The Sports Network
By Pat Taggart, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: SEC action begins on Thursday in Starkville as the Mississippi State Bulldogs welcome the 21st-ranked Auburn Tigers to town.
Auburn opened its season last weekend with a 52-26 victory over Arkansas State.
"It was good for our football team to get our first game under our belt," said Auburn head coach Gene Chizik. "Obviously if you watched the game, there were a lot of glaring things that weren't very good, but things that I think are very fixable and things I think we can build on."
The Tigers finished 8-5 a year ago under the guidance of Chizik, including an Outback Bowl victory over Northwestern. Still, the team was just 3-5 versus SEC opponents, and Chizik, now in his second season, fully expects better in- conference results considering the wealth of returning talent his team possesses.
As for Mississippi State, it is also under the guidance of a second-year head coach in Dan Mullen. The Bulldogs rolled past Memphis in the opener by a 49-7 final, as they were dominant on both sides of the ball.
"Really pleased coming out the way our team did," said coach Mullen. "We have got some things to clean up and we do not have a lot of time to do it with the short week this week."
MSU won five games a season ago, but there is reason to believe that this program is ascending.
Auburn owns a 58-23-2 series advantage over Mississippi State, including a 49-24 romp over the Bulldogs last season.
There is no question that Auburn fans were eager to see what Cameron Newton would do in his debut as the team's starting quarterback. A former Florida backup who spent last season at a junior college, Newton completed 9-of-14 passes for 186 yards and three touchdowns, and he also rushed for 171 yards on 15 attempts.
"As the game kept going on, I felt my feet settling in," Newton said. "There were a lot of times I thought I could make plays with my feet because of the man coverage."
Michael Dyer carried the ball 14 times for 95 yards and a score for the Tigers. Mario Fannin hauled in four passes for 65 yards and two touchdowns, while Quindarius Carr caught two passes for 87 yards and score.
Defensively, Auburn certainly has some room for improvement. The Tigers permitted Arkansas State to post 323 passing yards in the clash on 33-of-49 efficiency, and the defense failed to register an interception or a fumble recovery in the tilt. While Arkansas State did score a pair of rushing touchdowns, it should be pointed out that the Red Wolves only netted 43 rushing yards on 35 attempts, a credit to the Tigers. It certainly helped matters that they posted four sacks totaling 28 yards in losses.
Darren Bates led the way defensively with 10 total tackles, seven of which were of the solo variety. Antoine Carter was sensational, as he recorded 3.5 TFLs in the tilt, including 2.5 sacks.
Mississippi State's battle for the starting quarterback position in camp was so close that coach Mullen decided to use both Chris Relf and Tyler Russell last week. Of the two, Russell posted the more impressive numbers, connecting on 13-of-16 passes for 256 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Relf had one score and one pick.
"I feel very comfortable with both of them, and they work well with each other," says Mullen of his signal callers. "They listen to the coaches, and listen to what they are saying in between series and get ready for when their number is called again."
Brandon Heavens led the receivers with five catches for 112 yards and two scores, while Vick Ballard posted two rushing touchdowns for MSU. The Bulldogs finished the game with 569 total yards, and it will be tough to duplicate that feat this weekend.
The Bulldogs played strong defense against Memphis, holding the Tigers to 41 rushing yards and seven points in the tilt. The lone touchdown for Memphis came in the fourth quarter, long after the outcome had been decided. Mississippi State recorded a pair of interceptions in the contest and limited the Tigers to 2-of-15 success on third-down conversion attempts.
This game will be much closer than some anticipate, and while Auburn does get a narrow edge, expect MSU to have a chance to win it at the end.