Auburn at Mississippi State (the one with two p's).....
The SEC season gets underway this week for Auburn and Mississippi State, as the two West Division foes meet at 6:30 p.m. Thursday night in Starkville.
Both teams are coming off out-of-conference tune-up games against vastly inferior opponents. Both have had a short week to prepare.
It's safe to say the game will be sold out, as Mississippi State's stadium capacity is only 55,082, and they sold out last week's game against Memphis. Mississippi State likes to proclaim that the biggest crowds in their history have come during the Dan Mullen era, but they fail to mention that his arrival coincides with their most recent stadium expansion. That trivia aside, I expect this game to be supported by the largest crowd in the history of their stadium.
Mullen has MSU fans (and more importantly, players) believing they have arrived. Enthusiasm will be at perhaps an all-time high early in this game, and it's important that Auburn is able to not only weather the early storm, but remind MSU that they are still Mississippi State.
The sooner that happens, the better.
I suspect this one may eventually be known as "The Cowbell Game", as the all-knowing SEC office has given State fans and students what amounts to carte blanche to bring and ring cowbells. A small "fine" will be imposed if the bells are rung at times other than those deemed permissible, and I would imagine the MSU athletic department would happily write the check in advance. "Violations" of the noisemaker rule will be assessed after the season, actually in June of next year.
My first recollection of problems with the cowbells was the 1963 AU-MSU game in Jackson, when Auburn icon Shug Jordan was upset at the disruption in a game State won 13-10. In reality, the bells were a problem, but State's big running back Hoyle Granger had a lot more to do with the loss than the fans and their bells. Granger was a 225-pound bruiser, which was huge for a back in those days, and he went on to play for the old Houston Oilers in the AFL.
The cowbells were not much of a problem against Memphis, but Memphis was also not much of a problem for State. This week promises to be quite different in terms of atmosphere, fan behavior, and, especially, the opponent.
Last year's game was fairly well-contested for a while, with Auburn pulling away in the second half. The Tigers ran 81 offensive plays, piling up nearly 600 yards of total offense. State finished the season ranked 9th in the nation in rushing yards, but was 113th in passing yards. That's hardly the kind of offense Mullen had in his previous gigs as an offensive coordinator.
This year's version of the State offense looks a lot more like what we saw Mullen doing at Florida. Fortunately, the players are different.
Mullen has jumped wholeheartedly into his new job at State, amping up recruiting and building excitement and enthusiasm in his players and fan base. Mullen is an excellent offensive coach, but what he has done with the overall football program is much more important and impressive than his playbook.
He is virtually everywhere in the MSU "community", and he is constantly selling his program with enthusiasm and positive energy. The Bulldog fans and players have bought in, and there is pride in the program that hasn't really been there in a long, long time.
There are a lot of athletes in the state of Mississippi, and if Mullen is able to edge ahead of Ole Miss in statewide perception, he has a chance to be successful there. State is still not among the SEC elite in terms of talent, but they are gaining ground.
As it always is in these situations, the question is, will he stick with State long enough to get it done, and will the fans continue to support him when it doesn't happen instantly?
The MSU Offense
Mullen appears to have put some juice into the passing game this year, bolstered by the performance of his two quarterbacks and a group of wide receivers with speed. Chris Relf (6-4, 240) and Tyler Russell (6-5, 225) are the MSU quarterbacks, and the keys to the State offense.
Relf played a lot last year. He was a strong runner, but less-than-stellar passer. He appears to be throwing the ball much better this year.
Russell was one of the more heralded prospects State has signed in years, but spent his freshman season as a redshirt and will see his first SEC action this week. Russell was the Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year two years ago and is a very accurate passer. He was named SEC Freshman of the Week for his play against Memphis.
Both quarterbacks saw extensive playing time last week, and the same will be true in this game.
The offensive line is expected to be a major strength for State. Four starters return, and the group has a combined 84 career starts. The top offensive linemen are left tackle Derek Sherrod (6-6, 305, Sr.) and center J.C. Brignone (6-1, 300, Sr.).
Gone is stud tailback Anthony Dixon, who was the heart of the State running game last year. He has been replaced by the combination of JUCO transfer Vick Ballard (6-0, 215, Jr.) and Robert Elliott (5-11, 215, Jr.).
Elliott is an excellent back and is considered the starter. Ballard was a JUCO All-American last year at Mississippi Gulf Coast. Redshirt freshman LaDarius Perkins (5-10, 190), a former Auburn commitment, offers a change of pace at the position with more speed. Perkins has good quicks, and likes to take the ball outside.
Sophomore Chad Bumphis (5-11, 195) leads the wide receiver group, and was the leading receiver last year with 375 yards. Bumphis is a playmaker, and Mullen will try to get the ball in his hands in multiple ways.
Senior Leon Berry (6-0, 205) starts at the other wide receiver position, and had 14 catches for 170 yards in 2009. Berry has good speed and good hands, and is a deep threat. Bumphis is more of a yards-after-catch type, and runs a lot of intermediate and crossing routes.
