The editors at The Student Section devote a stand-alone piece to this Saturday’s Auburn-Mississippi State game. The nature of this contest allows for more than a little discussion not just about the Xs and Os, but the significance of the moment. It’s true that the SEC West is competitive, but as everyone on this panel would readily agree, we don’t yet know what the SEC West will look like at the end of the season.
The SEC West could end up as the beastly division it has at times appeared to be in 2014. That’s one scenario.
However, the SEC West could also become an “everybody-eats-everybody” division in which no single team stands out from the crowd. If “carnage” and “parity” are viewed as bad in the Pac-12, will they get the same treatment in the SEC if such a verdict is warranted two months from now, on “Selection Sunday” for the College Football Playoff? (That’s December 7, just so you know.)
Game keys and the meaning of the moment — both topics are in play for this roundtable on Auburn-Hail State.
Auburn-Mississippi State has become a defining game in this college football season. How the game will define the season is what’s uncertain at this point. What game key will be paramount in your mind when Tigers-Bulldogs kicks off on Saturday afternoon?
I am not ready to label Saturday afternoon’s Auburn – Mississippi State epic clash as a “defining game of the college football season.” There’s still a lot of football left to play, and a lot can happen before it’s all said and done. Just because these teams sit atop the SEC West right now does not mean that they’ll finish 1-2 in the division. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that it will work out that way, with everyone except Arkansas within striking distance of the crown.
However, it wouldn’t surprise me to see a two-loss team win the West, so I wouldn’t bury the Hogs just yet.
To answer the question at hand, I think the most critical matchup in this contest is the Auburn passing game against the Mississippi State secondary. Believe it or not, the Bulldogs are one of the few teams that have had success against Gus Malzahn’s ground attack, limiting the Tigers to a season-low 120 yards rushing last season. However, the Tigers won the game because of Nick Marshall’s precision passing, which produced 339 yards passing and two touchdowns.
Of course, MSU did pick off Nick Marshall twice, which is why the score was only 24-20 last year.
Who will win this all-important battle this season? That’s tough to say. While the Dawg defense ranks 126th nationally in passing yards per game, it’s also ninth in interceptions, with nine picks in five games. Since the team with the most takeaways usually wins the game, that would seem to favor Mississippi State.
But – Auburn has won its last four games when it lost the turnover battle (-1 takeaways or worse), including last week’s 41-7 demolition of LSU.
Throughout The Student Section’s editorial team, it’s important to not slurp the SEC’s Kool-Aid. In the interests of not playing favorites (or anti-favorites, as it were), it’s important to not drink any conference’s propaganda, for reasons Bart Doan examined in this thoughtful piece on the Pac-12 earlier this week.
Within this larger reality, though, exists the need for nuance, and the relevant nuance here is that even if you think there’s a long way to go before the finish line of the season — in the SEC at large, in the SEC West in particular, and in the ascendant Magnolia State of Mississippi on a hyperlocal level — Auburn-Hail State is a defining game.
To acknowledge as much is not tantamount to waving pom-poms for the SEC, something that — again — is prevalent in the modern college football media ecosystem, if only because it generates more pageviews than other conferences do.
A brief digression about this media issue: I live in Seattle, but I know a man who is trying to dip his toes into college football blogging. When he writes about the Washington Huskies, he receives lukewarm-to-modest reactions. When he writes about the SEC, his pageview numbers rise dramatically in comparison to the Pac-12 pieces he cranks out. The SEC is a needle-mover, and that’s why we see so much content on the conference, most of it favorable. SEC fans care more about their football product and help shape a media environment in which it’s good business for networks and publications to talk more about their product.
End of digression.
To go back to the point at hand, one can say Auburn-Mississippi State is a defining game without inferring that the author of such a statement is inwardly cheering “S-E-C! S-E-C! S-E-C!” It’s understandable that the media climate in college football would create such an impression, but let’s deal with a few plain realities at the moment:
1) If Texas A&M does beat Ole Miss, the winner of Tigers-Bulldogs in Starkville will be the last unbeaten team in the SEC West. There are no guarantees about the rest of the season, but that is — on its face — a natural point of leverage in both the division and the conference.
2) Auburn is facing its first big SEC road test of the season, heading into a back end of the schedule loaded with road games. How Auburn handles this roadie will shape the Tigers’ mindset for the remainder of the season — whether this outcome is positive or negative remains to be seen, but is the moment a defining one? Sure. Of course.
3) Mississippi State has two severe road tests on the remaining portion of its slate: Alabama and Ole Miss. Forget the College Football Playoff for a moment: A win here would enable MSU to be in good (not great, but good) position to make a New Year’s Day bowl game. When one uses that term, the Gator Bowl is not what’s being referred to. With the BCS now history, the generally accepted term for one of the six top bowls is simply a “New Year’s Day” game. If Mississippi State can merely achieve that, this season will be more than a smashing success; it will rate as one of the all-time great seasons in program history.
That smells like SEC Kool-Aid in all its Pravda-like propagandistic excess… until you realize that Mississippi State has played only two top-tier bowl games in its history, the most recent one being the 1941 Orange Bowl against the Georgetown Hoyas.
Is this game a defining one in the long and largely fruitless history of Mississippi State football? You bet it is. Again, how this game defines both MSU and Auburn is the open question — no one said this game has to have a positive effect on one or both teams. Yet, it’s a central shaper in the present moment for the season which lies in front of us.
I’ve spent too much time on the setup to the question and not the question itself, but that’s why two colleagues have provided actual game keys. Consider this your “perspective piece” on Auburn-MSU.
Oh, about the thing to watch on Saturday? Briefly: Auburn’s rush defense against Dak Prescott and Josh Robinson of Mississippi State.
I’m tooting into a wind storm with this one, but I think it’s important to not make any individual game too much of a referendum on anything but the two teams playing in it.
I know that won’t happen, but one can wish. Really, it’s two currently elite teams who have won games in a fashion to suggest they’re for real, weeding one another possibly out of the championship race as it should be.
Spare me anything more than that. It tells me nothing about Ole Miss, Texas A&M, or Alabama. Or the SEC East. Both teams are unbeaten, both teams have proven they can win close games on the road, both teams have proven they can hand out beatdowns.
The key to it all will be how well Auburn’s secondary can hold up, and if Mississippi State can put Auburn away if they get the chance. Auburn doesn’t do a great job rushing the passer, but the Tigers are still in the top 25 in the nation in pass efficiency defense. Some of that comes from not really dealing with elite passing offenses, but it’s still something.
Dak Prescott might get time to throw, but guys probably won’t be running willy nilly all over the joint like they did against the Aggies. Again, can Mississippi State gain yet another white-hot start and put the game nearly away by halftime? What happens if it cannot?
The other thing is the Robert Horry of College Football factor of Auburn. It still exists, as we saw against Kansas State. Auburn’s most endearing quality is that it’s not dead. Even when you think the Tigers are, they roll back the stone on the tomb and come running out at “4.4 40” speed. If the Bulldogs need one stop to get the ball back, or one stop to win the game, or one drive to put them away … can it be done?
I guess, as is rare in college football … we’ll find out.