Friday, September 12, 2008

Friday preview: Miss. St.

Good luck, kid. You're going to need it.

First, if you haven't read the Cheese Puff Preview for Miss. St. ... you should, and it's available here.

At stake: For Auburn, their exceedingly tenuous grip on the labels of "SEC West co-favorite" and "potential BCS bowl participant and crystal football dark horse." It's true that the Bulldogs' 2007 Liberty Bowl run (however fluke-driven and/or "charmed" it may have been) has more-or-less removed the doomsday connotations the term "Croomed" carried for the first several seasons of his tenure, but it doesn't much matter where Auburn is concerned: lose to the team that lost to La. Tech and--as with Southern Miss--you've kissed any and all national aspirations good-bye, barring a surprise SEC title.

That latter caveat is why this week's game is so decisively more important for Auburn than last week's, even when a loss to the Bulldogs would be widely viewed as more "understandable" than a defeat to the Golden Eagles. Either way, to road to reclaiming post-upset respectability would run through Atlanta, but that road's a hell of a lot steeper, obviously, when that upset comes in conference play.

Entering the season, I would have said those stakes would dwarf what State would have on the table. There was some preseason chatter from Croom and the Bulldogs about SEC titles and BCS games, but surely that isn't what this season is about for them, is it? It's about continuing the slow march of progress, about finding an offensive identity besides "toothless," about showing that a bowl berth is in fact the norm in Starkville and not merely a flash in a fortunate pan forged from pick-sixes and yardage deficits. A victory over Auburn would have always been nice, but by itself it wouldn't have kept the Bulldogs from accomplishing those other things.

After the loss in Ruston, though, it sure as hell might. As Kyle Veazey told us this week, the loss to Tech "changed the entire complexion of this season"--building on last season's gains with road games still to come at LSU, Alabama, Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Georgia Tech--potentially top-25 teams all--may now be out of the question. To even get back to 7-5 or 6-6 (and bowl eligibility) is going to require not only a perfect record in winnable, toss-up-type games, but a pretty sizable upset somewhere along the way.

The only team that offers State a chance at that upset in the friendly confines of Davis Wade Stadium is Auburn. Win, and the Tech loss is already a footnote; lose, and their already-imposing trip to Atlanta (why would the Bulldogs win at Georgia Tech if they've already proven they couldn't win at Louisiana Tech?) is the only thing standing between the Bulldogs and a 1-4 start that would take every molecule of air out of Croom's 2007 balloon. Even in these circumstances a loss to Auburn in Auburn might be forgivable, but with the game in Starkville Croom needs this one, and he needs it badly.

When Miss. St. has the ball: You would think they'd run with it. Far and away the most recognizable non-QB name on the Bulldog offense--and maybe even with quarterback Wesley Carroll included--has to be Anthony Dixon, and with good reason: he gained 1,066 yards (more than a quarter of the team's entire offensive output) and scored 14 times in 2007, not an insignificant thing when you're talking about an offense that had averaged 13.9 points a game as recently as 2005. Between Dixon and Christian Ducre (who out-averaged Dixon 4.3-3.7 per-carry last year), State probably has more talent at the running back position than anywhere else on the unit.

But after State's first two games of the season, it seems they might put the ball in the air more than Auburn fans who saw them complete all of five passes in the teams' 2007 meeting (compared to a whopping 43 runs) might expect them to. The Bulldogs got stuffed on the ground in Ruston, rushing for 91 yards on 31 carries. Some of that was sack yardage--Dixon averaged 5.1 on his 18 carries--but a second relatively underwhelming performance against Southeast Louisiana (where their allegedly run-first-run-second offense failed to crack five-a-carry against a mediocre I-AA squad, despite not giving up a sack) suggests that the State ground game is pretty much where it was a year ago: steady, consistent, dependable, etc., but not a breakaway threat in the least and likely hard-pressed to sustain drives on its own.

Which goes part of the way to explaining why State threw the ball 40 times against La. Tech. Loss aside, it's not as if they didn't have some success--the Bulldogs completed 22 of those passes and picked up 257 yards, a higher total than in all but one game last season. They were similarly efficient against SeLa, going 18-27 for 175 yards and two TDs. Sophomore Carroll--he of the 137 passes without an interception to start a career, the second-longest such streak in NCAA history--is expected to play the duration of the Auburn game after splitting time with juco Tyson Lee against La. Tech, then definitively claiming the job against SeLa. State also has some talent at receiver, including All-Name team representative Co-Eric Riley, senior Jamayel Smith, and current leading receiver Brandon McRae, a 6-4 200-pound junior with 12 catches and 2 TDs already this year.

