Preparing to play Auburn is a bit of an interesting challenge for Mississippi State. Despite the fact the Tigers have played three games, including one common opponent, the Bulldogs aren’t really sure what to expect. Part of that mystery comes from changes in personnel, but much of it comes from the sort of oddness surrounding the early portion of Auburn’s season.
They’re 2-1, but the one loss was in blowout fashion last week to LSU and the two wins were tough to secure over non-conference opponents. In the preseason, Auburn was picked to win the SEC West and their new quarterback was considered one of the Heisman favorites. Only entering their fourth game, the quarterback has already been benched and expectations have plummeted.
Going into Saturday’s contest, Auburn is 13th in the conference in total defense, while MSU’s offense is third in the conference and has been humming at a seemingly unstoppable pace for the last five quarters, scoring 75 points in that stretch. Auburn’s offense has struggled to find rhythm and has consistently turned the ball over, while State’s defense has had moments of greatness and has performed admirably almost overall.
All of that said, MSU’s players and coaches still expect a strong opponent, a tough game and a big atmosphere on the road at Auburn. And it’s not coachspeak.
“I’m not really judging them off the last two games,” MSU quarterback Dak Prescott said. “We know it’s going to be a close game; a tough one, anyway, on the road at Auburn. We’re expecting a big-time team and that’s what we’re going to prepare for.”
The reason for that is the amount of talent seen on film when MSU has been scouting Auburn. To this point, the production has not met the ability, as Auburn’s coaches have said this week and as evidenced by their personnel moves.
But every interview with a Bulldog coach or player this week came with a similar refrain: Auburn is still good, even if they haven’t shown it necessarily. Wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales touted the ability of Auburn’s defensive backs. Head coach Dan Mullen had high praise for the front seven, believing the Tigers have one of the best defensive tackles and two of the best linebackers in the entire conference.
It was Mullen who said Monday that the statistics for Auburn are misleading this early in the season and that, despite what others may believe, the Tigers are still capable of great things.
“Look at the different talent they have all over the field,” Mullen said. “They’re getting back to playing at home where they have a great home record. We’re really going to have our hands full. We’re going to have to play at a high level. Any time you go on the road you have to do that.”
It’s a bit odd to, at the same time, scout the team you’ve seen on film and also prepare for the different team you think they can be. The task is doubly difficult for defensive coordinator Manny Diaz after Auburn’s change at quarterback. Had they stayed with Jeremy Johnson, there was film aplenty. But now, AU coach Gus Malzahn has made the switch to redshirt freshman Sean White.
Whenever White takes the field Saturday, it will be the very first play of his college career. Any possible film on White is at least two years old, coming from his high school days.
The only thing anyone outside of the Auburn coaching staff really does know about White is that he is a more a pro-style quarterback, a pocket passer with less mobility than Johnson, though he’s apparently not statuesque either.
Despite the change, Diaz says MSU’s defensive plan remains, more or less, the same.
“You still have to prepare for what they do historically on offense,” Diaz said. “You know that no matter who they put at quarterback, they’re still going to be a well-coached outfit. You know that they’re going to put a lot of stress on you.
“And you still know that, no matter who’s playing quarterback at Auburn, from Cam Newton to Nick Marshall or whoever, still job No. 1 is to stop the run because everything they do in the throwing game comes off the running game. Who’s driving the car isn’t as much of a concern as making sure we can handle all the questions their offense asks of us.”
The key Saturday for MSU, Diaz believes, is discipline. He knows Malzahn’s offense well, having seen it many times before, even last year when he was at Louisiana Tech and played against Auburn. What he’s stressed to his players is to follow the guidelines given. Stay in their gaps. Know where they’re supposed to be. Stick to the gameplan, basically, and they will hopefully come out on top.
Malzahn’s offenses, no matter who runs them (and Malzahn said this week he’s strongly considering using the wildcat formation, too), look for weaknesses in the opposing defense. They wait for the moment they see the slightest of breaths being taken and then they attack. They search for a hole in the defense and they go straight at it.
“They present so many formations, so many motions, and all it takes is someone’s eyes to wander for a moment and then they pounce on you with their tempo,” Diaz said. “There’s always a threat of an explosive pass play. As a defensive coach, you like going against an offense like that because it really puts the pressure on your guys to make sure that snap after snap, they’re paying attention and have their eyes in the right spot.”
So, maybe MSU gets the Auburn they’ve seen the last two games. Maybe MSU gets the Auburn everyone expected in the preseason. Maybe the new quarterback is an immediate star, or maybe he has the natural struggles of a freshman in his first start.
Whatever happens, MSU believes it has to play its best, motivated largely by a faith that everything they want is still attainable. It was Prescott who said the west can still be won with a single SEC loss. But two losses, this early, would create a very steep hill to climb.
“It’s going to really set the tone for the season,” Prescott said of Saturday’s game. “We still have everything in front of us. If we win this game, we’re still right in the position we need to be. If we lose it, we’ve got to get some things straight.”