MSU-Auburn Pregame: Cox Back for SEC Opener

Today’s game: No. 16 MSU (1-0, 0-0) at Auburn (1-0, 0-0), 11:21 a.m., SEC Sports/ESPN3.com (Dave Neal play-by-play, Andre Ware analyst, Cara Capuano sideline)

AUBURN | MSU is trying to win its SEC opener for the first time in 12 years, and having Fletcher Cox back should help. The junior defensive tackle was one of five players suspended for last week’s game at Memphis, but he is dressed out and available today, according to a team spokesman. Of the other four, second-string left tackle Blaine Clausell, third-string quarterback Dylan Favre and third-string tight end Malcolm Johnson are also dressed out; second-string sam linebacker Chris Hughes is not, but the spokesman would not confirm whether he’s still on suspension.

Also dressed out is redshirt freshman tailback Nick Griffin, who’s been recovering from an ACL injury suffered in the spring. No word if he’ll actually play today, but he’s available. Quite a quick comeback for him.

Auburn has, as expected, made some changes along its offensive line, which struggled last week against Utah State. Redshirt freshman Chad Slade is moving from right tackle to right guard, in place of junior John Sullen. Spelling Slade at right tackle will be senior A.J. Greene.

All right, let’s set this up. MSU is a 6-point favorite against the reigning BCS champ. If you can’t watch it on TV or the computer – or even if you can – follow me on Twitter for updates and observations. Let us now review MSU’s three keys to victory from the Daily Journal GameDay section.

1. Be ready for the attack. Auburn’s offense likes to get after it and play up-tempo, and if its running game returns to form this week, then the middle of MSU’s defense will need to be better than last week. Against Memphis, State’s linebackers played tentative at times and didn’t tackle particularly well.

That can’t happen against Auburn, which has a pair of dangerous tailbacks in Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb. Those two rushed for a combined 1,903 yards last season. MSU was fourth in the SEC in run defense last season (119.1 ypg) but gave up 164 yards to a bad Memphis team.

2. Get physical. Players and coaches from both sides have talked about how physical a game they expect this to be, especially with it being the SEC opener for both squads. That plays right into MSU’s hands, especially with its power running game, led by Vick Ballard and quarterback Chris Relf.

Ballard had only 10 carries against Memphis – for 166 yards and three touchdowns – and said he feels fresh and ready for a bigger load at Auburn. The Tigers can’t just worry about him, of course, as the 240-pound Relf can punish defenses as a runner.

Auburn gave up 227 rushing yards to Utah State last week, so it’s got some work to do if it hopes to slow down one of the SEC’s best rushing attacks.

3. Hit the big play. Against Memphis, five of MSU’s eight touchdown plays covered 35 or more yards. That’s a trend coach Dan Mullen would like to keep going.

He noted earlier this week that grinding out 12-play drives against an SEC defense is not conducive to consistent scoring. Hitting big plays and scoring quickly was something MSU improved at last year, and the fewer plays a team runs, the less likely it is to commit turnovers.

MSU was plus-seven in turnover margin last season and was plus-2 against Memphis.

NOTABLE STAT: It’s been 15 years since MSU won an SEC opener that was played on the road, when it beat South Carolina, 14-10, in Columbia.

WEATHER: My trusty iPhone Weather Channel app says there won’t be nothin’ but sunshine all day. Temps should be around 80 degrees by kickoff, with a high of 83 this afternoon.