Mississippi State vs. Auburn Complete Game Preview
During Gus Malzahn's time as Auburn head coach, expecting the unexpected has become the best course of action.
More struggles from quarterback Jeremy Johnson and a truly pitiful showing from the Auburn defense led to a 45-21 loss to LSU last Saturday in Baton Rouge. The Tigers' first loss of the season dropped them from the AP Top 25—just a few weeks after being firmly in the Top 10—heading into an elimination SEC West game against Mississippi State.
But Malzahn had a rather stunning announcement at his weekly press conference Tuesday, shaking things up ahead of Saturday night's home game against the Bulldogs. Redshirt freshman Sean White is now the new starting quarterback at Auburn.
Malzahn will throw White into the fire early as Auburn looks to maintain any shot of competing for a title this season against Dan Mullen's Mississippi State team that rallied to lose to LSU by two points in Week 2. Last year, the Bulldogs soundly defeated the Tigers in Starkville en route to becoming the No. 1 team in the land.
This year, both teams are 2-1, unranked and looking to regain momentum in the SEC. Here's all the basic info you need to know about this year's meeting between Auburn and Mississippi State.
Date: Saturday, September 26
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET (6:30 p.m. local time)
Location: Auburn, Alabama (Jordan-Hare Stadium)
Line: Auburn -2.5, according to Odds Shark
Mississippi State Keys to Victory
When in doubt, grind it out
After a somewhat slow start through the air against Southern Miss, Mississippi State has posted back-to-back games of 300-plus passing yards, led by senior quarterback Dak Prescott. This week, the Bulldogs will have a favorable matchup against a thin Auburn secondary that allowed 277 yards to Jacksonville State quarterback Eli Jenkins.
However, the easier way to attack the Auburn defense so far this season has been on the ground. Following Leonard Fournette and LSU's rampaging romp in Baton Rouge last Saturday, Auburn is now tied for the fourth-worst rush defense in all of college football, giving up an average of 270 yards per game. And before the LSU game, Auburn's defense was already allowing 4.23 yards per touch.
Prescott will be the best passer the Auburn defense has faced all season, but the dual-threat senior doesn't have to win the game with his arm alone. After all, Mississippi State ran for 5.07 yards per carry and four touchdowns against this Auburn defense last year.
Pressure Sean White
Auburn made the surprise call of the week by announcing that White would start against Mississippi State. When the redshirt freshman steps onto the field Saturday night for his first snap, he'll be experiencing the college game for the first time.
Like the case was when Jeremy Johnson was still the starting quarterback, the best way to attack Auburn's offense right now is to put a lot of pressure on the Tigers in passing situations. Instead of a downtrodden starter, now Auburn has an inexperienced freshman at quarterback.
If Mississippi State can bottle up the Tigers' rushing attack and force White to make plays early, it will look to rattle this newcomer with blitzes and pass-rushing defensive linemen. Only time will tell how the freshman handles the pressure.
Hold onto the football
With Auburn's offense looking the way it does right now, the last thing Mississippi State needs to do is turn over the football and give the Tigers a shorter field.
Prescott hasn't thrown an interception all season, but the Bulldogs fumbled the ball twice in their wins over Southern Miss and Northwestern State. On the other side, Auburn has forced only three turnovers this season. Against Louisville, Auburn scored off both of the Cardinal's miscues, which allowed the Tigers to jump to a lead it didn't relinquish.
Ball security is always important in a road game, as one quick turnover can change momentum in a heartbeat. Even though the Tigers aren't playing good football at the moment, Mississippi State can't give them easier chances at scoring and firing up a night crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Auburn Keys to Victory
Avoid the slow offensive start
Through the first three games of the season, Auburn's first-half offense has been downright ugly.
According to CFB Stats and some simple math, 31.8 percent of the Tigers' rushing offense and 42.7 percent of their passing yards have come before halftime. Auburn has only scored one offensive touchdown in the first half this season, and it was the first score of the season—a short Johnson touchdown run against Louisville.
Against an offense with a track record like Mississippi State, Auburn can't afford to have another slow start, especially with a brand-new quarterback. Auburn doesn't have the defensive strength to be able to do that. Instead, White and the rest of the offense need to get off to a quicker start in front of their home fans.
Contain Dak Prescott
It's another week and another dual-threat quarterback for an Auburn defense that has failed to keep those players in check. Last week, LSU quarterback Brandon Harris ran the ball eight times for 66 yards and two touchdowns against Auburn. This week, Auburn faces Prescott.