Between 1. Carroll's relative success (not just against SeLa but at the end of 2007, including a 421-yard explosion against Arkansas) 2. the ground game's relative struggles 3. the emergence of McCrae 4. the relative weakness in the Auburn secondary, I'd be very surprised if the Bulldogs utilized the same cloud-of-dust approach they brought to Jordan-Hare last year.

But is that a good thing for State? Because, I'll be honest, "splitting time" isn't the most accurate portrayal of what happened with Carroll and Lee in Ruston--Carroll threw three backbreaking picks and got his rear end benched. Those picks ended up the clear difference in a game in which State outgained their opponents 348-296. From here, the State offense looks like it faces a Catch-22: particularly against a front seven as feisty as Auburn's, the Bulldogs aren't likely to move the chains running the same one-dimensional attack they ran last year against the Tigers. At the same time, the deck's already stacked enough against them that their chances of surviving a big turnover or two via Carroll's wayward arm are essentially zero.

Their options might look better if their offensive line appeared more stout, and on paper they should be: despite the loss of second-team All-SEC tackle Michael Brown in the spring, the Bulldogs return experienced starters at both guard positions and have and have an up-and-comer at left tackle in sophomore Derek Sherrod (PS #11). State nonetheless posted the underwhelming rush stats listed above and gave up three critical sacks to La. Tech--what are they going to do with Coleman, Marks, Blackmon, et al?

If--if--the line can keep Carroll clean, and if the ground game can keep the Auburn blitzers and safeties honest, the Bulldogs can probably pick up some yards through the air. But those are two gigantic If's, and even if Carroll does get the Bulldogs moving, there's no guarantee he won't throw those gains away with an ill-advised pick. If picking between this offense and Southern Miss's--superior to MSU's in scheme by a mile and in talent across the board--I take the Eagles in a heartbeat. They topped out against the Auburn D, you'll recall, at all of 13 turnover-aided points. It's going to be tough, tough sledding for the Bulldogs.

When Auburn has the ball: They'd better hang on to it. Though State finished the season dead-even in turnover margin in 2007, all three of their biggest victories--over Auburn, Alabama, and Kentucky--were fueled by big days in the turnover department and/or an interception return (or returns) for six. There's little reason to think the State offense is going to break, say, 17 points against the Auburn defense by itself, so if the Tiger offense doesn't go the effort of actively handing State a touchdown or two, Auburn's down-to-down advantage should pay off on the scoreboard by game's end.

Of course, holding on to the ball is easier said than done against State's corps of ballhawks in the secondary. You know free safety Derek Pegues, he of the nine picks the past two seasons and multiple game-breaking returns both in the defensive backfield and on special teams, but State returns three other senior starters (including hard-hitting strong safety Keith Fitzhugh) to make what Jay Tate called the SEC's best secondary. That's debatable, but what's not is that these guys are capital-G Good. They'll have a major match-up advantage against an Auburn receiving corps that looked much better against Southern Miss--getting Billings back and Trott actually included in the gameplan helped, no?--but still hasn't exactly set the world on fire.

The good news for Auburn on the turnover front is that the Spread Eagle's quick-hittin' philosophy and reluctance to go deep--not to mention the ongoing debate as to whether Chris Todd would even be willing and able to go deep if asked--should limit Pegues and Co.'s opportunities for the big pick. Todd should also have plenty of time to throw, given how sharp Auburn's o-line has been in pass protection the first two weeks and that State couldn't register a single sack in 41 La. Tech passing attempts. On the other hand, against ULM Todd looked like he'd be happy to throw all manner of interceptions, regardless of duress or how far downfield the pass might go. He tightened things up against USM, of course, but there's no guarantee we're out of Evil Brandon's Hundred Acre Woods, either. As for Auburn's case of the fumblies last Saturday, your guess is as good as mine whether that continues or not; I'd hope it's a fluke and that it corrects itself this week, but who knows.

