Auburn is “huge,” Mullen and players believe

For months, I’ve said the key to Mississippi State’s season (outside of the offensive line or things like that) is the Auburn game.

The Tigers are the team MSU has been oh-so-close to beating, and also immediately behind in the SEC West standings the last two years. Playing Auburn early in the season has been a chance for the Bulldogs to set the tone against a big-time opponent who they also know they are capable of beating.

Chris Relf runs the ball against Auburn in 2011.

However, MSU hasn’t beat them, and the team is painfully aware of it. As are the fans. Especially the critics have pointed it out.

Now that the week to face Auburn and open SEC play for 2012 is here, the coaches and players may be less candid in their thoughts on the big matchup. Naturally, they will concede it’s an important one, but “all games are important,” they may tell us.

But before we even talk to Dan Mullen, Tyler Russell or Johnthan Banks, let’s take a quick look back to late July. It was barely over a month ago, thought it seems like much more, when MSU went to SEC Media Days in Birmingham and then hosted the Central Mississippi Extravaganza in Jackson.

Back then, no one was hesitant to stress the importance of playing Auburn.

It’s huge,” Mullen said. “I’ve made a big emphasis, and unfortunately, the last two years we’ve opened up SEC play against Auburn and we lost on the last play of the game last year, then the year before threw an interception on a game-winning drive.”

Indeed, MSU has had some tough endings against Auburn. The Bulldogs came up inches short on The Plains last year despite one of the best offensive outputs of the season.

In Mullen’s eyes, it’s not just about beating a team in the west who has given him frustrations. Getting an early jump in both the division and the conference standings is a big boost.

“That’s the most important game we play within the conference, because it’s your first game,” Mullen said. “To get that win in the opening game of the conference is critical. It sets the stage for the rest of the year. If you win that game, you’re two games ahead of that team with the tiebreaker. Not only are you 1-0, but that against that specific team, you’re two games ahead. When you lose that first game in the conference, you’re already two games behind that team.”

And for a team Mullen has finished one spot behind the last two seasons, getting two games ahead of Auburn is paramount to his goals in the SEC.

However, I’ve said myself that beating Auburn has much more of an impact than just conference standings. MSU has significant momentum and confidence from the offseason and a convincing win over Jackson State.

My thought: if MSU beats Auburn, that confidence grows and continues. If State falls to Auburn for the fourth-straight year, said momentum and confidence may be hard to re-capture.

Said All-American and team captain Johnthan Banks, “I think that Auburn game, it really sets the tone for our season. If we can go out and handle business against Auburn, I think we’ll have a really good season.”

I tend to agree.

And so does senior linebacker Cam Lawrence, another captain for the team.

“Huge,” Lawrence said. “I can’t stress that enough. That’s definitely one we’ve got circled on our calendar.”

So you don’t have to take my word for it.

As the ones who have to play the game have said, Auburn is huge.

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