After Auburn travels to the hostile environment of College Station to open the November slate of games, the Tigers will return to the safe confines of Jordan-Hare to face SEC West division foe Mississippi State.
The Tigers are 28-8-1 when facing off against the Bulldogs at home but Mississippi State will be looking to narrow that gap this year.
Led by head coach Mike Leach, who is entering his second year coaching the Bulldogs, Mississippi State will be looking to significantly improve after finishing dead last in the SEC West last season. In 2020, Mississippi State had wins over LSU, Vanderbilt, Missouri, and an Armed Forces Bowl win over Tulsa, with losses to Arkansas, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss, and Auburn.
The Bulldogs' offense in 2020 was disastrous by most metrics. They shocked the Southeast when they took LSU to the woodshed to open the season with 623 passing yards, but after that they sputtered.
A Mike Leach offense is based around the pass, so it's not necessarily a surprise that the offense had one of the nation’s worst rushing games. But even then, it was still not up to par, as the pass-focused offense struggled to score points. After scoring 44 points in the opener, Mississippi State never scored more than 28 points save the lone Missouri game.
To be fair to Leach and his staff, it was a massive overhaul from a run-focused team to a pass-focused team with no spring to implement the offense. In 2021, Leach will have more time to develop his style and build his offense around it.
Three of the Bulldogs' top four receivers return, as well as leading running back Jo’quavious Marks, a true freshman who caught a team-high 60 passes. If Leach can settle on and develop a quarterback, expect the offense to take significant steps forward.
While the Bulldogs’ offense may have some question marks to answer, the defense will return with some confidence. There are seven starters coming back, including Tyrus Wheat, the linebacker who led the team with five sacks.
Along with the returners, the defense will also add Randy Charlton, a UCF transfer who is expected to start along the defensive line, as well as Jalen Green, a Texas transfer who is expected to play safety but is versatile enough to play cornerback as well.
All in all, expect the Mississippi State defense to be much less porous than last year as they hope to take the jump from mediocre to good. An improved offense that doesn’t commit over two dozen turnovers would help as well.
The key player on offense will be wide receiver Jaden Walley, who led the team in receiving yards as a freshman. His 718 yards was over 200 yards more than the next-best receiver.
With the quarterback situation still wobbly, Walley will need to take a mature step and find consistency for Leach’s offense to have its full effect.
Junior linebacker Aaron Brule will be a key defender for the Bulldogs this season. Brule had 74 tackles on the team last year along with four sacks and a fumble recovered. On a team that will rely heavily on its defense until the offense gets up to speed, expect Brule to bear the brunt of the leadership for the Bulldogs.
For the Bulldogs to succeed on offense this season, they need to follow one simple rule: don’t turn the ball over. That is easier said than done, but the 25 turnovers last season was ridiculous and it put the Bulldogs defense in precarious situations that made them look worse than they actually were.
In such a pass-centric offense, timing is everything and many of those turnovers can be chalked up to bad timing.
On defense, Mississippi State needs to improve its pass rush. Much of the defense was functioning well last season when not put into a corner, but almost half of their 25 season sacks came in the first and last games of the season, with only nine in between. That needs to be improved to provide aid to the secondary and force offenses to get off the field.
The Bulldogs are led by Leach, who is entering his second year as the head coach of Mississippi State. So far Leach has led the Bulldogs to a 4-7 record as well as an Armed Forces Bowl win.
Mississippi State may not look as daunting as some of the other teams on Auburn’s schedule, but that may be what precisely makes them dangerous.
By this point in the season, both Auburn and Mississippi State will know how well their offenses have progressed, and both defenses should be solid.
But the Tigers play the Bulldogs right after a tough game against Texas A&M and two games before Alabama. The Tigers will need to make sure they don’t take Mississippi State lightly in order to avoid derailing their season.