*This is the first time since 1967 that Mississippi State has opened a season with consecutive SEC games. The Bulldogs will also be trying to prevent the first 0-2 start since 2003.
*Auburn is ranked #4 or #6 depending on which national poll one favors. State has only beaten one ranked team (#20 Florida 2004) in the Sylvester Croom era, and is 1-16 against all ranked teams since 2000.
About the Tigers: While there is never any accounting for the foolishness of fans, one still wonders if all red faces have entirely faded from that foolish attempt two years ago to replace Tommy Tuberville. All the man has done since is win a school-record 22 games in two seasons, earn one outright SEC crown and one-and-a-half West Division titles, and pile up enough talent to keep the Tigers in annual contention for both the league and national prizes. A 40-14 rout of Washington State got their 2006 run off to a fast start, and while Tuberville is an all-business boss and unlikely to overlook anyone on the schedule…one also wonders if these Tigers aren't possibly thinking a week ahead to the likely-decisive West showdown with LSU's cats.
Offense: Yes, no matter the graduation and draft losses Auburn will put a top-flight defense on the field. But this is looking like a year when the offensive squad is a fully-equal partner. Opening night saw six plays of 25 or more yards, as well as sustained scoring drives of ten, nine, and eight plays. The only shadow on the show was the first four ended in field goals, but by the second half the touchdowns were coming in bunches. This is a lineup with the experience ‘up the middle' as a baseball coach would say, returning the interior three line starters, quarterback, and halfback. The lattermost got his senior season off to a rousing start as Walker Award nominee and defending SEC rushing champ Kenny Irons ran for 183 yards and a 9.1-yard average. Irons fell just short of 1,300 yards in 2005 but should reach that easily, while soph Brad Lester serves waits his turn. Now a junior, QB Brandon Cox is reaching the peak of his prowess. He was pretty darn good already with a 58% passing clip and 15 scores against eight picks last year; two of those touchdowns came against State when he threw for 245 yards. The runner and thrower naturally benefit from blocking featuring four seniors and a junior. LG Ben Grubbs is a preseason all-America and RG Tim Duckworth even more touted as a Lombardi and Outland candidate. Both top 310 pounds, while the tackles are even bigger. No wonder the Tigers haul the ball so effectively. The pre-season concern with this offense was replacing three receivers who combined for over 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns. But the losses only emphasize how consistent senior Courtney Taylor has been, with 99 catches in three years. Now he is the top target and had three grabs in the opener. Lee Guess and others are also getting their turns in the rotation, though Cox will make use of his backs in short throws as always. If there is anything different this year, it is that Auburn doesn't seem as intent on tossing to tight end Cole Bennett. Or should we say, so far, as he isn't a preseason All-SEC for no reason.
Defense: Wow, here's a twist; more Tiger offensive players are on honors watch lists than defensive personnel. That is no consolation to Auburn opponents because it merely reflects the potential on both sides of the ball this year. Even with the loss of five starters in the front-seven from the nation's #6-ranked scoring defense, there is no doubt the 2006 edition is another elite group. Any defense with seniors Will Herring is in good shape already. After three seasons at safety, and the team tackle title in '05, Herring has moved up to linebacker where he's a consensus awards nominee already. Senior Karibi Dede is the veteran ‘backer and opened the year with eight tackles against WSU, and soph Merrill Johnson has moved into the middle LB slot. Moving Herring was realistic as there is still lots of talent in the secondary, led by David Irons who had 48 tackles at cornerback. Fellow CB Jonathan Wilhite had 47 more, showing how much run support these cover-guys provide. Redshirt freshman Aairon Savage is off to a strong start at free safety, so expect to read that name for years to come. After being powered by 300-pound interior linemen for a couple of campaigns, the stars are on the ends now. Junior Quentin Groves and senior Marquies Gunn are both all-conference candidates, though senior Chris Browder figures in here as well and could start over Gunn this week. Inside, NG Josh Thompson is ‘only' 295 pounds while Sen'Derrick Marks is a scrawny 287. But they're a junior and redshirt frosh respectively, so both still have time to grow into the mammoth middle-men expected from Auburn. In fact, the fact of most SEC concern about this defensive squad is that seven of the starters will be back for more in '07.
Specialists: Auburn has the most experienced pair of specialists in this league and overall maybe the best. Senior Kody Bliss led the SEC in punting last year at 44.9 yards and hit two of ‘em for 49.0 yards in the opener. Senior PK John Vaughn was nearly as good that evening, hitting four field goals…though a 36-yard miss should keep his helmet on straight. He was 12-of-20 last year on three-pointers. All seven of Matt Clark's kickoffs Saturday were touchbacks. Lester and Tristan Davis share kickoff return duties while Robert Dunn fields punts.
The Series: These ‘cow colleges' from neighboring states first got together on a football field in 1905, meeting in Columbus, Miss. of all places. Auburn won that initial meeting and has owned the series ever since with a 55-22-2 tally after a century. This didn't become a regular rivalry until the 1930s with a few skips up until 1955 when it became an annual part of the schedule. Only 14 of these games have been played in Starkville where Auburn has a 9-4-1 lead. The Tigers also own the longest win streak in the series, 11-straight from 1964-74. Sylvester Croom is 0-2 coaching against Auburn, and Tommy Tuberville is 5-2 against State at Auburn and 7-4 overall at AU and Mississippi.
