Auburn opponent early scouting report: Mississippi State
By James Crepea
We're taking an early look at Auburn's opponents for the 2017 regular season. This 12-part series will feature analysis and insight from beat reporters who cover the 12 teams Auburn will play this year. Today we look at Auburn's first SEC home game of the season.
Game date & time: Jordan-Hare Stadium, Sept. 30 at TBA
2016 record: (6-7, 3-5 SEC)
Coach: Dan Mullen, ninth year (61-42)
Betting line: Not yet posted
Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense, 1 specialist
Most important returning players: QB Nick Fitzgerald, RB Aeris Williams, WR Donald Gray, DB Jamoral Graham, DL Jeffrey Simmons
Most critical departures: WR Fred Ross, LB Richie Brown, DB Kivon Coman, DL Johnathan Calvin, DL A.J. Jefferson
Insight from Mississippi State beat reporter Will Sammon (@WillSammon):
What is Todd Grantham doing differently than Peter Sirmon, Manny Diaz or Geoff Collins?
The noticeable difference with Todd Grantham is his intensity; it's obvious when he is teaching on the field, and players and those around the program point to it all the time. Players see his passion and don't take his intense instruction personally -- at least it's so far, so good in that respect. Grantham's main emphasis is to rebuild MSU's defense -- which was particularly bad against the pass last season -- with a focus on pass-rush and aggressive schemes. He'll use a base 3-4 with multiple sets and he's looking for guys to increase their versatility.
Who fills the numerous voids left on the defense?
There is no Richie Brown or A.J. Jefferson anymore in Starkville. MSU is going to rely heavily on linebacker Leo Lewis and defensive lineman Jeffrey Simmons to fill leadership voids at their respective positions. Up the middle, Lewis will be joined by senior Dez Harris, who after three ACL tears, is a vocal leader for this group. On the outside, newcomers Montez Sweat and Chauncey Rivers have to provide a lift along with returning outside linebacker Gerri Green. The Bulldogs actually return key guys in the secondary such as corner Jamal Peters and safeties Brandon Bryant and Mark McLaurin, so there is reason to think that experience should help improve a trouble area.
How has Nick Fitzgerald progressed this offseason?
Dan Mullen wants to see Nick Fitzgerald become a better passer and improve his completion percentage. That's going to be difficult to do with a mostly inexperienced receiving group. That's why Mullen wants Fitzgerald to make "unspectacular plays," meaning Fitzgerald needs to look underneath more and make accurate short passes instead of looking for the deep ball. Mullen calls the offseason between year one and year two the most important time for development for a quarterback. New QBs coach Brett Elliott and Mullen are working to improve Fitzgerald's IQ as a passer so that his eyes don't need to be darting all over the field. That comes with trust with receivers, too, though, so we'll see how it plays out.
This game comes after MSU hosts LSU and goes to Georgia, how critical is this early part of the schedule?
It's early on in the season, but this is a season-defining three-game swing for Mississippi State. MSU needs to win at least one game out of the three if it hopes to vastly improve last year's 5-7 regular season mark. While most projections would likely have MSU dropping all three, it's conceivable the Bulldogs may be catching LSU at the right time.
A win for Mississippi State would mean? A loss for Mississippi State would mean?
It's important to relay realistic expectations for MSU and that is likely 6-8 wins with seven wins being my guess. If MSU splits against LSU and Georgia, then it plays Auburn with a feeling of playing with house money. If MSU drops those two preceding games, then there is added pressure. A win would be pivotal for the Bulldogs' aspirations. A loss, which is expected in my view, wouldn't put too much air out of the balloon because there are a few winnable games left on the schedule to get to that 6-7 win mark.
Auburn story lines:
SEC home opener
Auburn will have played two home non-conference games but its two biggest contests in the first four weeks of the season come on the road at Clemson and Missouri. MSU's trip to the Plains is the first of back-to-back games with the Mississippi teams. Staying ahead of both MSU and Ole Miss is imperative.
Nick Fitzgerald was not all that effective against Auburn last season (17 for 34 for 181 yards with two touchdowns and an interception) but he was far better in the second half (10 for 16 for 120 yards and both scores). Yes, Auburn was way ahead by then but Mississippi State was chipping away. Fitzgerald should be an improved quarterback a year later and Aeris Williams is a legit running threat.
Has a leader emerged at wide receiver?
By the fifth game of the season, Jarrett Stidham's top targets should be clear and someone should emerge as the leading wide receiver. Against the worst pass defense in the SEC last season, Stidham should be in line for a productive day and receivers should be active.
Kerryon Johnson's durability
Johnson injured his ankle against MSU last season and the middle of the season will be a barometer of whether the junior running back has become more durable as expected.
To compete for an SEC title, Auburn can't afford to lose to Mississippi State. That's even more the case if AU comes into this game at 3-1 or somehow 2-2 with a loss at Missouri. The latter is unlikely, but regardless the Tigers need to win this game.
Mississippi State story lines:
MSU's season will be dictated largely on how many wins Fitzgerald can deliver on his own. After facing two of the better pass defenses in the SEC last season in LSU and Georgia before this game, Auburn's secondary may be an easier matchup by comparison.
End of pivotal three-game stretch
As mentioned, MSU could be entering this game 2-2 overall with losses to LSU and UGA. A third straight loss to open conference play would be a tough hole to dig out of and still reach six wins.
How is another new defense doing?
Todd Grantham is MSU's fourth defensive coordinator in as many seasons and he inherits a unit that ranked 110th in total defense in 2016. In many ways, it's similar to Kevin Steele a year ago at Auburn in that the Bulldogs have only one direction to go defensively. Still, some key pieces are gone and how effective MSU is at rushing the passer will be important in this game.
Todd Grantham vs. Auburn
Speaking of Grantham, Auburn is well acquainted with him from his days at Georgia and Louisville. Rodney Garner and Greg Brown both worked with him so one could argue both sides know each other extensively.
Redemption from 2016 embarrassment
Last year's 38-14 beatdown was authoritative for Auburn and embarrassing for MSU. The Bulldogs will naturally want to redeem themselves.
An Auburn win would mean:
On paper, Auburn should be favored in its first three SEC games so a win would likely mean a 2-0 start to conference play and either 4-1 or 5-0 start overall.
An Auburn loss would mean:
An unexpected loss at this point. Depending on how the Tigers enter the game that could change and it could theoretically be devastating if Auburn were to somehow be 2-2 entering this game. Again, on paper this is highly unlikely. Even at 3-1 with a loss to Clemson, a loss to MSU would not be devastating but it would not be good with the heart of the SEC schedule up next.