Auburn leapt over its first conference hurdle last weekend with a convincing performance against Texas A&M that saw the Tigers' defensive line assert its will against an overmatched Aggie offensive line.
The Tigers held A&M to just 56 yards on the ground and a paltry 2.7 yards a carry.
The challenge for the Auburn rush defense will be much greater this weekend in the SEC home-opener against Mississippi State, a team that likes to run the football at a far-higher clip than the Aggies.
The SEC's leading rusher, Kylin Hill, paces the Bulldogs' rushing attack. A shifty and powerful runner, Hill carries the ball about 23 times a game at over six yards per attempt. He has 91 carries for 551 yards and five scores this season. He's used minimally in the passing game, though, with only five catches for 49 yards so far. The Tigers will need to do much better than last season, when Hill shredded the defense for 126 yards on 23 carries.
The Bulldogs also get the quarterbacks involved in the ground game, with freshman quarterback Garrett Shrader posting 30 carries for 223 yards a score in three games. The Bulldogs might also play senior quarterback Tommy Stevens, whose run stats aren't as impressive, with only 42 yards on 24 carries and two scores in three games. Regardless of who is behind center, the Tigers can't afford to give up the numbers they did last year to Nick Fitzgerald, who ran for 195 yards and two scores.
It would be unrealistic to expect the Tigers to completely stuff the Bulldogs' run attack, but they have the talent on the front seven to contain it, especially the long runs, which Mississippi State leads the conference in with 38 carries of 10 or more yards.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Tigers could use some explosive plays in the passing game. Auburn has only generated 24 plays that have gone for 10 or more yards so far this season. That's good for 13th in the conference and light years behind the other top-10 teams in the conference.
True freshman Bo Nix has slowly been settling into his role as starter, but the Tigers will need him to find his rhythm in the passing game in the coming weeks if wants to contend for an SEC West title.
Nix has only completed 54 percent of his passes so far, going 56 of 104 for 645 yards and five touchdowns with two interceptions. Those numbers should climb against the Bulldogs, who are allowing 214 passing yards a game.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has taken the slow, patient approach to Nix, especially in the last two games, where his attempts have dropped to 16 and 20 against Kent State and Texas A&M. Nix threw the ball over 30 times in the Tigers' first two games.
"You’ve got to be a little more patient because you’ve got to understand they are still learning," said Malzahn. "You’ve got to kind of put yourself in their shoes a little bit and they’ve got to be confident. There is that fine line between making sure that they are ready, when to get on, and when not. More than anything I think for a true freshman is whoever is the play caller or the coordinator, you’ve got to have great relationships. They need to make sure that you’re with them, that you’ve got their back. I think that’s the No. 1 thing for a young quarterback -- just to know that we are with you and yes, you are going to make mistakes. So what? Don’t make the same mistake twice. We believe in you. And that’s really what we’ve tried to do so far."
The upcoming defenses the Tigers will face aren't going to be patient, though, as they try to stymie the running game and force Nix into third-and-longs and turnovers.
If the Tigers can keep up their strong run defense and find some success downfield in the passing game to keep the Bulldogs' defense honest, they should come out of Saturday's matchup 5-0.
Auburn 31 –Mississippi State 6.