Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The MSU Preview

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Ok, who had Ole Miss and MSU tied at #3? None of you. The good news is, the recent "upsets" have brought fans of both Magnolia State schools out the woodwork. Nah, I'm not judging. I know a few of them, myself. So, even though last Saturday was the biggest Saturday in the history of Mississippi, we are all set up to do it again. That's how the media wagon rolls.
So, Auburn heads to Starkville, and though I regret selling my tickets, I couldn't go anyway since I am stuck in Utah. Heck, I might not get to see the game. The Bulldogs are off the best two week stretch of their history, so it would seem. They beat LSU at LSU and then rolled up Texas A&M at home . Surprising? No. At least to me, since I called both of those wins (my 3 avid readers will point out that TECHNICALLY, that isn't right). Prescott has exploded onto the Heisman scene, though he was another fairly known quantity, at least to fantasy players. He runs. He throws. He does them both really well. And, he has some good pieces around him.
Meanwhile, Auburn took a back seat ride to all the "upsets" last week, joining FSU as the only Top 5 Teams to win, and each did so convincingly. Except, one team actually played someone and rolled them up in the first quarter. The other team didn't start scoring points until half time. But, that's none of my business. I know I expect people around the nation to praise the Tigers on what they did to LSU, but it has been a pretty quiet week on that front. As impressive as the wins for Ole Miss and Mississippi State were, the destruction of LSU was just as compelling, yet it's been a side note. That's ok. These Tigers are at their best when they are left alone, stalking in the bushes.
Let's break down the matchups
MSU Offense vs Auburn Defense
The Bulldog offense hasn't struggled to move the ball. Prescott already has over 1200 passing yards and almost 500 rushing yards. He has a little better than 70% completion ratio. To go along with his ability, he has some pretty good weapons surrounding him, specifically Wilson and Lewis.. You may recall my faith in Wilson, as he has prototypical size and speed, since I traded up to get him on my fantasy team. Wilson has a big game against TAMU while Lewis was held out of action. He is expected to return. Additionally, Robinson has been a good back to complement Prescott. Auburn's defense seems to have turned the corner with an absolutely lights out performance against LSU, and while I would love to label them as elite, I recognize that the LSU offense that they faced Saturday night was simply dreadful. They had zero shot with a freshman QB. But, regardless of who they played, they were still an SEC offense that were held to ZERO 3rd down conversions. Aside from one busted pass play in the 1st Quarter, there would be zero highlights for the LSU offense. The Auburn secondary is marginally better than it has been, but it has gotten a good bit deeper with the addition of some veteran play from Trovon Reed and an influx of heavy hitting young guys like Nick Ruffin. The Auburn front 4 hasn't had the number of sacks that any of us expected, me included. I expected this group to be the 4 Horseman of the Sackocalypse, if you recall. Instead, they have been a run stuffing, hole plugging front 4 who rely on blitzes off the edge or from their linebackers. The thing is, the blitzes have almost ALWAYS worked because the opposing linemen are having their hands full with the likes of Wright and Adams. Sure, it isn't glamorous to take up all those blocks, but the hits that are being levied by the blitzers have been devastating. The matchup that will win this game, which I alluded to in my last post, is going to be the Kris Frost vs Dak Prescott matchup. Frost has been limited in his first few years at Auburn, both by injury and the ability to pick up Johnson's schemes. But, by the end of last year, he and McKinnzy had turned into a very dynamic linebacker core. Frost has the makings of an elite player because of his rare combination of speed and size. We have seen it several times late last year and this year where he can run down skill players, even from behind. I fully expect Frost to act as a QB spy, ready to meet Prescott if he comes up the middle, which is where he is deadly. Prescott has been compared to Cam, and that comparison is certainly valid when considering his running style. He is deadly if he gets up the middle, untouched. If he gets to the second level, his long strides are tough to match. Conversely, if he can get chipped at the line or smacked up the middle before he builds speed, his running can be held in check, forcing him to have to throw to win. While he has the look of a very good passer, his skill players such as Wilson and Lewis, haven't been matched up with a defense who has more than 1 or 2 good cover players. Auburn has several very cover corners and safeties with fantastic range. The issue in Auburn's secondary has been the focus on INTs rather than defending the pass. We saw it against Kansas State, and though they did pick one off in the endzone, the same play style led to another TD. Additionally, the aforementioned play against LSU where Reed went for the ball and missed, setting up a first and goal for LSU's only score. Again, I have struggled to label Auburn as an elite defense, simply because of the past. It is already self evident that this group is far superior to anything fielded since 2007. Though last year's group was great inside the redzone, it struggled every where else. In 2014, the defense has been phenomenal, considering the two great running teams that they have stuffed in Kansas State and Arkansas. But, they have not played a team that is as deadly throwing and running. Shutting down the Bulldogs will prove if they are ready. I think they are. Kris Frost will prove his worth as Prescott's spy.
Auburn's Offense vs MSU's Defense
The Bulldog defense has been shakey at times, allowing 34, 29, and 31 points to UAB(a much improved squad, I admit) , LSU, and TAMU teams. The LSU game, in particular, was a bit misleading, however.  MSU did their best to let the Tigers back in the game with terrible gameplay late in the 4th. As stated in other places, TAMU can score points, but it only takes a takeaway or two to beat the Aggies. Once they are down, they start forcing the ball, which led to 3 INTs against MSU. Though TAMU has set the world on fire up until last week, I wasn't very impressed with them. South Carolina is absolutely dreadful, and that was the only quality win TAMU had. Don't get me wrong, I believed SCAR would be the team in the east. But time has shown them to be....well...whatever it is they are. With LSU as our only reference point, I am forced to believe MSU won't shutout the Tigers. Despite the already lopsided score against LSU, Auburn could very easily have scored 50 points or better. On the flip side, I do have to note that the Bulldogs brought a lot of pressure against Kenny Hill, forcing him to make errant throws. In a shocking realization, Auburn's offensive line simply has not been what it was last year, due to Robinson, Prosch leaving for the NFL and injuries to other starters. MSU may be able to provide a lot of pressure up the middle on Marshall. They may even be able to shut down CAP. But, ultimately, the weapons both on the perimeter are too great. Sure, you have to be upright to throw the ball, but Marshall's strength is outside of the pocket, anyway. And where is Corey Grant?