Add it all together and Auburn should be able to avoid the giveaway-fest that doomed them last year in this game, but it'll come down to Todd being careful with the ball--against an offensively-challenged team like State, caution and smart decision-making will be even more in order than they usually would be--and the backs not dropping the ball all over the field like so many Johnny Footballseed impersonators.

Even if the Auburn offense doesn't turn it over, don't expect Points Xplosion 2008. It's true that outside of the secondary the Bulldogs have lost a lot from their stout 2007 defense: both DEs (including pass-rush terror Titus Brown), defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, starting senior middle linebacker Jamar Chaney. Chaney went down against La. Tech with a broken leg and is being replaced by Tiny McTinyson, World's Smallest and Cutest Linebacker. But even with all of that, I doubt Auburn's going to have an easy time of it: in addition to the continuing Spread Eagle growing pains and the skill in State's secondary, I simply doubt the hard-nosed, fundamentally-sound attitude Johnson instilled will have dissipated in the space of a single offseason. That La. Tech's and SeLa's offenses sputtered badly--the latter of which gained only 148 total yards--suggests it hasn't.

The question is if the State offense can give their D enough of a blow to avoid getting worn down by the no-huddle and the Auburn o-line as the game progresses. If they do: Congratulations, Auburn fans, we've won yet another week about hearing why Tony Franklin's offense can't work in the SEC. That'll be a lot of fun for everyone.

When special teams are on the field: Auburn should have the advantage. The frightening phase for the Tigers will be kickoffs, where neither Hull nor Byrum nor Auburn's coverage unit have been consistent and Pegues will be waiting. But everywhere else, the needle points towards Auburn: Byrum is Byrum, Dunn is Dunn (or at least he will be if State kicks to him ... either way, Auburn wins), Durst's rockets should help negate Pegues's punt return ability, and the Theory of Tristan Davis should finally be locked-and-loaded. Neither MSU specialist exactly has a track record of brilliance, either. (Punter Blake McAdam averaged 31.9 yards gross--not net--on seven punts vs. La. Tech. Ewww.) Given how massive field position will be in a game that will likely see both offenses bog down for stretches, this is a great big whopping neon-flashing plus for Auburn.

Intangible reason for worry: One thing we can probably all agree on: however lucky State's 2007 season might have been--and make no mistake, the Bulldogs received a Commendation of Achievement at County Cork's recent Leprechaun Convention--there's no regression-to-the-mean that's going to keep them from bagging some quality SEC scalp or other this year. It's happened every year of Croom's tenure. It's going to happen again this year. It's going to happen again next year. And it's going to happen without much rhyme or reason--sure, it helps if the coach on the other sideline is a Zook, a Shula, or an Orgeron, but that's not a guarantee, as Tubby, Saban, and Brooks found out the hard way in 2007. The odds are not, in my very humble opinion, on it happening Saturday. But they're not any worse than it happening the Saturday after that, or the one after that, or the one after that. (OK, not the middle one in this sequence--that's LSU in Baton Rouge. That's not happening.)

(A second, less-tangible intangible reason for worry: just to spoil the suspense, I'm predicting an Auburn victory. If you've read the Cheese Puff Preview linked at the top, you'll know why this makes me nervous, even if I'm most assuredly not going to do so in quite such a ... brash fashion.)

Intangible reason for confidence: I'm stoked for this game, but next week's game makes me want to run up and down a flowery mountainside meadow singing about it. What the hills should be alive with is the sound of freaking Auburn-LSU Southeastern Conference college football, man. (This anticipation is not solely due to the fact that I'm going to be there. Though, yeah, it helps.) And I strongly suspect I'm not the only Auburn fan that feels that way--as nice as it is to have college football back in our lives, what fuels the obsession isn't the workmanlike victories over Louisiana-Monroes nor the 11:30 Raycom slapfights with Southern Miss nor even an awesome nationally-televised SEC opener against a strong, proud Mississippi State program that will be fighting for its life. It's the titanic, epic, tell-your-grandkids-about-it Clashes of the Top 10 Titans at home, at night, against the team that's stood in your team's way more often over the past decade years than any other. That's the good stuff, folks, and it's going to seem like one ungodly letdown if Auburn limps into it at 0-1 in the SEC and suddenly lingering around the fringes of the top 25. Auburn-LSU deserves better. Surely, surely, our Tigers will not disappoint us; surely the college football gods will extend their mercy not only to us, but to all college football fans who will want to tune in for the best this sport has to offer that warm night.

