clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Auburn and MSU aren’t struggling on offense. They’re simply respecting their history.

It’s the 10-year anniversary of one of the most ... memorable games in SEC history.

NCAA Football: Florida at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Evidently history is too powerful to overcome sometimes. This is, after all, the 10-year anniversary of the 3-2 game.

For all of the brilliant offensive minds and exciting offensive prospects on the field in Starkville on Saturday, the draw of history has led them down a dark road.

Ten years ago, Auburn and Mississippi State played one of the worst games in SEC history.

A year after their first bowl bid under head coach Sylvester Croom, MSU was fielding its worst offense under Croom, and that’s saying something. The Bulldogs would finish 116th in Off. S&P+, falling from 8-5 to 4-8.

Meanwhile, after falling from 27th in Off. S&P+ to 62nd the year before, Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville attempted to liven up his attack by bringing in Troy offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, an early no-huddle spread adopter. Only, the rest of the Auburn coaching staff didn’t adopt it. To put it kindly, Franklin met with some resistance. Auburn averaged 15 points per game in five SEC contests, and Franklin was fired midseason.

Bad offenses can produce bad football, but that doesn’t even begin to describe what happened.

In front of a crowd of 52,911, the Tigers and Bulldogs combined to average 3.4 yards per play. AU out-gained MSU by 199 yards but fumbled three times, losing all three. Auburn quarterback Chris Todd and MSU quarterback Wesley Carroll combined to go 24-for-51 for 232 yards with an interception and three sacks.

There were eight three-and-outs, three missed field goals (Auburn’s Wes Byrum missed a 22-yarder), and three turnovers on downs. MSU didn’t have the ball in Auburn territory until the third quarter, when the Bulldogs recovered a Todd fumble at the AU 32. They advanced the ball 11 yards and missed a field goal. They didn’t get on the board until Auburn committed a holding penalty in the end zone for a safety in the fourth quarter.

After the free kick, MSU went nine yards in four plays and got stuffed on a fourth-and-1 attempt. The Bulldogs got the ball back with 2:29 left and one last chance to win the game; Carroll threw a pick immediately.

Ten years later, SEC West rivals Auburn and Mississippi State kick off for the 92nd time.

The quarterback battle features two of the league’s most-regarded signal callers in Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham and MSU’s Nick Fitzgerald. The head coaches — AU’s Gus Malzahn and MSU’s Joe Moorhead — are two of college football’s most celebrated offensive minds.

Yet both offenses are somewhere between struggling and terrible at the moment. This part might sound familiar.

Auburn, for one, ranks 82nd in Off. S&P+.

They are averaging 33 points per game because of spectacular defense (first in Def. S&P+), sturdy special teams, and the fact that they put 63 points on Alabama State.

But the best they’ve averaged against an FBS team is 5.2 yards per play, which came in Week 1 against another fantastic defense in Washington. Since then: 5 yards per play against LSU, 3.9 against Arkansas, and 4.9 against Southern Miss.

The national average usually hovers around 5.7.

Auburn’s primary problems? Can’t establish the run at Auburn levels on standard downs, and can’t protect Stidham on passing downs.

That’s a bad combination. They are 94th in rushing marginal efficiency and 106th in passing-downs marginal efficiency. On blitz downs — extreme passing downs, if you will — they are 122nd. Mississippi State’s defense in those situations is fourth.

(You can find all sorts of stats like this in my team statistical profiles.)

The Bulldogs are a semi-healthy 41st in Off. S&P+, but that doesn’t tell much of the story.

They were fifth two weeks ago. They averaged 50 points per game and 8.5 yards per play against Stephen F. Austin, Kansas State, and UL-Lafayette (bad defenses, admittedly). It was a race against time to see if they could shore up their passing weaknesses before SEC defenses shut them down for being one-dimensional. They lost that race.

In the last two weeks, the Bulldogs have scored a total of 13 points. After averaging 588 yards per game in those first three contests, they gained a total of 403 against Kentucky and Florida. The Wildcats and Gators held Fitzgerald to a 47 percent completion rate and nine yards per completion.

And now the Bulldogs have to face an even better defense than UK’s or UF’s.

The offensive trends here are, in a word, unfavorable.

Auburn’s rebuilt line has not gained traction, and the Tigers’ running back corps, rebuilt around junior Kam Martin and a couple of freshmen (Boobie Whitlow and Shaun Shivers), hasn’t taken full advantage of chances it has had. On top of all this, Stidham is holding onto the ball too long in the face of a happy pass rush.

How bad is it for AU? Freshman kicker Anders Carlson has already been asked to attempt six field goals of 50 yards or longer. He’s made one.

For MSU, it does all appear to be about the pass. Good defenses dictate the reads a quarterback in an option-based system makes — Auburn is better at that than almost anyone — and there’s been no reason to fear Fitzgerald’s arm. So they pile extra defenders close to the line, dare Fitzgerald to beat them with his arm, then trot off the field when the punter comes on. His top four wideouts have a 43 percent catch rate. That doesn’t get it done.

If you watch enough college football, you end up seeing a lot of bad football. It just comes with the territory.

But the 2008 Auburn-MSU game was so bad that we still celebrate it 10 years later.

For as bad as both offenses are at the moment, they are still nowhere near 2008 (yet). And hey, don’t blame them for respecting history.