With the sixth week of the college football season swiftly approaching, Auburn prepares to leave the comfort of the plains for the first time all year.
Even though road tests at Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama lay ahead, it is this week’s matchup at Mississippi State’s Davis Wade Stadium that will shape the remainder of 2016 for the Tigers.
Auburn entered the season facing an uphill battle before week one had arrived when it kicked its only proven offensive playmaker, running back Jovon Robinson, off the team on the first day of fall camp. The immediate consensus was another finish at or near the bottom of the SEC West standings, if such was not assumed already.
That all changed with a surprising upset of LSU.
The Tigers now enter the heart of their conference schedule, and do so with a legitimate shot to make some noise within the division. With the exception of upcoming meetings with Vanderbilt and Alabama A&M, though, there is a strong possibility Saturday will be the last time Auburn is favored this season — making it even more crucial to take care of business against the Bulldogs.
The Auburn defense has been lights out so far in 2016, allowing only one opponent to hit the 20-point threshold through five games. This could prove vital against a Mississippi State offense has struggled mightily against respectable opponents.
Much will be made about the quarterback leading the Bulldogs, Nick Fitzgerald, and his outburst of 415 total yards and three touchdowns two weeks ago UMass. Easily forgotten is this showing came against a pedestrian defense that has failed to contain mobile quarterbacks all season long. Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson, who has recorded four sacks in the past four games, might be the most talented individual playing in this game, something that does not bode well for the Bulldogs.
The issue for the Tigers continues to be an inconsistent offense that holds back the team’s potential created by one of the conference’s most underrated defensive units. All hopes for improvement appear to hinge the recent shifting of play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee.
Auburn has manufactured a total of 14 touchdown drives in the two games since Lashlee took over the responsibilities from head coach Gus Malzahn. Although it is a small sample size, the offense does have a more electric feel to it. This was on full display last week during a 677-yard explosion against Louisiana-Monroe. Running back Kerryon Johnson torched the defense for 146 rushing yards and two touchdowns, which took considerable pressure off of the passing game. Sophomore quarterback Sean White took advantage, completing 14-of-17 passes for 239 yards and two touchdowns, while adding another score on the ground.
Just like with Fitzgerald’s most recent game, though, quality of competition, or lack thereof, generates skepticism. If the offense continues to turn the corner under its new play-caller this week, the Tigers will find themselves in a good position heading into the most brutal stretch of their schedule.
Matchup to watch: Auburn offensive line vs. Mississippi State defensive ends
Sean White has an opportunity for a huge passing performance against a mediocre Mississippi State secondary this weekend, but he is going to need quality protection in order to do so.
The Auburn offensive line appears to be gaining continuity as the season progresses, and with nine sacks on the season, the Bulldogs are not one of the SEC’s preeminent pass rushing threats. Still, the Tigers will face a considerable task as they attempt to contain Mississippi State’s defensive end duo of A.J. Jefferson and Johnathan Calvin.
Jefferson boasts first-round NFL Draft potential, and leads the team with three sacks. Calvin is less of a household name, but is experiencing a strong start to his senior season and has reached the quarterback in two of the past three games.
In a meeting of two unproven offenses, strong defensive play from the Tigers figures to be an X-factor. Auburn has held each of its past two opponents, LSU and Louisiana-Monroe, to only one touchdown. Mississippi State’s offense is not noticeably better than either.
The Tigers have a decent chance to hold their opponent under 20 points for the third consecutive week. If they are able to jump ahead early, they should cruise to a comfortable victory.
Final score: Auburn 24, Mississippi State 17