Special Teams
Admittedly, I haven't watched enough MSU football to know how they are in special teams. What I do know is that Auburn has, statistically, one of the best punt returners in the game and a field goal kicker/punter/kickoff man in Carlson who can bury you from anywhere on your side of the 50.
Advantage Auburn


Kris Frost
This is the type of game he was recruited for. He has all the skills and is really becoming a finished player. Prescott is so dangerous because he dictates the play based upon what defenses give him. The kryptonite to this type of player is an equally versatile player. Frost has the look.

Matching up to one dominate receiver can be done by most teams. Matching up to 2 dominate receivers is a daunting task outside of the elite defenses. Auburn hasn't been great in the secondary in 10 years. They have looked decent thus far, but have been hot and cold when the ball is in the air. With Auburn's inability thus far to create a pass rush, Prescott will be able to fire down the field. If Auburn brings the blitz, it will force a lot of man-on-man matchups on the edge. Wilson is a scary matchup to anyone, especially a Tiger's secondary who doesn't have any really tall or physical corners. In a game like this, you can't be 50% on throws down the field. If MSU connects on even 25% of 50/50 balls, Auburn could be in trouble.

Quan Bray
He has been very good against lower competition. Against LSU, he did an admirable job. But, Bray's MO in years past has been his skittishness with the ball in the air. In a game against premier opponents, field position is everything. Too many times in the past, he has allowed balls to drop inside the 20. You cannot allow a special teams unit to dictate your starting position. He has to be smart on when to field balls. More importantly, he has to get big returns when given the chance. Auburn doesn't need to be forced in to 10 play drives. They need to have a short field.

I know this is a 2 versus 3 matchup, which is exceedingly rare in college football. But, MSU has benefited mightily from the struggles of other teams, specifically those within their own conference. Bama is down. LSU is down. Arkansas is still down. MSU's out of division foe, SCAR, may be the 2nd worst team in the East, right above Vandy. Both of these teams are very good. But, only one has the fit and finish, the weapons on offense, the depth on defense, to really take it to the next level. The deciding factor will be, will Frost meet Prescott up the middle and will the Auburn offensive line gel? State is a good team who has shown exactly how good they are. Auburn is a great team that hasn't showed it. I said late last week that Marshall hasn't been set loose yet. For a half last week, he was. It showed.
Auburn 41-21