*Bulldog-Tiger games have been televised nine times, and Auburn holds a 5-4 lead. State is 15-15 in all appearances on Jefferson-Pilot, and 2-1 against Auburn on this regional network.
*State is looking to end a two-season winless streak in SEC West play.
Coach Sylvester Croom looks at Auburn and sees the kind of football team he wants the Bulldogs to become—physical, athletic, aggressive, and deep. An old-school sort of SEC club, in other words, with big bodies on both lines that can run and (slightly) smaller bodies elsewhere who run even faster. And it's a veteran team with 18 seniors. Tommy Tuberville's Tigers are worthy of their top-20 status. And if last year's 8-5 letdown still rankles down on the Plains—and the slapstick spectacle of an abortive coup attempt raises questions about the coach's long-term future—this team has renewed aspirations of winning the West. Even, with some breaks, of making a run at the prize Auburn was supposed to contend for last year. Maybe Tigers perform better sneaking up from behind after all.
Hard to believe, that it's been four falls already since Carnell ‘Cadillac' Williams motored onto the SEC scene. If not for injuries he would have already re-written the Auburn record book. As it is Williams has 2,769 career yards and 33 touchdowns, and last week scored his first receiving TD on a 9-yard catch against ULM. But the preseason all-American also has to share some of the totin' with fellow senior Ronnie Brown (1,849 career yards, 21 TDs), who comes in on a four 100-yard game streak. No, nobody has a better pair of backs anywhere, yet Auburn wants to really round out the attack. Hiring a coordinator from lowly Indiana raised eyebrows but Tuberville is gambling that Al Borges can give this offense the extra aspect needed to loosen up opponents and give the backs more room to run. Borges, a real West Coast guy, has brought that type scheme to the Plains and has taught as much as possible in a short time to Jason Campbell. The Mississippi native and Unitas Trophy nomineee may never get any love from the fan base, but he's a 62% career passer—a program record--with a positive TD-to-INT ratio and can play-action a defense to death. And he has talented underclassman targets. Devin Aromashodu and Ben Obomanu each had two grabs in the opening game and paired wideout Courtney Taylor three more. They are fast enough already but the respect the runners demands gives Tiger deep threats an extra step. Don't forget, either, that whatever the scheme Tuberville has always liked using tight ends as receivers. He can afford to with a veteran five-man front doing the blocking. Senior Danny Lindsey is back at right guard after a season as center, with senior Jeremy Ingle now hiking the ball as a new starter. The monster is 6-9, 330-pound Marcus McNeil protecting the blind side at left tackle. Talk about physical…
Tuberville did not want to change coordinators two years ago, but the hiring of Gene Chizik to run the defense has certainly worked out well. Last year the Tiger D ranked fifth nationally in total defense, seventh in rushing and ninth in scoring. That might be a hard top-ten act to follow given that Auburn has to replace five starters among the front-seven, guys who accounted for 70% of the unit's tackles last year. Still the revamped defense was able to hold ULM to 239 total yards and no points, and the group will naturally improve every week. The four-man front lines up much as State does it, with a big body right on the ball (NT T.J. Jackson) and a tackle beside him. Converted end Jay Ratliff fills that role as Stanley McClover takes over his old spot. Brett Eddins is stead on the other end. Nobody can entirely fill the void left by Karlos Dansby but there are some younger linebackers coming into their own now. Junior Travis Williams is the lone returning starter and has settled in at middle LB as Antarrious Williams took over on the weak side. Auburn sees a lot of potential in soph Kevin Sears, who beat out other underclassmen on the strongside, and converted safety Karibi Dede can take a starting job or come in as the ‘nickle' man. The secondary returns intact, and though Tuberville was not happy with the group last season he sees it as a strength now. Junior Rosegreen began '03 at cornerback, moved to safety and is up for all-star honors. Will Herring is a much-improved free safety, and CB Carlos Rogers the ace cover-man. After one game soph Montavious Pitts has taken over at one corner from vet Kevin Hobbs.
Auburn has not missed a PAT since 1999, and soph John Vaughn has no plans to break that string after beating out senior Philip Yost for the starting placekicker job. Kody Bliss averaged 42.9 yards as a true freshman punter, and was an even 46.0 in this year's debut. Tre Smith might not like being the #3 tailback but he loves returning kickoffs and is an all-star nominee. C. Williams runs back punts.
They are 1932 charter members of the SEC, but State and Auburn were getting together as early as 1905. The Tigers/Plainsmen/War Eagles won that first game, then the next nine to set the tone for the series that Auburn now leads 53-22-2. Auburn's longest (scoreboard) streak is actually 11 games, from 1964-74, though forfeits in 1975-76-77 technically make for a 16-year string. State's longest winning stretch was six years from 1941-48, with a four-year streak from 1997-2000. The Tigers are 8-4-1 in Starkville, though most years the teams met either in Birmingham or Jackson before taking the series exclusively to campus sites in 1981. Tuberville is 5-4 against State, three of those wins coming at Auburn.
