In what promises to be an outstanding SEC ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs invade Auburn to take on the defending national champion Tigers on Saturday.
Mississippi State enters this season with high hopes under second-year head coach Dan Mullen, who has changed the entire culture in Starkville. His Bulldogs went 9-4 last season, their best record in 11 years, and finished No. 15 in the AP poll. They hope to be an even bigger factor in the SEC this year after starting a season ranked in the Top-25 for the first time since 2001. Last week, they crushed Memphis by a 59-14 final to begin the campaign on a positive note.
"We start conference play in [nine] days against the defending national champions," said Mullen after the Memphis game. "A lot of schools get three or four games to get focused on that, but we have [nine] days to get all of those little things fixed and go on the road and try to win a big football game."
Opening weekend for Auburn was far more eventful and nerve wracking than expected, as the club trailed Utah State by 14 points. To the credit of coach Gene Chizik and his Tigers, they fought back to earn a 42-38 victory.
"No question about it, I think it is obvious that we did not play well as a football team," Chizik offered as a critique. "There are no excuses for that. I think it was very evident that our most experienced part of our football team is our special teams. I don't think there is any question that offensively and defensively we are a long way off from being able to win very many games right now."
The Tigers completed a perfect season in 2010, winning both the SEC and national titles. Unfortunately, many key contributors from that team are gone, so expectations are tempered a bit here in 2011.
Auburn, which came into the season ranked 23rd in the country but fell out of the rankings after last week's narrow win, owns a 59-23-2 series advantage over Mississippi State, but the Bulldogs did nearly ruin the Tigers' perfect season of 2010, falling by a 17-14 final in Starkville.
Quarterback Chris Relf and running back Vick Ballard combined for more than 400 yards of offense and five touchdowns in Mississippi State's romp over Memphis in week one. Relf passed for 202 yards and two touchdowns, also rushing for 51 yards, while Ballard ran for 166 yards and three scores for the Bulldogs, who racked up a school record 645 yards of total offense. The previous record mark of 596 yards was set way back in 1978.
"I'm happy that we were so balanced," said Mullen. "There were a lot of big plays, and I love those big explosive plays, but we were also 4-of-12 on third-down conversions. That's not where we need to be if we want to be successful. Basically we need to keep all the positives and clean up all the negatives."
In 26 games as head coach at MSU, Mullen's team has eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark in all but one contest.
Defensively, the Bulldogs permitted 338 total yards to Memphis and allowed a pair of touchdowns. MSU allowed a rather long touchdown run in the first half and a passing score in the second half, but the club did come up with three takeaways, a key to the easy win.
Switching focus to Auburn, Michael Dyer's one-yard touchdown run with 30 seconds left in regulation was the difference in the closer-than-expected win over Utah State. Dyer finished with two touchdowns and 57 yards rushing, while Emory Blake, Travante Stallworth and Philip Lutzenkirchen all notched a touchdown reception. Blake ended with 95 yards on three receptions, Stallworth tallied four grabs for 93 yards and Onterio McCalebb went for 44 yards rushing and 43 yards receiving.
Barrett Trotter threw for 261 yards and three scores on 17-of-23 efficiency for the Tigers, who trailed 21-7 in the first half and stared down a 10-point deficit inside the final four minutes but rallied to post their 16th straight win.
The fact that Auburn allowed 448 total yards to Utah State is concerning, especially since the Aggies were able to find success both on the ground and through the air. The Tigers yielded 227 rushing yards, albeit on 53 attempts, and they permitted 22-of-31 passes to be completed without an interception. Zero takeaways and one sack were mustered in the lackluster defensive performance.
"We have a big game next week, and that's what we will focus on," said Nosa Eguae after the opener, looking forward to this weekend's showdown. "It was nice just to go out there and finish a game like we learned to last year. That is what it is all about. Everybody works hard during two-a-days but it is all about finishing."