The Auburn Plainsman sports staff gives their preview of Saturday's matchup between No. 13 Auburn and No. 24 Mississippi State.
Will Sahlie, sports editor
The key for Auburn this week, just like at Missouri last week, is to get off to a fast start. If Auburn is able to build an early lead, the Tigers may be able to defeat Mississippi State in a similar fashion to last year’s 38-14 win over the Bulldogs. However, if the Bulldogs hang around throughout the first half, it could be a tight game throughout.
Nick Fitzgerald will be the most talented quarterback Auburn has faced this season. He is more polished and more refined than Clemson’s Kelly Bryant. Fitzgerald poses a legitimate threat to the SEC’s No. 2 defense, and Auburn will have to slow him down to contain the Bulldogs’ offense. Fitzgerald is a run-first, bulldozing-style quarterback, which will challenge Auburn’s front seven to be disciplined and make open-field tackles. Is Auburn’s defense up to the task? They have been all year.
Mississippi State’s secondary will provide several big-play opportunities for Jarrett Stidham and his receivers, which Stidham proved he was capable of hitting last week. The Tigers hit a few big plays, Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson form the one-two punch Auburn fans have been waiting to see this year, and the Tigers’ defense continues to impress.
Score prediction: Auburn 31, Mississippi State 20
Nathan King, assistant sports editor
Most will agree that Mississippi State is not 28 points worse than Georgia, let alone any team in the conference. But the stark difference between MSU's Week 3 shellacking of LSU, 37-7 and their Week 4 destruction at the hands of UGA, 31-3 makes their upcoming matchup with No. 13 Auburn intriguing. State is embarrassed, and it's not likely that they'll end their two-game road trip with another abysmal performance.
Nick Fitzgerald said after the loss to Georgia that the team will "have a short memory." Fitzgerald has the potential to carve up any defense in the country, however the sophomore stud will be running into yet another buzz saw of a unit in Auburn. The No. 4 overall defense in the nation has locked down opponents all year long, even containing the other superstar dual-threat quarterback Auburn has faced this year in Clemson's Kelly Bryant.
The Tigers offense appears to be back, however a blowout of bottom-feeding Missouri doesn't quite answer all of the questions surrounding Jarrett Stidham and company. State is being underestimated, and Fitzgerald and his defense should allow the Bulldogs to go toe-to-toe with Auburn for four quarters. Home field advantage, a healthy Auburn backfield and an X-factor by the name of Daniel Carlson allows Auburn to escape with their first home SEC win.
Score prediction: Auburn 23, Mississippi State 20.
Tyler Roush, sports reporter
Mississippi State allowed 203 rushing yards on 42 carries in their loss to Georgia. In addition, it took just nine passes for Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm to eclipse 200 yards passing and two touchdowns. Their defense allowed what looked like an easy 404 yards in a blowout loss. Nick Fitzgerald, who has more touchdowns than any other quarterback since Oct. 29 of last season, did not fit the role of dual-threat perfection and he certainly did not show any signs of progression toward the end of the game.
State is the only team so far this season to face three straight top 15 teams, and their toughest test comes Saturday night at Jordan-Hare.
Redemption won't come easy against a team that took out Missouri 51-14. It also won't come easy against arguably two of the best running backs in the SEC, Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway, who will play together for the first time this season. In addition to the Johnson-Pettway combo, State faces another task in the possibility of facing a fiery Kam Martin too. And, if Fromm is any close comparison to Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham, Stidham completes what could be a perfect offensive outing.
Fitzgerald isn't looking himself, and neither is the State defense. Auburn's running back tandem and consistent quarterback play will provide a defining win this season for head coach Gus Malzahn.
Score prediction: Auburn 35, Mississippi State 24
Sumner Martin, sports writer
Following a blowout loss at Georgia, Mississippi State will come out hungry for redemption Saturday night in Jordan-Hare. Because of this, it may be closer than people think, but Auburn is simply the better team.
Auburn is coming off a 51-14 win at Missouri in which the offense seemed to finally hit its stride, but the Bulldogs have a much more talented team. Expect Nick Fitzgerald and company to come out firing early in the first half, but as the game progresses, so will the Auburn defense. The key for Auburn's defense will be pressuring Fitzgerald off the edge and making him uncomfortable throughout the night. Late in the third quarter, the Tigers start to adjust and will do enough to keep Fitzgerald in check on the defensive side of the ball, while Jarrett Stidham should deliver another solid performance and score just enough to move Gus Malzahn's team to 4-1.
Score prediction: Auburn 27, Mississippi State 17.
Peter Santo, sports writer
After struggling against Clemson and Mercer, Auburn is riding a wave of confidence following a 51-14 blowout at Missouri last week. The Bulldogs tried to build on a big win over LSU, but fell flat on their face against Georgia. With their backs against the wall, expect Nick Fitzgerald and Mississippi State to come out firing and give the Auburn defense everything they can handle. Kelly Bryant may be more talented, but Fitzgerald might be the most polished quarterback the Tigers will face all year.
Jarrett Stidham has been flawless the last two weeks, but will face his biggest test yet against the Bulldogs. With Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway sharing a backfield for the first time this season, Auburn will look to establish the run early, but the Tigers will need Stidham to make plays late if they want to earn a big win. This game should tell us if Stidham will be reliable down the stretch.
The Auburn defense should slow down Mississippi State's high-powered offense just enough, and Stidham will look the part in what will be his first fourth-quarter test.
Score Prediction: Auburn 27, Mississippi State 20
Bennett Page, sports writer
Mississippi State's embarrassing offensive performance against Georgia leaves this game with a lot of questions. Three points by a Dan Mullen-led team is uncommon, just like Auburn scoring six points with Gus Malzahn coaching against Clemson is uncommon and alarming. Auburn's offense has finally started to click, albeit to the worst defense in the SEC. Mullen's offense will look to turn the tide and get back to who they were against LSU.
Spirits were down for Auburn following the loss to Clemson, and the five turnovers against Mercer were no cause for celebration. However, Clemson has looked fantastic in recent weeks, making an eight point loss look respectable, while Auburn's offense put up 51 points with no turnovers against Missouri. Mississippi State is trending downward just a week after being the potential cinderella story of the SEC. State's defense had been performing well until it broke down against Nick Chubb and Jake Fromm of Georgia, while Fitzgerald threw for only 83 yards. Looking ahead to Auburn, Mississippi State is facing a supposedly-healthy Kam Pettway and Kerryon Johnson backfield (playing together for the first time this season). Fitzgerald is also taking on an Auburn defense that has allowed only 11.3 points per game. This game will be close for the first half, but halfway through the third quarter Auburn will begin to pull away.
Score prediction: Auburn 30, Mississippi State 17