Back Game of the Week Preview: Mississippi State at Auburn

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Game of the Week Preview: Mississippi State at Auburn

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Expect a hard-fought, physical football game, which is life in the rough and rugged SEC West.

Overview -- In some ways, Auburn has been the surprise of the young college football season, vaulting into the national top ten after impressive victories over nationally-ranked foes Oregon and Texas A&M in College Station. Both the Tigers and Mississippi State recently opened SEC play with important wins. Saturday will feature two talented true freshmen quarterbacks in Auburn's Bo Nix and Garrett Schrader, in for the injured Tommy Stevens, for the Bulldogs. Though the inexperience under center will be a leading storyline, the top two rushers in the league will undoubtedly take center stage. Mississippi State's Kylin Hill ranks third nationally and leads the conference with 551 yards, while JaTarvious Whitlow is second with 408 yards for the Tigers. Expect a hard-fought, physical football game, which is life in the rough and rugged SEC West.   

Why to Watch -- This divisional showdown will help set the rank-and-file in college football's toughest conference. The running back showcase, with Kylin Hill and JaTarvious Whitlow, will be one of the best of the season. Few matchups, all year, will be more competitive than Hill, a true feature back, working to find rushing lanes against Auburn's dominant defensive line. In terms of games-within-the-game, that is as good as it gets. True freshmen quarterbacks Bo Nix and Garrett Schrader are two of the latest examples of college football's new phenomenons of young signal callers stepping right into the spotlight. Both quarterbacks are confident and exciting dual-threat talents capable of leading their respective teams to victory. Offensive-minded head coaches Gus Malzahn and Joe Moorhead will continue to put their two young standouts in managable positions that allow them to be successful.

Keys for Auburn

1. Dominate From the Defensive Line -- So much of what Auburn does starts at the line of scrimmage defensively. It's there that the Tigers win games. This is the type of contest, with Mississippi State playing an inexperienced true freshman quarterback in Garrett Schrader, where Derrick Brown and company can largely determine the outcome of the afternoon. If Auburn can win consistently in the trenches, thus slowing down the dynamic Kylin Hill out of the backfield, the Bulldogs will have a very difficult time developing any semblence of an offensive rhthym. The Tigers already have 29 tackles for loss to date, 18 of them coming over the past two weeks. Brown, along with Marlon Davidson and Tyrone Truesdell, have the ability to completely wreck even the best-designed offensive gameplans. Limiting the production of Hill, currently averaging over six yards per carry as the focal point for Mississippi State's team, would shift responsibility to the Bulldogs' passing game. If Auburn can get Mississippi State into third-and-long situations, there may be opportunities to make plays as the Bulldogs rank 11th in the SEC in sacks allowed. 

2. Make Schrader Work -- Though Mississippi State quarterback Garrett Schrader has impressed and has proven to be a talented option, Saturday will be his first-ever road start. The inexperienced signal caller, forced into action due to injury, will step onto the big stage in a key SEC West showdown at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Auburn has to make him earn every yard he gets. Beyond just thriving with base personnel at the point of attack, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele should mix and match coverages, implement timely blitzes and attempt to force Shrader out of his comfort zone. Furthermore, fundamentals will be key. The Tigers will need to be sound in technique in coverage alike, avoiding potential lapses that might allow a short play to go a long ways or a breakdown that results in a big play. Forcing Shrader down through his progressions, as only one player has more than seven catches for the Bulldogs this season, might also come make production more difficult for the Bulldogs.    

3. Get Going -- As the home favorite, Auburn must put the pressure on Mississippi State, both literally and figuratively. Offensively, the Tigers can stress the Bulldogs with tempo and pace. Only Missouri has run more plays from scrimmage than Auburn in the SEC, with the Tigers at 299 snaps through four games. The Tigers are a momentum-based attack and, once in stride, can be very difficult to slow down. Such an approach would only help true freshman quarterback Bo Nix and accentuate his versatile skill set. Auburn, with runs between the tackles and short passes, can spread Mississippi State thin and wear the Bulldogs down with repitition. The idea of hitting the ground running also comes with a very practical and basic application; a fast start on the scoreboard would only highlight Auburn's positional advantages, featuring a downhill running game and an aggressive defensive line, and put Mississippi State in a difficult situation with a true freshman quarterback on the road. Right away, the Tigers need to set the tone.

Keys for Mississippi State

1. Let Hill Lead the Way -- Running back Kylin Hill has been one of the best players of this young college football season. Simply put, he is a star. Hill has had at least 24 rushing attempts in three of Mississippi State's four outings, carrying the offensive load for the Bulldogs. Expect more of the same. Establishing Hill is a must for Mississippi State; if he can get going, it will lessen the load on true freshman quarterback Garrett Shrader, limit the impact of Auburn's home crowd and mitigate some of the pressure the Tigers normally create with their defensive line. Though Auburn's front four will make its presence felt, the best way to lessen the blow may be by running directly at the them. A year ago, Hill was a big reason for Mississippi State's win in this series in Starkville as he ran 23 times for 126 yards. Hill, at this point, ranks third in the country with 551 yards on the ground. Though obviously a challenge, currents trends will likely need to continue for the Bulldogs to pull off a road upset on the Plains. The ability of Mississippi State's offensive line to get a push in the trenches, and for Hill to get to the second level, will be especially key.    

