Sneak peek: Mississippi State

Bryan Matthews, Senior Editor
Auburn Sports

AUBURN | Auburn’s 2017 football schedule includes two tough road games in September, three more in October and two big November rivalry games at home.

Today, we continue an early look at each opponent with an early home test against an SEC West team.

WHO: Mississippi State (6-7 last season, 3-5 SEC West)

WHEN: Sept. 30

WHERE: Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451)

WHAT’S NEW: Former Georgia and Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was hired by Dan Mullen to take charge of the Bulldogs’ defense. Mullen hired former San Jose State defensive coordinator Ron English to coach the safeties.

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Matt Bush/USA Today

WHO TO WATCH, OFFENSE: Junior Nick Fitzgerald is being tabbed by some as the SEC’s top quarterback and potential high draft pick. Fitzgerald completed 196-of-361 passes (54.3 percent) for 2,423 yards with 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He was also the Bulldogs leading rusher with 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns on 195 carries.

WHO TO WATCH, DEFENSE: Linebacker Leo Lewis started 13 games as a freshman last fall and returns as one of the Bulldogs’ top defenders. He was second on the team with 79 tackles and added 4.5 tackles-for-loss and 1.0 sack.

OUTLOOK: Eight starters return on what should be a more balanced MSU offense. The Bulldogs must replace top receiver Fred Ross but Donald Gray is poised to be Fitzgerald’s top target after catching 41 passes for 709 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore. The MSU running backs weren’t very productive last season but that unit should be bolstered by the addition of true freshman Kylin Hill, the maturation of third-year sophomore Nick Gibson and the return of junior Aeris Williams, who led the running backs with 720 yards. The offensive line was unsettled after spring due to injuries and the group may have to rely on a redshirt freshman or JUCO transfer to step into the starting unit.

The defense was woeful last season — last in the SEC in passing defense, 12 in total and 13th in scoring. Grantham will be looking for several newcomers to improve the unit including true freshman outside linebacker Willie Gay, the top-rated player in their 2017 class, and seven junior college signees including former Georgia defensive end Chauncey Rivers and former Michigan State defensive end Montez Sweat.

This is a game Auburn should be heavily favored to win at home but Fitzgerald is bound to engineer some upsets this season. Containing the dual-threat quarterback will be the key for the Tigers looking to end September on a high note.

AUBURN CONNECTION: Former Auburn wide receivers coach Greg Knox is the running backs coach and special teams coordinator at MSU. Former Auburn player and staff assistant Karibi Dede is a defensive quality control assistant.

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