The Last Time:
The headline was trite but all-too-true: Mississippi State was run down by a Cadillac during a visit to the Plains. Behind a school-record six rushing touchdowns from Carnell Williams the Tigers scored a 45-13 rout over the visiting Bulldogs. The game was played a day after Coach Jackie Sherrill announced his retirement to the team, but to say the least there was no ‘Gipper' effect. Other than an early break, when Nick Turner bolted 77 yards for a touchdown, the Dogs showed little fight. And that long run came after the scoreboard was already 14-0 against State. On AU's second play from scrimmage Williams raced 72 yards to score, and the second ‘drive' took only three snaps before Williams blasted in from three yards out.
Auburn's answer to the sudden State score was…more Williams. Lots more. The junior netted touchdowns on jaunts of 22, 17, and two yards in the second quarter alone. A 42-yard field goal as time ran out pushed the margin to 38-7.
By rule the second half had to be played anyway, which gave Williams his chance to make program history. After a swap of fumbles Auburn pushed down to State's six-yard line and gave the ball to the Cadillac for a record-setting jaunt at 3:01. He finished with 161 yards on just 15 carries, while Brandon Jacobs actually did better with 182 yards on 31 totes. State got a meaningless six points (no PAT) as Kyle York threw to Justin Jenkins for a 18-yard touchdown in the final quarter. Turner finished with 190 all-purpose yards, but Auburn had a total of 553 with 405 on the ground. It was AU's third-straight win over State, and by far the most dominating.
*You knew it already, but Tiger quarterback Jason Campbell is the younger brother of former MSU linebacker Larry Campbell (1995-98).
*MSU defensive line coach Brick Haley and Auburn defensive coordinator Gene Chizik were on the Clemson staff in 1988, and in '89 MSU offensive coordinator Woody McCorvey worked with Chizik at Clemson.
*There are 13 roster Bulldogs from Alabama this season, with tackle David Stewart (Moulton) the only senior of the bunch. Five Mississippi natives play for Auburn—Campbell and lineman Tim Duckworth (Taylorsville), safety Steve Gandy and fullback Mike McLaughlin (Waynesboro), and defensive end Quentin Groves (Greenville).
Did You Know?
*There are no Auburn alumni on the Tiger coaching staff and only one native of Alabama, linebackers coach Joe Whitt (Mobile).
How They Compare:
Campbell just can't get respect (sound familiar, Wayne Madkin?) for what he's done over a fine career. One game and already folk are talking about young Conner, though.
Running Backs: Auburn
Sure, Norwood and Reid are quality runners and finally in the right offense for both. Williams and Brown are the SEC standard, however, and now they're catching balls too.
Offensive Line: Auburn
Tiger front might not be quite as stout as last year but they're still a top-notch SEC unit across the board. Can Bulldog blocking stay healthy for another week?
Or close enough to it going in. State wideouts are still getting in-synch with their thrower, though Butler is a find at TE. Auburn receivers benefit from focus on defending the ground game.
Defensive Line: State
Finally, a Bulldog advantage, even if it's not a huge one. Fields inside and Evans outside make an impressive one-two punch. Auburn front somewhat rebuilt but not shabby by any stretch.
But again not a dominating edge as Bulldog ‘backers are showing promise. Tigers have the mental advantage of past successes to call on.
No surprise here. Four starters back and a new face breaks in anyway for AU. State backfield has a dilemna, support the run and risk getting burned deep.
Both teams have some good talent here. Auburn edge is in a proven returner and better net-punting average. State is going to break some returns soon, though.
OK, maybe that's a bit optimistic. Auburn should have an edge here, but methinks they're trying too hard to downplay talk about LSU next week. Meanwhile State's entire focus is on kickoff Saturday. Even dove hunters are planning to be at this game.
By any objective analysis Auburn deserves their double-digit favorite's status. This is the kind of team State hopes to be in the future, and Croom has the Dogs headed that way. Beating Tulane was a fine first step…but the second is more of a leap into a whole ‘nother level of competition. So much so that the coach has rewarded State for a win by increasing the practice demands, to prevent any undue pride. The best and maybe only hope here is that the Dogs limit the early damage and try to make the Tigers tense, then let things play out as they will. Otherwise Auburn's advantages in size and experience will take a toll on a (likely) warm afternoon and State will be worn down. And that might happen anyway, unless the new attitude on this Dog team translates into some unexpected breaks that make them play far better than the sum of their still-developing parts. At least now we can say that with a straight face.