Tuesday, June 16, 2009

2009 Cheese Puff Previews: Mississippi St.

Back by popular demand blogger fiat, it's your No. 1 most favorite tolerated series of near-substanceless, air-injected preview puffery. As always, it should in no way be mistaken for actual preseason football nutrition, but hopefully you find the series unaccountably tasty and even habit-forming. And so it is unofficially sponsored by:

Ah, Mississippi St.

Last year wasn't really fun for any of us, and I don't just mean the 3-2 thing, though that was just about the least fun victory in Auburn history. (And yet, somehow, the Tennessee game two weeks later would just about top it. Amazing season, that Season of DEATH.) I mean the part where after a bowl-bound, eight-win season so fluky 2002 Ohio St. looked over and said "Damn, you guys got lucky," you actually expected the good times to keep rolling. The rest of us could see the regression to the inevitable mean coming a mile away, so even though we'd be fine seeing you continue to catch a few breaks for once (or, after 2007, twice), there wasn't much we could do other than keep wishing you luck ... as you lost to Louisiana Tech to open the season, lost 3-2 at home to (ahem) a team that would finish 2-6 in the SEC, got obliterated by the worst Tennessee team in memory, struggled gamely but lost anyway to Kentucky and Arkansas, and finally honored your annual rivalry game by laying one serious whopper of an egg in the season finale. I mean, when was the last time you had genuine expectations, Mississippi St.? And then they get crushed like so many tiny, tiny nuts at the local ice cream shop. It's a cruel, cruel world out there, and I don't know if anyone (other than Ole Miss fans) enjoyed seeing you served so cold a reminder.

But it's a new year! With a new coach! And a new, possibly functional offense! But just like always, we're wishing you ... oh, wait, right, that new coach of yours joined his jerkwad former mentor in shooting his mouth off about the Limo Gambit, implying that the coaches for one of the richest programs in the country were skimping on the team's athletic equipment to rent a limo for a week.

Whatever. Enjoy another year in 4-8ville, Bulldogs.

Last year: Pretty much covered that. Exeunt Sly Croom and his 21-38 record, enter Dan Mullen.

Notable previous meeting: Between changing the institution's name from Mississippi A&M to Mississippi State College in 1932 and then to Mississippi State University in 1961, "MSC"'s athletics teams were known by the nickname "Maroons." This inspired a float in Auburn's 1952 Homecoming parade bearing the banner "Maroon the Maroons!," upon which a papier-mache State player was alone on a tiny "island" as several costumed orange-and-blue "Tiger sharks" surrounded him. A snapshot of the float appeared on the cover of Friday's Opelika-Auburn News.

Unfortunately for Auburn, when the Maroons arrived in town Friday afternoon, a copy of the paper found its way into the hands of first-year MSC head coach Murray Warmath. Warmath was incensed, believing the float to be a joke at the expense of his nephew Jackie Fitcherson, who had died serving his country in the Pacific theater of World War II some nine years previous. Fitcherson had been aboard a transport plane that had been blown off course and eventually found crash-landed on an uninhabitable island only a few acres across. The Saturday Evening Post had famously reported that Navy investigators had found signs of possible human activity following the crash, but no survivors, and quoted a corporal who speculated that the survivors had unsuccessfully attempted to swim through "shark-infested waters" to a second island in the far distance.

Warmath angrily called Shug Jordan (then in his second season on the Plains) Friday evening, accusing the students responsible of having found the Post article and using it to secretly perpetrate a "classless and depraved" prank at Warmath's expense. He threatened to have his team no-show and forfeit the game unless he and "the heroic men on that plane" received a full public apology. Jordan was able to calm Warmath down, and alongside the president of Auburn's chapter of Alpha Phi Omega--the service fraternity responsible for the float--met with him over breakfast early Saturday to reassure him that the apparent connection was purely coincidental, and no offense was meant. An emotional Warmath (allegedly deeply shaken by the loss of Fitcherson, his sister's son) agreed not to forfeit the game, but insisted on the apology. Buoyed by their head coach's fiery pregame pep talk--which one Maroon would later recall as "like a demon from Hell itself had gotten into him"--Mississippi St. would go on to ruin Auburn's Homecoming with a 49-34 win.

Alpha Phi Omega's apology was printed in the Auburn Plainsman as promised--two sentences, in an unheadlined one-inch box at the bottom of page 17 (of 18).

Actual* series history: Auburn leads the all-time series 56-23-2 and has won seven of the previous eight meetings--though after an average victory margin of 30.2 points through the first six games of that span (all of them Auburn victories), the last two meetings have been decided by a total of six points.

