AUBURN, Ala. — The more two teams play, the higher the probability a rivalry will develop.
Cue the “familiarity breeds contempt” adage. In the case of Auburn and Mississippi State, Saturday marks the 10th consecutive year they begin their Southeastern Conference slate opposite the other. That will change next season, as Auburn will kick off the 2014 campaign versus Arkansas. In the past nine SEC openers featuring the Tigers and Bulldogs, Auburn held a decided advantage, posting a 7-2 record.
Given how one-sided the rivalry has been since 2004, it came as no surprise that Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen considers last year’s 28-10 victory over Auburn — his first time toppling the Tigers since taking over the Bulldogs in 2009 — among his best.
“Just because every year you start off with them, so it adds that natural rivalry,” Mullen said. “I've always felt that way wherever I've been about that first conference game, especially because every year, (we open with) Auburn. If it rotates, it's a little different. But every year, when it's the same team in the first conference game, it makes it huge.”
Another subplot was added to the series during the offseason, when Auburn hired Melvin Smith to coach its cornerbacks. Smith had served in the same position for the Bulldogs the previous seven years. His knowledge of Mississippi State’s offense has made Auburn's preparations for Saturday a bit easier.
“He’s been there for a couple years and he knows the offense pretty well,” cornerback Jonathon Mincy said. “ (The) defense is trying soak up as much information as we can on all their players and personnel. There’s just great feedback from him.”
Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson agreed, saying Smith can offer tidbits about players that don’t always show up in film study.
“It’s always good to have insight,” he said. “Sometimes a guy doesn’t look fast on tape and he is. Sometimes a guy looks fast and maybe he isn’t. I think (Smith is) a big help.”
With coaching turnover commonplace, Mullen said his offense has made the necessary adjustments to make sure Smith — or any other former member of his staff the Bulldogs might face — can’t give away too much.
“We try to change things up a little bit every year just because of those situations,” he said of Smith’s move to Auburn. “I know teams aren't supposed to videotape guys signaling, but I don't know that everybody maybe follows that rule, so we're pretty cautious about that stuff. So year to year, we try to change a lot of those.”
Even without Smith’s expertise, Johnson knew plenty about Mississippi State’s offense, scheming against it the last two years he was South Carolina’s defensive coordinator in 2010-11.
“Their offensive system has not changed much,” he said. “One year they were in transition between (quarterbacks) (Chris) Relf and Tyler (Russell) and they were a little bit more of the (Tim) Tebow-type offense with Relf. Then they got Tyler back there and they started throwing the ball a little bit more and still running some of their power game and counter game and zone game, but a little less quarterback run.”
Defensively, it was the same story. Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said the Bulldogs’ defense favorably compares to recent editions.
“It looks like the same Mississippi State teams that we've played the last three or four years,” he said. “They're long, they're fast, they can run and they're physical, and they play very sound football. They make you earn it.”
Every SEC game will be that way, Malzahn said. The coach has been pleased by the way his team has overcome adverse situations to pick up victories in its first two games.
But the true measure of the Tigers will only be reflected in how they perform in their eight conference games this fall.
They’re on the clock starting Saturday.
“You're getting into your league and we're playing against some of the best teams in America and we'll face more adversity,” Malzahn said. “We'll get a chance to see how we respond moving forward.”