By John Zenor/The Associated Press
AUBURN, Ala. — Mississippi State and Auburn both would love to gain some national and Southeastern Conference credibility this weekend.
The 16th-ranked Bulldogs have climbed up the rankings but are still only 2-8 against SEC Western Division opponents under coach Dan Mullen entering Saturday’s game. The Tigers fell out of the Top 25 after getting a surprising scare from Utah State, even though they have easily the longest current winning streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision at 16 games.
Both teams won their openers, just in very different fashions.
The Bulldogs bring powerful runners in Vick Ballard and quarterback Chris Relf and an offense coming off one of the most prolific games in program history in a rout of Memphis. The Tigers’ mostly new offensive and defensive lines were physically bullied at times by the Aggies.
Auburn defensive end Dee Ford knows Mullen & Co. have title ambitions.
“Mississippi State wants to win a national championship,” Ford said. “What better chance do they have than to knock us off?”
On the flip side, the Tigers are feeling unappreciated eight months after winning a national title — and losing most of their key players.
Next up among current winning streaks is Stanford with nine straight. Second-longest in the SEC? Mississippi State, with three in a row. If that reaches four, then it’s evidence that maybe the Bulldogs really are ready to contend for a title in a division that features No. 2 LSU and No. 3 Alabama.
First, Mullen’s Bulldogs actually have to beat someone in the West besides rival Mississippi (twice). One thing at a time.
“The next step for us is to win these conference games and then go on to national goals,” Ballard said.
Auburn would love for its next step to be proving that the Tigers haven’t fallen quite so far as many think.
“We don’t want anything given to us,” Ford said. “We had to take it last year. We’re going to have to do the same thing this year.”
Only they’re going to have to do it with a youthful team that needed two touchdowns in the final 2:07 to beat a Utah State team, a ragged, perhaps even soft performance that left poll voters unimpressed.
Mullen chalks that off to a first-game learning experience for a team that had 23 players see their initial college action.
“I’ve seen those situations before, all of the sudden a new group has to step on the field and the last group that left was national champs,” Mullen said. “It kind of takes them a week to get used to it. I expect them to be a much, much better team this week than what we saw last week. And I still think we saw a very good explosive talented team last that scored 42 points and found a way to win the football game.”
Also a team that allowed 38 points and got pushed around at times along both lines of scrimmage, where seven of the Tigers’ nine starters were new.
Mississippi State is bigger than Utah State on both front lines, by an average of nearly 2 inches and 6 pounds on defense and an inch and 9 pounds on offense.
After giving up 227 yards rushing, the Tigers now face the 215-pound Ballard, the 240-pound Relf and an offense that just racked up 309 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
Offensively, neither Auburn’s speed threat Onterio McCalebb or between-the-tackles runner Mike Dyer got going.
No wonder Auburn coach Gene Chizik said more physical play is “paramount” against the Bulldogs.
“It’s of the utmost importance,” Chizik said. “If we don’t do anything else better, we’d better be more physical than we were last week all the way around.”