Causes for Alarm

1. Does Auburn still kind of owe Mississippi St. for beating the Tide in back-to-back years? At the time, that was some delicious, delicious embarrassment, as sweet as Tide defeats administered by a team other than ourselves got. (That said, I think we're even after the 2007 game ... and the fact that Shula's Crooming helped lead to Saban's arrival. Very, very even.)

2. I dunno, when you live in a city where they put the word "stark" right there in the name, and play for a University that can't even figure out how to spell its own name ... wouldn't that give you a chip on your shoulder? Wouldn't you be kind of mad at the world? Wouldn't you be ready to take it out on whatever person crossed your path that happened to live in a place where, just hypothetically speaking, maybe some magazine, like, I don't know, let's say U.S. News and World Report, just for the hell of it, had just happened to name that place to one of those, whaddaya call 'em, Best Places to Live lists? I would think you would be, and I think this goes a long way towards explaining why for all of their offensive issues, the Bulldogs have boasted one hard-hitting defense for years.

Causes for Confidence

1. I'm tempted to say "If Greg Knox does for the Mississippi State running backs' hands what he's done for Auburn's receivers' hands for the past couple of years, we should plan on nabbing at least a couple of fumble recoveries," but that seems a ridiculously bitter thing to say about a guy who served Auburn faithfully and well (well, sort-of well) for many years.

So I'll just say instead that if Knox was serious when he compared new running back charges Tony Dixon and Co. to Cadillac, Ronnie, Deuce McAllister, etc., such a short memory following those years of service deserves some sort of reprisal. (Note: he probably wasn't serious and was just doing the standard coaching "this current player in front of me that you, media person, are asking me about is the best I've ever seen/coached/watched play the violin/fed a dozen chicken pot pies to" response. The real coaching karma points in Auburn's favor come from Mullen running his mouth. But I covered that already.)

2. This veers towards "actual alleged analysis" territory, but it really is quite simple: last year Auburn was a worse team than Auburn will be this year and was playing a Miss. St. team that by near-universal consensus was better than this year's team will be. Auburn played that team on the road, finished -2 in turnover margin, handed over a safety on an end-zone holding call, never scored a touchdown, missed multiple field goals ... and still won the game. Better Auburn team, worse Miss St. team, better Auburn performance, worse (at least defensively) Miss. St. performance ... the math here doesn't look hard.

Actual alleged analysis: That's not to say, of course, it won't actually be hard for Auburn. Tony Dixon is indeed an industrious back, and Mullen's a creative enough guy (and Auburn potentially soft enough in the front seven) that I could see Dixon grinding out a goodly number of first downs. Tyson Lee is the latest wearer of the ever-revolving Not Actually That Bad mantle for Mississippi St. quarterbacks, and even if the last few wearers have gone back to wearing the crown of Wait He Really Is That Bad, Lee could always be the exception. State only returns three or four defensive starters, but new DC Carl Torbush is an old pro who should know what he's doing and will likely keep at least some semblance of the old Ellis Johnson stoutness intact. If Auburn's offense is experiencing more transitional issues than the Bulldogs and Dixon opens up enough throwing lanes that even Lee can't screw things up, sure, we could have a 2007 repeat on our hands.

But ... eh, I just don't think it's likely. What's likely is that Auburn will have the better team and better season than Mississippi St. this year. Here, I'll just quote Phil Steele:
Mullen inherits a team that was -111 ypg in conference play (SEC worst) ... their 10 returning starters are the fewest in the SEC. With the coaching change, learning new schemes on both sides of the ball and going from a run offense to a pass offense (I'm not sure that's how it's going to operate, for the record--ed.), this clearly looks like a rebuilding year and I do not see the Bulldogs even matching LY's 4 win total.
So ... yeah. As Acid Reign recounted in his Track'Em preview, Mullen's first recruiting class had a lot of talent that's expected to come in and contribute immediately ... but that it's expected to contribute immediately should also tell you how thin State's roster is. Is a team with a new coaching staff, three new starters in the secondary, three new starters on the defensive line, three new starters in the WR/TE corps and two starters on the offensive line really going to be ready in the second game of the year to come into Jordan-Hare and walk out with a win? Especially when many of those starters (Lee, the offensive linemen, lone remaining corner Marcus Washington) were so ineffectual last year?

If that win happens--and I'll admit it's as much in the realm of possibility as that win two years ago was--the Auburn coaching staff really might want to think about going easy on the limos and investing in, say, some better shoes.

*Anyone wondering about the preceding story, please do note the emphasis on the word "Actual" here. Thanks.

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