Not since Terry Bowden's 1996 Tigers threw for 429 yards in Starkville has the team with less rushing yards won this contest.
The Bulldogs allowed 198 yards rushing in an opening night 45-0 loss to LSU, but rebounded to give up just 44 in a 38-17 victory over Tulane. Junior college transfer Dominic Douglas leads the Bulldogs in tackles thus far, and fellow linebackers Jamar Chaney and Gabe O'Neal are also solid.
It'll be their job to contain Mario Fannin and Ben Tate, and it'll be on Fannin to hold onto the ball this week. The Tigers scored 17 points on the three first-half possessions against South Florida that he was in the game, but Fannin put the ball on the turf on both of his second half touches.
If the Tigers' running game falters, that's where the Bulldogs could have their opportunity. Aside from the game-winning touchdown drive against K-State, quarterback Brandon Cox has been ineffective in 2007 when called upon. He has also committed five turnovers in two games. The Bulldogs haven't scored a single point on Auburn in quarters one, two or three since 2003, and even though it doesn't appear that the MSU offense is a threat to the Auburn defense, a repeat of five Tiger turnovers would almost surely lead to points this week.
Auburn offensive coordinator Al Borges said during the week that he will be looking for new ways to get the ball to his playmakers. Robert Dunn has been getting action at the 'Z' position this week.
Turnovers haven't been a problem for just Auburn this year. State quarterback Michael Henig completed 11 passes to Bulldogs and six to LSU defenders in the opener. He added another interception against Tulane, but finished the day with solid numbers against the Green Wave completing 65 percent of his passes for 223 yards.
The contest with the Bulldogs comes at a good time for the Tigers, who are reeling from their loss to South Florida a week ago. Still sick over the loss to the Bulls, a heavy dose of cowbell from the visitors' section of Jordan-Hare will be a quick reminder that SEC play is here and the Tigers are 0-0 in the league.
Playing an SEC opponent may be the Tigers' bread and water equivalent for a hangover, but the Bulldogs could have an emotional edge with 15 players from the state of Alabama, all of whom Auburn hardly recruited. Most notably are Henig and defensive end Titus Brown.
Brown is State's version of Quentin Groves--a pass rushing force off the edge. Cox's lack of production thus far appears to be more mental than physical, and if Brown can get to the Auburn QB early and often then he may show the same rattled form that contributed to Auburn dropping the game ball South Florida. However, going against Ian Campbell in week one and George Selvie in week two, Auburn's young offensive line has shown signs of progress against strong pass rushers.
State tailback Anthony Dixon is a load at 240 pounds, but if he has a tough time grinding out yards it could be another ugly day for the Bulldog offense. He carried 13 for just 29 yards against LSU and the Tigers were able to load up on Henig. Dixon, behind an offensive line that returns most of its starters from a season ago, ran for 131 yards against Tulane and the Bulldogs were able to put 38 points on the board.
If Cox rebounds from last week, the Auburn running game can grind out the necessary yards and the turnovers are limited then this year's Auburn vs. Mississippi State game could look much like any of the last five.
The talk about this game the last three years (all of which have been played in September) has been about how Auburn is struggling offensively, the Bulldogs are a new animal this year and Sylvester Croom has the program headed in the right direction. But every year Auburn seems to grind away and win by at least four touchdowns. However, if both teams play like they did last week then this year could break the streak.
Kickoff is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. CDT. The game will be televised on Lincoln Financial Sports.