Last look: Auburn/Mississippi State capsule

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 14, 2013 

Who: Mississippi State (1-1) at Auburn (2-0)

When: Saturday, 7 p.m. ET

Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451) | Auburn, Ala.

TV: ESPN2

Radio: Auburn IMG Sports Network (WVRK-102.9 FM in Columbus; WGZZ-94.3 FM in Auburn/Opelika)

All-time series: Auburn leads 60-24-2

Quick game notes: Auburn's coaching staff features four assistants who were once on Mississippi State's staff. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson was in the same role at MSU from 2004-07, while co-defensive coordinator Charlie Harbison was in charge of the Bulldogs' secondary in 2007-08. J.B. Grimes, who coaches Auburn's offensive line, did the same at MSU for five years (2004-08) and cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith had two different stints in Starkville, Miss. He worked with the Bulldogs' wide receivers 1995-2001 and returned in 2006 to take over their cornerbacks before departing for the Plains at the end of last season. ... Auburn's victory over Arkansas State last week helped the Tigers start 2-0 for the 71st time in program history. In the 70 previous seasons when the Tigers began 2-0, they ended with a winning record 59 times. In the other 11 instances, they had a losing record six times and finished at .500 five times. ... Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen's 51-7 victory against Alcorn State last week was historic in more ways than one. Not only did he reach 30 wins faster than any coach in the school's modern era (53 games), but he moved into fourth on the Bulldogs' all-time victories list, breaking a tie with W.D. Chadwick, who led the Bulldogs from 1909-13. Mullen now trails only Jackie Sherrill (75 wins), Allyn McKeen (65 wins) and Emory Bellard (37 wins) in MSU's coaching annals. ... With Tyler Russell sitting out to continue healing from a concussion he suffered in the season opener versus Oklahoma State, Dak Prescott made his first start at quarterback for the Bulldogs last week. The sophomore completed 12 of his 19 attempts for 174 yards and two touchdowns. Prescott also had four carries for 20 yards, which included the game's first touchdown, an 11-yard score in the opening period. ... Ashton Shumpert led the Bulldogs in rushing last week, tallying 98 yards and two touchdowns. He became the first true freshman to finish a game as MSU's top rusher since Anthony Dixon in 2006. ... Auburn has gone six consecutive quarters without allowing a touchdown. The last time that happened came in 2008, versus Mississippi State (four quarters) and LSU (two quarters), respectively. ... Russell continues to move up MSU's all-time charts in various passing categories. Entering Saturday, he's fifth in career yardage (4,699), tied for fourth in career completions (349, the same as Tony Shell) and needs just one more touchdown toss to match Derrick Taite's school record (38). ... Auburn is 45-29-5 all-time in SEC openers, going 18-2 in the last 20 years. The two losses in that span were to Mississippi State last season (28-10) and in 2007 (19-14). ... Saturday will mark the 87th meeting between the Tigers and Bulldogs, with Auburn leading 60-24-2. In Starkville, the Tigers have gone 12-5-1 while also holding a 27-6 advantage on the Plains. The teams have also faced off multiple times in Birmingham, Ala. and Jackson, Miss., while squaring off once in both Columbus, Miss. (first meeting; Auburn won 18-0 in 1905) and Montgomery, Ala. (Auburn won 20-6 in 1938).

KEY MATCHUPS

Auburn running backs vs. Mississippi State front seven

The Tigers enter averaging 298 yards per game on the ground, second-best in the SEC behind Arkansas' 312 per outing. Auburn's strength lies in its depth; between Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, few teams in the country have as many capable ballcarriers. (That's not even counting quarterback Nick Marshall, an elusive and dynamic open field runner in his own right.) Mississippi State had polar opposite performances against the run in its first two games this fall. In the season opener, Oklahoma State tallied 286 yards on the ground out of its option-based "diamond" formation, which caught the Bulldogs off-guard. Last week versus Alcorn State, Mississippi State rebounded, allowing the Braves to gain just 28 yards. Tackles Chris Jones and Kaleb Eulls will be expected to lead the push up front, while all-everything linebacker Benardrick McKinney will try to track down the running backs who escape the backfield.

SLIGHT EDGE: Auburn, The Bulldogs showed they can stop the run against a hapless FCS opponent last Saturday. Until they do it against a team of substance, the Tigers' well-rounded running game gets the advantage here.

Tyler Russell vs. Auburn secondary

It's a matter of public record that Russell pretty well had his way with Auburn last season. He completed 69 percent of his passes (20-for-29) for 222 yards and three touchdowns. And he did it without throwing an interception. Many of the same players Russell torched last season are back in Auburn's secondary, including corners Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy along with safety Jermaine Whitehead. Through two games this season, however, the Tigers have shown improvement despite the loss of Jonathan Jones to an ankle injury and Demetruce McNeal's dismissal in fall camp. Auburn has only allowed one touchdown pass this season against three interceptions, with those two coming from the only two starters not already mentioned: "Star" Robenson Therezie and boundary safety Josh Holsey.

EDGE: Even, With Russell coming off a week of not playing, it's unknown how he will look Saturday. Did sitting out help him fine-tune some things? Or will the lack snaps against a live opponent come back to bite him and the Bulldogs this week? Auburn, on the other hand, didn't have a pick last week after snagged a trio in the season opener versus Washington State. The Tigers are better on the back end than what Russell faced last season, while the Bulldogs' receiving corps isn't nearly as experienced as the 2012 edition. On paper, it's basically too close to call.

Tre Mason vs. Mississippi State's kickoff coverage team

The matchups of the first two weeks haven't had to highlight special teams yet. That changes Saturday. Auburn owns the third-best kick return average (39.6) in the conference, trailing only Alabama (54.5), which has only played one game, and right on the heels of Mississippi State's 39.8 average. However, only the Tigers and Crimson Tide have returned a kick for a score this year, with both of those coming in the opening weekend. While the Bulldogs are neck-and-neck with the Tigers on returns, coverage is another story; Auburn owns the third-highest net average among all SEC teams. Mississippi State, meanwhile, is 12th, averaging just a hair over 39.1 yards. If they don't find a way to shore that up Saturday, Mason, who is tops in Auburn history for average yards per kick return (28.29) could up that total — and possibly add his second touchdown of the season.

BIG EDGE: Auburn. Should this come as any surprise? The combination of having the top kick returner in school history facing a team that has struggled in its coverage gives the Tigers the decided upper hand in this area. And big plays on special teams always seem to figure prominently in the outcome of a game, don't they?

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