2. Win on Third Downs -- Games are often won or lost when the chains must be moved and, there, Mississippi State has been one of the nation's best on defense. The Bulldogs lead the SEC and rank seventh nationally, allowing opponent's to convert just 24.4% of their third down tries. Given that Auburn likes to control games with long, offensive drives, it will be imperative that Mississippi State gets the Tigers, who are converting nearly 48% of their third down tries this fall, off of the field. Those moments will be defining ones on Saturday. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has had a great feel for the game in such situations so far this year. Offensively, it will be important that the Bulldogs have early down success, likely featuring Kylin Hill, to set up third-and-managable conversion opportunities. Third-and-shorts will give Garrett Shrader options, including the possibility of him running for the sticks, while also keeping Hill relevent as a rusher.     

3. Make Plays Defensively -- Impressively, Mississippi State has forced at least one turnover in 20 consecutive games, including multiple turnovers in seven of eight contests overall. With seven fumble recoveries and four interceptions already, the Bulldogs are tied for the national lead as one of just four units with eleven turnovers forced this season. Against a true freshman quarterback in Bo Nix, Mississippi State will need to make the most of his mistakes. Marquiss Spencer has been disruptive off the edge with a couple of forced fumbles. Cam Dantzler and Willie Gay, Jr., who returned an interception 52 yards for a touchdown last week in his first game of the season, have proven to be ballhawks at cornerback and linebacker, respectively. Brian Hill II, who paces the SEC with 5.5 tackles for loss, is a unique x-factor. Extra possessions are a bonus in any game, most specifically for any road underdog. The Bulldogs have had a remarkable propensity of forcing numbers, a trend which would certainly help their cause this weekend. 

Position Advantages

Quarterback: Auburn -- While both Bo Nix and Garrett Shrader are inexperienced true freshmen, Nix has the benefit of having already played Oregon and at Texas A&M. This weekend will mark Shrader's first-ever road start. The confidence and talent both young signal callers have is quite clear. 

Running Back: Mississippi State -- Kylin Hill is one of the hottest running backs in the country, a distinction his numbers, averaging over six yards per carry, validate. JaTarvious Whitlow is another proven, productive player. Auburn and Mississippi State have two of the best rushing attacks in the SEC.   

Pass-Catchers: Auburn -- Osirus Mitchell is a true number one option for Mississippi State, but Auburn has a more depth on the perimeter with the likes of Eli Stove, Seth Williams and Will Hastings, who have combined for 402 receiving yards and five touchdowns. 

Offensive Line: Auburn -- It's been a sterling start for Auburn's front five, with the Tigers leading in the SEC in rushing offense and having allowed just four sacks. Tackle Prince Tega Wanogho is one of the best in the league. Mississippi State has done great work opening rushing lanes, too.

Defensive Line: Auburn -- Led by tackle Derrick Brown and end Marlon Davidson, a pair of future high NFL Draft picks, Auburn may have college football's premier front four. The Tigers are big and athletic, experienced and savvy and, quite frankly, can take over games at the line of scrimmage.

Linebackers: Mississippi State -- The heart and soul of the Mississippi State defense is in the middle of the field. Erroll Thompson, Leo Lewis and Willie Gay, Jr. form one of the best and most productive collections of linebackers in the country. They are active and disruptive.

Secondary: Auburn -- Close in talent and effectiveness, Auburn and Mississippi State are both good in the defensive backfield. Versatile safety Jeremiah Dinson, seventh in the SEC with 30 tackles, and true lockdown cover corner Cam Dantzler are standouts for the Tigers and Bulldogs, respectively.

Special Teams: Auburn -- Christian Tutt is dynamic in the return game for Auburn, capable of breaking out for a big play. Kicker Aders Carlson has been good, as has punter Arryn Siposs. Jace Christmann and Tucker Day are a solid kicker-punt combination for Mississippi State.

Coaching: Auburn -- Gus Malzahn deserves a lot of credit for Auburn's notable 4-0 start. The Tigers believe, with wins over Oregon and Texas A&M coming with very real momentum. At this point, Auburn might have the best resume in the game. 

Intangibles: Auburn -- Last weekend in College Station was a major statement. Auburn has found a groove and has played well in clutch moments. Playing at home will also help, especially with such inexperience on both sides at the quarterback position.

Players to Watch

Auburn: Marlon Davidson, DE -- A true edge playmaker, Davidson has already matched his tackles for loss total from last season. On a star-studded defensive line, his athleticism may prove to be a key factor against Auburn tries to both slow down Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill and get after quarterback Garrett Shrader.

Mississippi State: Kylin Hill, RB -- Hill has at least 100 yards in each of Mississippi State's four games this season. He is a true workhorse back, who also has the ptoential to be a difference-maker in the passing game. As Hill goes, go the Bulldogs. He will be the centerpiece of Mississippi State's offensive gameplan.

Final Thoughts

In what should be a classic SEC West football game, next-level running backs and physical play at the line of scrimmage will be featured. Both true freshman quarterbacks, Bo Nix and Garrett Shrader, have the trust of their teams and are capable of coming through in the spotlight. That said, factors suggest this will be a low-scoring, slugfest of an afternoon. Homefield advantage may help stabilize Auburn some. Ultimately, play in the trenches will pace the Tigers just as it did in earlier high-profile pairings. Auburn's defensive line makes multiple stands, helping the Tigers to a 5-0 start. Auburn -- 27, Mississippi State -- 16

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports