The No. 8 Auburn Tigers face off against Mississippi State in a SEC West clash on Saturday. You can make the argument that the Bulldogs have been the most disappointing team in the conference this season, will that continue against the Tigers this weekend?
By Steve Wright
Here are the three keys:
Cope with the crowd
Starkville, Miss., is an awkward place to play. Davis Wade Stadium will be in full on cowbell mode on Saturday, with the Bulldogs looking for an upset win over a divisional rival. That should spell warning signs for an Auburn offense that has been less than effective in 2018 so far.
This will be the first true road game of the season for Auburn. The Tigers opened in Atlanta in a neutral site contest before playing four on the bounce at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Playing on the road in college football is always a difficult task, but this is a venue – and a timeslot – that few coaches would be looking forward to for their first game of the season.
The best way to deal with this is to remove the crowd factor early. The last time these two met in Mississippi (2016) Auburn scored 35 points unanswered in the first half to control both the game and the crowd. Something similar would be ideal this weekend.
Shut down the Mississippi State running backs
The Bulldogs have been inept on offense so far in SEC play. They have scored just 13 points combined in their two games and they have not scored a touchdown in almost 100 minutes of football. That was not how it was supposed to go when Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead took the job last summer.
Moorhead has a quarterback in Nick Fitzgerald that has shown he can lead a team to big time victories in the SEC. The problem for the Bulldogs is that they have become too dependent on their dual-threat quarterback. Fitzgerald is averaging 4.5 yards per carry, while running backs Kyling Hill and Aeris Williams average 7.7 and 7.0 per carry respectively.
Part of this is that Fitzgerald is making bad reads on when to keep and when to hand off the ball. Auburn allows less than 100 yards per game on the ground. They can continue this stingy defensive performance by taking away those read handoffs and making Fitzgerald run himself.
Stop the explosive plays
Mississippi State has been bad for two weeks, but before that their offense was producing at a high level.
The Bulldogs had 30 plays of 20-plus yards over their first three games, ranking second in the nation in a category that goes a long way to determine who wins championships. Against Kentucky they had two such plays and against Florida they had zero. Mississippi State has now fallen out of the top 10 in that particular category.
Their recent offensive futilities have been compounded by dropped passes and missed reads by Fitzgerald. This is an offense that is under producing as opposed to one that is bad. Auburn will be the best defense that Mississippi State has faced all year and the Tigers will need to be on form to keep their opponents offensive slide continuing.