Mississippi State-Auburn jockey for respect, SEC West shot
By JOHN ZENOR
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) Mississippi State looked like it could emerge as No. 1 Alabama's biggest challenger in the SEC West. But that was two weeks ago. Since then the Bulldogs have flopped - badly.
No. 13 Auburn also has designs on Southeastern Conference contention, and finally looked the part last week. The two potential division contenders meet Saturday with one of them strengthening its candidacy and the other left trying to salvage those hopes.
"This is a huge game," Tigers tailback Kerryon Johnson said.
Both teams still have plenty to prove. The 24th-ranked Bulldogs (3-1, 1-1) dominated No. 25 LSU only to get clobbered by No. 7 Georgia . Auburn (3-1, 1-0) is fresh from a 51-14 road win over Missouri after two weeks of offensive issues, either from lack of production against Clemson or turnover problems against Mercer.
Mississippi State especially has been on a roller coaster ride especially in terms of national perception. This game seems likely to provide more clarity - one way or the other.
"You're a young football team with people patting them on the back - the family members, the uncles, the cousins, the friends and the people around campus telling them how great they are," Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen said. "Now this week, everyone's telling them how bad they are."
The question now is what will they be saying next week?
Here are some things to watch in the Mississippi State-Auburn game:
TAILBACK TANDEM: For the first time this season, Auburn will likely have both tailbacks Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson available for the same game. Pettway has missed one game with an injury and another with a suspension while Johnson was out the other two games with a right hamstring injury. It could be a huge boost for a running game that hasn't been as consistently formidable as in recent seasons. Johnson did run for five touchdowns against Missouri despite gaining just 48 yards.
In last year's meeting, Pettway ran for 169 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-14 Auburn win.
MURDERER'S ROW: This is Mississippi State's third consecutive game against a Top 15 team and second straight on the road. The results have been mixed, to say the least: a 37-7 win over LSU and a 31-3 loss to Georgia.
TOP DEFENSES: Both offenses face strong challenges from Top 10 defenses. The Tigers rank fourth nationally in total defense and seventh in scoring defense. The Bulldogs aren't terribly far behind with a 10th-ranked defense that's also fifth against the pass and 16th in points allowed per game.
DEFENDING FITZGERALD: Auburn will have to defend both the running and passing of Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who ranks fourth in the SEC in total offense. Fitzgerald was held to just 83 passing yards with two interceptions against Georgia and it was also his first game this season without a rushing touchdown. He has accounted for seven TDs passing and five running.
"He is a true dual-threat guy," Malzahn said. "He's like a running back in the backfield, which presents a lot of problems with the plus-one run game for defenses. He's got where he throws the ball extremely accurate when he has time. That's going to be a big challenge for our defense."
HOMEFIELD ADVANTAGE: The Tigers have won 28 of the 35 meetings with Mississippi State in Auburn. But Mississippi State won 17-9 in its last visit two years ago.
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Updated September 29, 2017