With the 2013 season drawing closer by the minute, it’s never too early to begin taking a look at Auburn’s opponents in the coming campaign. On Day 2, we begin with the Mississippi State Bulldogs, who the Tigers will face in their SEC opener in Week 3.
Who: Mississippi State
Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451) | Auburn, Ala.
When last they met: There were few positives Auburn could take after leaving Davis Wade Stadium in defeat last season. Yes, the Tigers grabbed a brief 10-7 lead after Onterio McCalebb ran the opening kickoff of the second half back 100 yards for a touchdown. But from there, it was all Mississippi State, as the Bulldogs ran off 21 straight points to pick up a 28-10 win at home. And to say the Tigers’ offense was abysmal may be putting it too nicely — thorough three quarters, they compiled just 90 total yards. Most of the issues stemmed from quarterback Kiehl Frazier, who struggled mightily. He committed five turnovers by himself, tossing three interceptions and losing two fumbles. He finished 13 of 22 for 125 yards, leading just one scoring drive (a 12-play, 33-yard effort in the second quarter that ended with a 23-yard field goal from Cody Parkey), and totaling negative passing yards (minus-2) in the first half. His counterpart, the Bulldogs’ Tyler Russell, inverted Frazier’s numbers by throwing for three touchdowns and no interceptions. It was an efficient performance for Russell, as he completed 20 of his 29 attempts (69 percent) for 222 yards. It was a victory of streak-busting proportions on multiple fronts for the Bulldogs. They snapped a four-game losing streak to the Tigers, and won their SEC opener for the first time since 1999. And it marked the first win for Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen against the “big four” of the Western Division (Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn and LSU) since arriving in Starkville, Miss., in December 2008. Prior to this victory, he had been 0-12 against that quartet.
The coach: Dan Mullen (29-22 in four seasons at Mississippi State)
2012 record: 8-5, 4-4 SEC; finished in fourth place in SEC West (Lost in Gator Bowl to Northwestern, 34-20)
Total offense: 381.92 ypg (79th in Division I , 7th in SEC)
Scoring offense: 29.46 ppg (60th, 9th)
Total defense: 387.38 ypg (52nd, 8th)
Scoring defense: 23.31 ppg (34th, 8th)
2012 Year-in-Review: It was literally a tale of two halves for the Bulldogs last season. Through seven games, the Bulldogs were undefeated and riding high. Then came a 38-7 blowout loss to Alabama on the road in Week 8, and it only got worse from there. Over their final five games, the Bulldogs went 1-4, the lone victory coming against an overmatched Arkansas squad. Not that any of their five losses last year weren’t to quality teams — Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU, Ole Miss and Northwestern finished with a combined record of 51-15 in 2012. While it would be simplifying matters to the nth degree, it wouldn’t necessarily be false to say Mississippi State beat the teams it should have last season, and lost to the teams it shouldn’t have beat. To wit: Six of their eight victories came against teams that ended the year below .500, while the two wins versus teams above .500 hailed from non-major conferences (Middle Tennessee from Conference USA and Jackson State, which plays in the FCS).
Biggest area of concern: You can stamp the Bulldogs’ receiving unit with an enormous question mark. Mississippi State’s top three pass-catchers from 2012 — Chad Bumphis, Chris Smith and Arceto Clark — are gone. The trio combined for 141 receptions and 1,973 yards last season. So who will step in to fill the void? The most experienced returnee is junior Robert Johnson, who caught just 17 passes in 13 games. Perhaps one of the Bulldogs’ six incoming freshman receivers could be the answer, the most notable among them being four-star prospect Fred Ross from Tyler, Texas. If no one emerges to take the lead receiver role vacated by Bumphis, one silver lining Mississippi State has is a reliable target out of the backfield in LaDarius Perkins. The senior running back reeled in 19 receptions for 160 yards and two touchdowns last season.
Key returning player/unit: Russell enters this season within reach of numerous career records among Mississippi State quarterbacks after setting 11 single-season marks for the Bulldogs last year, including most passing yards (2,897), touchdowns (24), completions (231) and attempts (394). He needs just two touchdown passes to move to the top of the class at Mississippi State in that category (eclipsing Derrick Taite’s 38 from 1993-96) and 1,771 yards to become the school’s all-time leading passer (vaulting past Wayne Madkin’s total of 6,336 yards from 1998-01). One thing Russell has to improve on is consistency. He showed great form over the first seven games of last season, when he threw 15 touchdowns against one interception. But as the schedule got tougher over the final eight games, Russell’s touchdown-to-interception finished at 1:1, with nine scoring tosses balanced by nine interceptions. The senior signal-caller will have to be a steadying presence as his young receiving corps takes time to develop.
Extra point: Mississippi State will be looking to finish with a winning record for the fourth consecutive season this fall. The last time the Bulldogs pulled off the feat was from 1997-2000, when Jackie Sherrill still led the program.