State will usually line up with three wide receivers, and sometimes four or five. Another player that at one time appeared headed to Auburn, sophomore receiver Brandon Heavens (5-10, 175), led the Bulldogs in receiving last week against Memphis with five catches for 112 yards and two touchdowns.
Tight end Marcus Green (6-1, 235, Jr.) is an integral part of the passing game, running primarily seam routes. Both quarterbacks go to him often.
The MSU Defense
Although State returns a number of excellent players with experience, they will have something of a new look. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has come over from Middle Tennessee State. Diaz, who doubles as the linebackers coach, is known for an attacking style with an emphasis on pressure. He is joined on the staff by co-defensive coordinator Chris Wilson, who was defensive line coach at Oklahoma, and also coaches the d-line for State.
The front seven should be strong, anchored by defensive end Pernell McPhee (6-4, 285, Sr.). The other three defensive linemen are all sophomores. Josh Boyd (6-3, 295) and Fletcher Cox (6-4, 300) are the defensive tackles, and Nick Bell (6-3, 265) is the other defensive end.
The front four put good pressure on Memphis. They are big and athletic, and the new defensive line coach has them playing at a higher intensity level than in the past.
Two senior linebackers with starting experience are Chris White (6-4, 245) and K.J. Wright (6-4, 250). They are strong against the run, joined by sophomore Cameron Lawrence (6-2, 225).
The secondary will look a little different with redshirt freshman Nickoe Whitley (6-0, 200) starting at free safety and former free safety starter Jonathan Banks (6-2, 180, Soph) moving back to left corner. Junior Charles Mitchell (5-11, 205) returns as the starter at strong safety, and Corey Broomfield (5-10, 180, Soph) is at right corner. Broomfield started there in last year's Egg Bowl win over Ole Miss.
Big things are expected from Whitley, and Banks is more at home at corner. The makeup of the MSU secondary is important from an Auburn offensive standpoint, as Gus Malzahn tends to stretch the field both vertically and horizontally, and the three defenders in the back are often isolated to make plays. Mitchell is usually in the box, giving MSU essentially an eight-man front, and he is an excellent tackler.
Diaz occasionally presents a 3-4 look on first downs, but the base defense is a 4-3 with the strong safety usually up. Diaz likes to bring five rushers often, and occasionally six. He built his reputation as a pressure defense coach at Middle Tennessee, and is apparently living up to that reputation at State.
How Diaz plans to confront Auburn and Cameron Newton is unknown, of course, but the guess here is that he will do what he has always done and apply pressure. He may opt for a lot more 3-4 alignments in hopes of better disguising his blitzes with four linebackers. Or he may choose the 4-3 to put a little more pressure on the running game and force Auburn into passing situations. In either case, I don't expect him to abandon his philosophy of blitzing early and often.
From an offensive enthusiast's standpoint, it will be interesting to see what Auburn's Gus Malzahn has prepared to take advantage of the tendencies Diaz has shown in the past. Personally, I enjoy watching good coaches try to out-coach each other, and this game will have a good deal of that.
What they will do
State's offense looks a lot like Auburn's, schematically. There is lots of misdirection. They run the read-option as a basic play, and play-action off that. Relf likes to keep the ball himself, while Russell prefers to hand it off or pitch it.
Relf throws the ball outside a lot, while Russell throws more over the middle. If Auburn's defensive backs give the kind of cushion they normally do, the outside passes will be very difficult to stop.
Russell tends to hold the ball a little long, and if the Tigers' defensive front will keep after the rush, they can cause him some problems.
MSU runs a lot of hurry-up, no-huddle, trying to keep the defense from substituting. They were very effective doing that against Memphis. I expect their first several plays to be scripted and hurry-up, as they try to put the Auburn defense on its heels out of the gate.
Defensively, the State linebackers are more suited to defend the run and are not as effective in coverage. Diaz will bring pressure with multiple blitzes to try to make up for their coverage deficiencies.
MSU's coverage teams gave up a lot of yards to Memphis. I would expect Auburn to be able to generate some field position on kickoff and punt returns. Bumphis is the primary State return man, and he is a good one.
It's difficult to get a good read on State's capabilities, as Memphis is not a very good football team. I'm not even sure they are as good as Arkansas State. But State is well-coached and has a lot of athletes. I'm certain they are much improved over last year.
The question that comes to mind is, "How much has Auburn improved, especially defensively?". With Mullen's offense now fully installed, a strong offensive line, two decent quarterbacks and an above-average wide receiver corps, we are about to find out.
Granted, all my glasses have a burnt orange and navy blue tint, but I like our chances. Mississippi State is a solid SEC football team at this point in time, and if AU can go to Starkville and come out with a win, I'll be strongly inclined to think this season holds special promise for the Tigers.
Auburn will have to play better in all phases of the game than last week, but there's no reason not to expect that to happen.
John Ray is a former high school and college football coach. He is also a founding member of AuburnSports.com, and gave the site's most popular message board its name, "The Bunker". Ray's "Coach's Corner" will return next Friday for the Clemson game, and be featured on AuburnSports.com Fridays before all SEC games.