The Last Time – September 10, 2005: Auburn bounced back impressively from a season-opening loss against Georgia Tech to shut Mississippi State down and out in a 28-0 victory at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Tigers made routine work of the Bulldogs, scoring one touchdown per quarter. Brandon Cox tossed a 13-yard strike to Cole Bennett at 6:56 of the opening period for all the points Auburn would need, and Cox added a five-yard touchdown pass to Devin Aromashodu two minutes into the second period. The Auburn defense got into the offensive act as Will Herring fell on a fumble in the MSU end zone for a 21-0 lead, and Brad Lester ran it in from six yards out with 2:03 left in the afternoon. Auburn tallied 320 yards on 59 plays while holding State to 208 yards on the same number of snaps. State's Derek Ambrose had 41 rushing yards and Jerious Norwood 39, while Omarr Conner was 10-of-19 passing for 116 yards with one interception.
Did You Know? State and Auburn have met more times on a neutral field, 35, than on either campus, and 26 of those games were played in Birmingham. But the last time the game was played off-campus was in 1980, in Jackson with MSU winning 24-21.
*Mississippi State has 21 roster players with Alabama hometowns, compared to five Mississippians on the Auburn roster.
MSU Rookie Report: A total of nine true freshmen dressed out for the South Carolina game. Of these, three played in their first collegiate opportunity: ST Anthony Johnson, ST Marcus Washington, and HB Anthony Dixon. Other true frosh who stayed on the sideline were: S Anthony Summers, HB Arnil Stallworth, DS Aaron Feld, WR Keith Mills, TE Chris Herrera, and DT Kyle Love.
*Five redshirted 2005 freshmen also made their MSU debuts in the first game: QB Tray Rutland, ST Jarvis Kyles, CB Adron Chambers, ST Tay Bowser, and OT Craig Jenkins. Other Dogs making their first on-field appearance were transfers LB Tim Bailey, OT J.D. Hamilton, and WR Tony Burks.
Bulldog Player Notes: Senior linebacker Quinton Culberson won the team title for tackles last season with 78 in eleven games, tenth-best in the SEC. He now has 183 for his four varsity seasons. Senior safety Jeramie Johnson is next on the current career list with 157 tackles.
*Johnson is ahead of his classmate in picks, though, with seven interceptions, most on this squad. Culberson has three and snared one pick in the S.C. game on the first play from scrimmage.
*In 31 career games Culberson has just 1.5 total sacks. Senior DE Michael Heard has the current team lead with 6.5 career sacks.
*Punter Blake McAdams punted seven times in the opener with a 41.6-yard average and placed three of them inside the 20-yard line. He finished with a 41.9-yard average as a freshman, and ranked 33rd nationally. His 69 punts were fifth-most in school history, and the most since Mike Riley kicked it away 75 times in 1989. McAdams accounted for 2,891 yards.
*WR Lance Long led State in catches in the opening game with five grabs for 41 yards. The rest of the squad had three catches for 41 total yards. Long, who ranks second in SEC catches after one week, was put on scholarship before this season.
*Tight end Eric Butler was overlooked as a target until late in the S.C. game and had only one catch, for 20 yards. In his first two years Butler had 29 catches in 21 games and seven touchdowns. He holds the MSU tight ends records for scoring catches in both a career and a season already.
*Halfback Anthony Dixon made a strong debut with 64 yards on 14 carries in his first college game. But the freshman is expected to miss this contest after breaking the left pinky finger in a fluke practice accident Tuesday.
*Senior Will Prosser was held out of the first game after two shoulder injuries in camp. In his career Prosser has 53 catches over 34 games, but he is still looking for his first college touchdown.
*PK Adam Carlson missed his only field goal attempt in the S.C. game, from 38 yards. He is now 2-of-5 for his brief college career with makes from 20 and 39 yards last season. Carlson was 7-of-7 on PATs as a freshman.
*KS Keith Andrews only had one kickoff in the opening game, for a touchback. Of his 61 college kickoffs 32 have gone into the end zone. Before a back injury last November Andrews was 11-of-18 on field goals in two seasons, and 32-of-32 on PATs. That is five shy of the school record.
*Four Bulldogs have played in 35 games: FB Bryson Davis, CB David Heard, S Jeramie Johnson, and DS Russell Cook. Heard and Johnson are tied with 20 starts, though as a snapper Cook is unfairly excluded in this category. But the most starts by a current player is the 25 for MLB Quinton Culberson, in 31 games.
*Meanwhile NG Andrew Powell leads the team in consecutive starts with 21. OL Brian Anderson is next at 19. But Anderson has started at three positions in his career and is expected to make it four this Saturday when he lines up at right guard. He has previous starts at left guard, left tackle, and right tackle. Anderson also played as an extra blocking tight ends as a 2003 true freshman.