Prescott has done more with his arm than his legs so far this season, but the Tigers should know how dangerous he is when he gets moving. Last year, Prescott ran for 121 yards and two touchdowns in Mississippi State's home win against Auburn. In 2013, he had 122 rushing yards and one score.
Sure, Auburn's defense hasn't looked the same—especially in quarterback pressure and containment—since defensive end Carl Lawson's injury against Louisville. But Lawson is just one player, and plenty of others need to do a much better job of stopping athletic quarterbacks and just playing defense in general.
Make things happen on special teams
For all the negatives on Auburn's offense and defense, the third phase of the game has been solid for the Tigers. Kick-return average is up seven yards from last season due to new blood. Kevin Phillips has been excellent at punter, and Daniel Carlson has been automatic so far this season.
In front of their home fans, the Tigers could definitely use a few big momentum plays from special teams Saturday night. Phillips will be a weapon in pinning Prescott and the Bulldogs offense back, while Kerryon Johnson and Johnathan Ford have the potential to break big returns.
When the rest of the team isn't up to par, taking advantage on special teams can be a real difference-maker in what is shaping up to be a must-win SEC game.
Mississippi State Players to Watch
QB Dak Prescott
This will be a rubber match of sorts for Prescott, who lost to Auburn in 2013 but cemented his early Heisman campaign with a huge victory over the Tigers in 2014.
Prescott could be the best quarterback Auburn faces all season, and he provides a real challenge for every member of the defense. He's a weapon on read-option plays, which have killed the Tigers so far this season. He also is an intelligent scrambler who boasts power and speed.
On top of that, he's having an excellent start to the season through the air. Prescott is just shy of 800 yards through the first three games of the season and has completed 65 percent of his passes—he only had one incompletion last weekend against Northwestern State.
WR De'Runnya Wilson
De'Runnya Wilson, Mississippi State's top receiver in 2014 and the leader so far in 2015, will head back to his home state looking for a big-time performance.
Standing at 6'5" and boasting good speed, Wilson is a pure matchup nightmare for any secondary. He had four receptions for 72 yards and a touchdown against Auburn last season and had eight receptions for 86 yards against LSU in Week 3 this year.
Auburn's secondary will face its biggest passing test of the young season with Prescott, and Wilson is a major part of his success. The Tigers will have to be extra physical with the large target from Birmingham, as he has the ability to get rolling and take games over.
DE A.J. Jefferson
A.J. Jefferson has had the most success getting into opponents' backfields this season for a Mississippi State defense that replaced a large chunk of its two-deep depth chart from 2014.
Jefferson is second on the team in tackles with 18 and leads in both sacks (2.5) and tackles for loss (5.5). He was a rotation piece for the Bulldogs last season and ranked third on the team in quarterback hurries. Associated Press writer David Brandt (via USA Today) wrote Jefferson has been "arguably the team's best player so far this year."
The defensive end will be a key figure in stopping the run and rushing White in passing situations. With the way he's played so far this season, Auburn's offensive line will have a big-time challenge ahead of it.
Auburn Players to Watch
Heading into the season, Auburn's linebackers were supposed to be a strength of the transitioning Tigers defense. Three games into the campaign, they haven't lived up to expectations.
Of course, Cassanova McKinzy had a career game against Jacksonville State, and Justin Garrett had a huge scoop-and-score against Louisville, but every contributor at the position needs to show wholesale improvement. Against LSU, Auburn's linebackers were consistently out of position, and the defense paid for it dearly with the huge day the hosts had on the ground.
The linebackers will be crucial to Auburn's overall success Saturday night against Mississippi State. Prescott will challenge the Tigers' run-fitting and pass-covering abilities in a big way. If they have more underwhelming performances, Mississippi State could light up the brand-new video board.
QB Sean White
To the surprise of many, Malzahn announced White would start just two days after offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee gave Johnson a vote of confidence. Now the former Under Armour All-America Game MVP and Elite 11 MVP has a tough challenge ahead of him in his first career start.
At 6'0" and 200 pounds, White doesn't have the size of Johnson, but he brings the same sort of pass-first pocket presence that the Tigers wanted to see out of their former starter. His biggest asset by far is his accuracy, and he'll be tasked with delivered the ball to the underutilized Duke Williams and several other playmakers at receiver.
White's starting nod could either be a panic move or the spark Auburn needs to resurrect its season. Mississippi State doesn't have the most experienced defense in the SEC, but it's still a huge step up for an unproven passer.