Three wishes: 1. That whoever handles kickoffs sticks half of them in the end zone; Pegues is too dangerous and our coverage too iffy to do otherwise. 2. That at least two touchdown drives are capped with Kodi Burns on the field; the sooner we get everyone used to the idea of Kodi as "red zone specialist" role I firmly believe we're going to need him for when all is said and done, the better. 3. Tristan Davis returns kicks like its 2006 all over again.

Success is / Failure is: Any win in which we outgain State by greater than 100 yards and generally look worthy of facing LSU / A loss or a win in which the Spread Eagle legitimately appears unready for SEC defenses.

The bottom line: Every time I try to imagine Mississippi State winning this game, I come back to the same question: are they really going to score on this Auburn defense? Like, at all? I don't mean to be insulting--again, not after last year--and I'm well aware that State has solid players. Dixon: solid. McCrae: sure seems solid. Carroll: yes, even Carroll, assuming he's learned his lesson from the Tech game: solid.

But solid isn't enough against the Auburn defense I've seen the first two weeks. Getting back to the USM comparison, Austin Davis was the epitome of solid and Shawn Nelson, Damion Fletcher, and DeAndre Brown were all of the way-the-hell-better-than-solid variety; Auburn still shut them out until Burns gave them the ball on the Tiger 27 or so. The one place USM wasn't up to snuff was the interior of their o-line, and Marks, Doolittle, and Blanc ended up leaving their guards' heads on pikes outside Jordan-Hare as a warning. Against this defense, solid isn't good enough and any weakness is going to be ruthlessly exploited. To my mind, Miss St. a) doesn't have players better than solid b) does have a weakness, in their pass protection c) has never, under Croom, shown any kind of schematic innovation that might make up for these deficiencies. If the Bulldogs score one touchdown, it happens. If they score two, I'll be surprised. If they score three, I'll be flabbergasted. If they score four or more touchdowns against Auburn's defense, I'll start work on the bomb shelter.

As for Auburn's offense, I'd like to think the drive-at-will first half against USM will become the norm for the Spread Eagle starting this week, but I'd also like to think the next comment left at this blog will be Rece Davis telling me what a remarkably insightful writer I am and offering me Mark May's old job. In short: I think the Auburn offense's best days will remain ahead of it even after this week. In Starkville, particularly, there's too much experience on the State D to expect a repeat of 300-some-odd yards through three quarters. I think.

That said? The Spread Eagle will get the job done. Auburn's offensive line is too physical for State to completely stop the run game, and State's pass rush isn't productive enough to completely stop Auburn's passing game, even given the strength in the secondary. Add in that Auburn's special teams advantages should lead to shorter-than-usual fields, and I wouldn't be surprised if--thanks to reduced fumbling and a big fourth quarter against an exhausted Bulldog defense--the Tigers finish with more points than they did against USM, even if they don't look quite as sharp overall.

Even given all the screw-ups and mishaps and blunders and mental errors in last year's game, Auburn still outgained State by more than 100 yards. Unless Carroll just goes completely Matt Flynn on us, I don't see enough reasons to think that number should shrink; in fact, there are more reasons to think that margin would grow. State overcame that kind of deficit once, and you can't say with certainty they won't do it again. But it wouldn't make a whole lot of logical sense.

And so, in one final attempt to look spectacularly wrong ...

Auburn 29, Mississippi St. 9


A united method said...

I don't care if you are wrong, I'm just so friggin tired of hearing about Chris Wells... who the hell is that anyway?! God help us...I want the OSU/USC game to be over so we can move on to what really matters - the dismantling of Dixon and Brown.

Acid Reign said...

.....Well, I won't be carpet-bombing any internet threads on the crappy laptop I've got, at the beach Saturday night. I'll be watching, though, and I might sneak a peek at ABC, during the commercials. Frankly, I think USC bombs the Buckeyes out on the west coast. No big drama there, to me.

.....But, like Jerry, I'm expecting a better result against the Bulldogs, this year. I listened to that horror show last year, driving down to the beach, and I let the misery of it mess up at least a day or two of my trip!

.....If we can cover rookie tight ends, and not have a turnover melt-down, I think we win. I'd vote for getting this thing to blow-out dimensions quickly, and resting folks for LSU. Don't really think it will happen, though. Especially if Ike feeder bands inundate the field...