Coming off a breakout performance for the offense Saturday night in Columbia, the Auburn Tigers hope to ride the momentum as the No. 24 ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs come to town.
For Mississippi State, it has already been an up and down year. The Bulldogs followed up a 37-7 home blowout win against LSU with a 31-3 loss on the road to Georgia in which they were dominated in every aspect of the game.
Auburn, on the other hand, is coming off its best offensive performance of the year. After three weeks of criticism, the Tigers stomped Missouri 51-14 in its SEC opener to give Coach Gus Malzahn and the fan base a small sigh of relief.
Both teams need this game for different reasons. Mississippi State is looking to rebound from what was an embarrassing performance in Athens and keep this from spiraling into another mediocre season. Auburn is looking for more of the same on both sides of the ball, and if Malzahn wants his job by the end of the year, this is just one of the games you can’t lose at home.
As it is with most games, all eyes will be on the starting quarterbacks. This game offers an elite match at up at the most important position, with arguably two of the most talented quarterbacks in the conference going head-to-head.
The Bulldogs are led by Nick Fitzgerald, who until last week had looked like the best quarterback in the SEC. At home against LSU, the junior dual-threat QB threw two touchdown passes and ran for two more but it was a different story last week. Georgia harassed Fitzgerald all night, only giving up three points and 83 passing yards, while forcing two interceptions.
“I think he was getting through reads too quickly and almost skipping guys to get through the check-downs,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “It’s like, I went from my first read of progression to my fifth read of progression and didn’t really pay much attention to two, three, and four.”
Fitzgerald’s counterpart, Jarrett Stidham, looks to stay hot and gain even more momentum as SEC play begins to ramp up. Stidham has been on fire the past two games completing over 80 percent of his passes, while going 32-of-37 for 364 yards against Mercer and 13-of-17 for 218 yards against Missouri.
“He’s a good football player,” Mullen said. “One of the things is you know the kind of talent he has, but he’s a guy who’s starting to get comfortable from week-to-week. He’s a guy that has experience out there on the field and has made a lot of big plays even before he got to Auburn. Now you’re starting to see him getting more comfortable with their system because it’s different than the system he ran before.”
The quarterback is the leader on the field and the team usually goes as they go. Whichever one outduels the other could very well be the difference in the game.
Strictly speaking on the defensive side of the ball, Auburn has the advantage. The Mississippi State defense showed no resistance last week against Georgia, giving up 31 points, over 200 yards through the air and over 200 yards on the ground. Auburn’s defense is overflowing with confidence after shutting down Missouri’s offense all night, especially in the trenches, giving up only 124 yards on the ground and just 14 points.
“They have a bunch of really, really talented guys,” Mullen said. “They do a nice job of scheming and making sure they’re in position. Most of them are top national players. They have talented, NFL-style players. Those guys are pretty good at disrupting things.”
When you look at the defensive side of the ball, there is not much of an argument on which unit is more talented. The Tigers are deeper top-to-bottom at almost every position, which is why the Bulldogs may have more of a problem moving the ball, more so than the Tigers, especially since the game is being played in Jordan-Hare. Only time will tell.
Now everyone wants to rave about the Auburn offense following a 51-point performance at Missouri, and how they are back. The key to the game is going to be how Nick Fitzgerald can adapt to this Auburn defense. Nick Fitzgerald is very talented, but he showed some of his flaws last week throwing two interceptions on the road and failing to adapt to the Georgia defense. He won’t get any break this week when he faces the Auburn defense in Jordan-Hare Stadium. Auburn ranks fourth in the nation in total defense, behind Clemson, UTSA, and Michigan. The Tigers give up just under four yards per play on average, and just over 236 yards of offense per game.
“They’re really good, like what we saw this past weekend,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re going to play multiple defenses and kind of switch it up. They’re big, fast, strong, physical – everything about an SEC defense.”
The Auburn offense should be able to score against the Mississippi State defense; that won’t be what people are questioning. The question lies with the Mississippi State offense. This offense has the chance to rebound and earn a huge upset win on the road, but if Nick Fitzgerald and the Bulldog offense have a repeat performance of last week, then it could be a long game.
An SEC home-opener against a Mississippi State team, who is running low on confidence, may be just what this Auburn football team needs. After falling short at Clemson, this is a game that Auburn and Coach Malzahn cannot afford to lose when you look at the schedule ahead. This is just one of two crucial games at home that the Tigers need to win before traveling to the other Death Valley in a matter of weeks, to face the LSU Tigers.