RB Peyton Barber
Even though Barber was a workhorse and even a game-saving player through the first two contests of the season, he only got seven carries against LSU—with just two coming in the second half. That's a far cry from what he was able to produce in the first two victories of the season.
"I definitely feel good about [the Mississippi State game]," Barber said, per Brandon Marcello of AL.com. "I didn't play that much in the second half, but at the same time it's the coaches' decision. It's up to them, whatever they want to do."
If Auburn is forced to play a grind-it-out offensive game, keep an eye on how the coaching staff splits the carries between Barber, Kerryon Johnson, Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas. Barber has been the star of a lackluster offense so far this year, even though he wasn't able to show it against LSU.
What They're Saying
Head coach Dan Mullen on the importance of the matchup for both teams, per Robbie Faulk of the Sun Herald:
The last couple of years it has been the first SEC game. The first game can mean a lot and help propel you one way or the other. For both of us this year, we're both coming off a loss in conference. You don't want to fall that far behind. We both, in conference play, are back-against-the-wall and have to come out to fight and ready to play... You look at the different talent they have all over the field, they're getting back to playing at home where they have a great home record. We're really going to have our hands full. We're going to have to play at a high level.
Quarterback Dak Prescott on facing Auburn's defense, per Wesley Sinor of AL.com:
Watching film this morning and yesterday, it's a defense that the coach is going to call plays he really trusts his players to make. They're not going to do anything too difficult or throw any crazy looks at us. I think we're going to have a good game plan and be ready to go for them.
Prescott on Mississippi State keeping in line with its season goals, per Michael Bonner of the Clarion-Ledger:
Everybody in the SEC might end up with a loss, so that one to LSU we can put that behind us…But losing two, that puts you down. It puts you at the bottom when you're working trying to get to the top. If we can even this record out in the SEC, 1-1, we'll be in the right position... If we win, we're still in the position we need to be. If we lose it, then we've gotta get some things straight.
Head coach Gus Malzahn on rebounding from the loss to LSU, per James Crepea of AL.com:
Obviously it was a disappointing loss. We didn't play very good. The other team played well. We got to put it behind us, we got to move forward... Anytime you don't play well, you look at your team and I could see disappointment. We need a rebound. ... They had a good spirit about them.
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee on Auburn's early struggles, per Charles Goldberg of AuburnTigers.com:
I don’t think guys are playing as fast as they would like to and reacting as fast as they would like to, and that just goes back to the whole thing of we got to evaluate everything, we got to put guys in position and let them go play, and we got to play better. We can sit here and diagnose it — but we didn’t play well, we got whipped, we got to play better this week. We all know that, and that’s what we’re going to do.
Linebacker Kris Frost on the impact of not having defensive end Carl Lawson, per Tom Green of the Opelika-Auburn News:
I feel it did (hurt not having Lawson). Just like we said, it’s next guy up. We feel like we’re deep on the defensive line, so we have to do a better job and the linebackers, we have to do a better job filling gaps. All of us collectively have to do a better job.
The decision to start White over Johnson will bring some more excitement and intrigue to Saturday night's SEC West showdown, which will basically be an elimination game in the divisional race.
As I wrote Saturday, any potential risk of playing the redshirt freshman over Johnson can't be much worse than what the junior quarterback has shown through his first three starts. His lack of confidence and poor decision-making have taken the life from all facets of Malzahn's offense.
I believe White will be an improvement for the Tigers on Saturday night, but it's hard to expect anything extraordinary out of a redshirt freshman before he takes his first snap. (Remember, Johnson was a preseason Heisman contender, and he already had game experience in the offense.) White will make mistakes, and Auburn still needs to find its edge again in the running game.
The defense is what's keeping me from thinking Auburn will defeat Mississippi State this weekend, even though the Tigers are the favorites at home. Prescott has had some big rushing games against Auburn in the last two years and is playing some of his best ball through the air so far in 2015. Auburn's defense is missing its leader in Lawson and hasn't slowed down a dual-threat quarterback in quite some time.
Unless something drastic happens in Will Muschamp's defense, this Auburn offense can't keep up with what Mullen and Prescott can do together in the Mississippi State offense—especially with a quarterback playing the first snaps of his career. It won't get out of hand, but I predict a two-score Bulldogs victory.
Prediction: Mississippi State 38, Auburn 27
Justin Ferguson is a college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.