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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

2010 opponent preview: Mississippi State

OK, we've got the ball rolling on these opponents previews. Yesterday was Arkansas State. Today is the conference opener against Mississippi State, a Thursday night game in Starkville that isn't going to be easy for Auburn.

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Mississippi State Bulldogs
  • Head coach: Dan Mullen (2nd season at Mississippi State, 5-7; 2nd overall, assistant at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida)
  • 2009 record: 5-7 (3-5 SEC East t-4th)
  • Returning starters: 14 (7 offense, 7 defense)
  • Total offense: 371.9 ypg (7th SEC, 65th nationally)
  • Total defense: 366.0 ypg (10th SEC, 58th nationally)
  • Series: Auburn leads 58-23-2
  • Last meeting: Auburn won 49-24 last year at Jordan-Hare Stadium
  • Consensus prediction: Sixth place in the SEC West
Five-week schedule glimpse
  • Sept. 4: Memphis
  • Sept. 9: Auburn
  • Sept. 18: at LSU
  • Sept. 25: Georgia
  • Oct. 2: Alcorn State
Mullen made major strides in his first year at Mississippi State, bringing life to an offense that was long dormant under Sylvester Croom's watch and giving the program a jolt in the process. Although they didn't make a bowl game, the Bulldogs finished the season on a high note, beating rival Ole Miss handily at home.

Now for the hard part: taking that next step. MSU leaned heavily on running back Anthony Dixon, who ran for nearly 1,400 yards and 12 touchdowns, but he's graduated. The quarterback situation remains fluid. The defense has some issues. And the Bulldogs play a brutal schedule. What will it mean in Year 2 of the Mullen era? I'm not exactly sure.

So I've enlisted the help of Kyle Veazey of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. You can read him on his blog (one of the better looking blogs on the market, by the way) or on Twitter, where it appears the entire state of Mississippi is following him. Here are my questions and his answers:

AB: Quarterback Chris Relf proved himself as a capable runner last year, but his passing left a lot to be desired. Meanwhile, Mississippi State fans are no doubt enamored by redshirt freshman Tyler Russell, a former Mississippi Player of the Year. How will the quarterback situation shake out now that Tyson Lee is gone? Is it possible there could be a platoon situation?
KV: Possible and probable. Mullen showed us last year that he certainly doesn't mind playing two. Relf ended spring clearly ahead of Russell, but the context wasn't that it was an all-or-nothing situation. (Relf has, by all accounts, become a better passer.) Look out for another name in the QB race, and at least the last name is familiar: Favre. As in Dylan Favre, last year's record-setting QB at St. Stanislaus on the Coast. [edit: he's Brett's nephew] He doesn't have the height of Relf or Russell, and he's inexperienced, but he'll be given a shot in preseason practice to see what he can do.
AB: Mullen's offenses at Florida has plenty of weapons across the board. With Dixon, who set a school record with 3,994 career rushing yards, now in the NFL, what kind of skill players are expected to carry the offense in his absence?
KV: At tailback, I'd expect a committee between juco transfer Vick Ballard, junior Robert Elliott and freshmen LaDarius Perkins and Montrell Conner, at least until one of them breaks out. I don't know that State will absolutely replace Dixon. Look for WRs Chad Bumphis and Leon Berry to touch the ball a lot. And watch out for TE Marcus Green, too.
AB: Mississippi State replaced defensive coordinator Carl Torbush with former Middle Tennessee coordinator Manny Diaz, who emphasizes an attacking style that puts up big numbers in sacks and tackles for a loss. What chance does he have to find immediate success with the group he inherited, one that finished 10th in the SEC in total defense last year and 11th in passing defense?
KV: Quite a bit, actually. The unit returns quite a few players, many of them talented. DE Pernell McPhee is an all-SEC, play-on-Sunday DE. DTs Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd were both two of the top freshmen in the league last year, and juco transfer DT James Carmon is intriguing because of his size (6-7, 340 or so). LBs K.J. Wright and Chris White are seniors and respected. SS Charles Mitchell, a junior, is solid. And while the secondary struggled early, some personnel switches eventually helped make it somewhat shored-up and produced two freshman all-SEC players.
AB: Mullen hasn't hesitated to take a shot or two at state rival Ole Miss in his brief time in Starkville, backing up that talk with a 41-27 win in the Egg Bowl. Is there a sense that the tide is turning in the rivalry more toward Mississippi State?
KV: I don't know if anyone can diagnose that exactly, but I do know this: The rivalry has gotten more intense in the past year and a half or so. It's fun for the people who do what I do -- don't pick a side and just report and analyze what happened. And it's fun for the fans, too.
AB: The Bulldogs appear to be better this year, but they face a killer schedule, one that includes a stacked SEC West and cross-division games against Florida and Georgia. They also travel to Houston for a non-conference matchup in October. Is it possible for MSU take a step forward as a program but not improve its total of five wins from last year? And if so, and the Bulldogs fail to get to the six wins necessary for a bowl game, will that turn off a fan base that has rallied behind Mullen so far?
KV: Yeah, that's sort of the big question around here. The program has improved, it seems, and the play on the field looks poised to be pretty good. But will it show up, given that schedule? Oddly enough, the schedule is probably a lot better than last year, when State easily played the nation's toughest schedule. The best way to look at this is by looking at the swing games: Yes, Auburn on Sept. 9 is one of them. Comes early enough in the schedule that who knows what'll happen. I also look at Georgia, in Starkville, on Sept. 26 and Houston, in Houston, on Oct. 9. Go 2-1 in that group, and six wins is more reasonable.
There you have it. I'm guessing this year's game will be infinitely more interesting than the 3-2 slugfest two years ago. I'm not sure what the NCAA Football '11 simulation would look like. I'll ask again if there's anybody out there who wants to simulate it, to put the result in the comment section.

Next up: A tough non-conference home game against Clemson and quarterback Kyle Parker.


ehyou said...

I'll get scottieb on the simulation right away.

If it has half a brain AU wins by 20.

Tar Heel Tiger said...

AB - thanks for another excellent blog. Are you going to join JGT at ESPN?

Andy Bitter said...

Ha! Yeah, I'll be joining the new "ESPN: Auburn-Opelika" city website they're launching.

SteveFC said...

This is the game I think Auburn could get shocked. MSU opening with Memphis will get them ready. Being this early, I consider playing a decent opponent the game before a good thing for MSU.

This could be a case of MSU catching Auburn at the right time. We won't learn a lot about Auburn in the MSU game. We will be going with a new QB and starting RB, although Fannin does have experience.

This game has the potential to be a gut check.

Mississippi Tiger said...

MSU fans and Mullen are pointing to the Auburn game as a season (and program) changing game. I'm thinking that Mullen has bitten off a little more than he can chew, but you have to admire his efforts thus far.
Should be a good test for our Tigers early, but in the end just too many weapons for AU and not enough for the bulldogs.

War Eagle!