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What to watch: Auburn vs. Mississippi State edition

The Auburn Tigers travel to Mississippi State (2-6) to face the Bulldogs for the final game of their 2020 regular season schedule. The Tigers are searching for answers following back to back double-digit losses against Alabama and Texas A&M, respectively. Every conference game is a must-win, but there are lots of murmurs that an Auburn loss today could bring about the end of the Gus Malzahn era on The Plains.

Mississippi State did not have a game last week due to COVID-19 protocols, so the Bulldogs will be back in action for the first time in a couple of weeks. After a shocking (at the time) opening week win over LSU, Mississippi State has managed only one other win in new head coach Mike Leach’s first season.

The Bulldogs have been set back by COVID-19 more than any other program in the SEC this year, have installed a brand new offense, and have also made a change of starting quarterbacks midway through the campaign. All of those factors have led to a rocky season for the Bulldogs.

Today, we look at three things that will decide which team will break a two-game losing streak and which squad will drop its third straight SEC matchup.

Air Raid
Mississippi State hired coach Mike Leach this offseason to come to Starkville and revamp the Bulldogs’ program. Leach is one of the most well-known practitioners of the Air Raid offense that was popularized by Hal Mumme at Kentucky in the mid to late 1990s. In the years since, many Mumme proteges have taken the plan elsewhere to varying degrees of success (Auburn fans will likely remember the brief Tony Franklin experience).

Leach’s gameplan against Auburn will be the same as it is against every other opponent — throw the football … a lot. The Bulldogs do not even pretend to be interested in running the ball in the Air Raid system, averaging only 16 carries per game. Instead, Mississippi State attempts an average of 55 passes each game, many of which are very short, quick throws that take the place of a traditional rushing attack.

Auburn’s defense must be prepared to make one-on-one tackles in space consistently and to be disciplined in coverage all night to limit big plays. If the Tigers can keep the ball in front of them and rally to tackle the ball carriers, making the Bulldogs repeat long drives, they will have a great opportunity to shut down Mississippi State’s offense.

Will Rogers
Mississippi State’s starting quarterback is a freshman named Will Rogers. Rogers did not play at all in the Bulldogs’ first two contests, began getting snaps over games three through five, and has been the starter in their last three matchups. Rogers got off to a slow start upon seeing the field early in the year, which is expected for a freshman quarterback.

However, in his last three games (all starts), Rogers is completing 76% of his passes on 53 attempts per game. Over that same stretch, he has thrown six touchdowns and no interceptions. The freshman quarterback has certainly settled into a nice rhythm recently, and Mike Leach is tailoring his approach to Rogers’ strengths. It will be important for Auburn to disrupt the Bulldogs’ timing and make Rogers uncomfortable to snuff out the Mississippi State passing attack.

Auburn on the road
It is no secret that the Tigers have struggled away from the friendly confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium under coach Gus Malzahn. Almost every metric points to much worse production and results on the road as compared to home games.

Auburn quarterback Bo Nix gets specifically drawn into this narrative, whether fair or not. It seems that a good strategy to settle Nix and the entire team into this road game would be to get the rushing offense rolling, with Nix as a key component of the attack. Channeling Nix’s desire to run as opposed to fleeing pass rushers could be a big factor in Auburn’s offense scoring enough points to win in Starkville.

Zack Shaw is a contributing writer for Yellowhammer News and former walk-on for the Auburn Tigers. You can contact him by email: zack@new-yhn.local or on Twitter @z_m_shaw