STARKVILLE — Embrace the moment.
This is the attitude Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen wants to convey to his players in arguably his team”s most important Southeastern Conference game since he took the job in Starkville.
“I don”t want to control the emotions. I want our guys to play this it”s a championship style game,” Mullen said.
No. 16 MSU (1-0) enters a measuring-stick week at 11:21 a.m. today (WCBI) when they face Auburn (1-0) at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Five days later, MSU will play host to No. 2 LSU in its home opener at Davis Wade Stadium.
With all the talk about Mullen being 2-8 against the Western Division of the SEC entering spring and preseason camp, the Bulldogs” matchup against the defending national champions could be a knockout game to decide which team will advance to the SEC Championship game at the Georgia Dome in December.
“That first conference game, especially this early in the season, means so much,” Mullen said. “You”re talking about a two-game swing. It becomes such a big game as a statement game for us to jump into first place in the SEC West.”
MSU had a similar opportunity last season and suffered a 17-14 home loss to an Auburn team led by eventual Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. Bulldogs junior cornerback Corey Broomfield considers that margin even smaller in his mind.
“When you look at the fact I dropped an interception that would”ve been a sure touchdown the other way, that”s how close that game was,” Broomfield said. “One play. One moment. That”s how close we were to beating the national champions.”
MSU fans remember Leon Berry”s dropped pass that would”ve set up a game-tying field goal attempt in the fourth quarter. Senior quarterback Chris Relf said at SEC Media Days he went over the film of the Auburn loss constantly this summer.
“When things like this happen they stay in the back of you mind,” senior center Quentin Saulsberry said. “We are 2-8 against the West, and that”s our main goal every season.”
On the other sideline, Auburn coach Gene Chizik is trying to figure out what happened last weekend in a 42-38 come-from-behind victory against Utah State.
“We”ve had two really, really good days of practice in a row and I feel like we”ve gotten better as a football team,” Chizik said. “I fully expect us to play better (today) than last Saturday. We”ve got one more day of preparation, and we know we”ve got our work cut out for us.”
Auburn needed to score, recover an onside kick in the final two minutes, and score again to escape a loss on opening day. The game heightened questions about how long it will take Auburn”s 15 new starters to adjust?
“We knew we would see a lot we haven”t seen on film,” Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae said. “It was nice just to go out there and finish a game like we learned to last year. That is what it is all about. Everybody works hard during two-a-days, but it is all about finishing.”
Mullen looks at Auburn”s opener optimistically, saying the Tigers did what they had to do to extend the nation”s longest winning streak to 16.
Under Chizik, Auburn is 6-2 when trailing by 10 points or more at some point in a game, and 4-0 in SEC games decided by four points or less.
“When you start looking at who you have to beat in a row to get to Atlanta when you get off to a bad start in the first conference game, it”s a daunting task,” Mullen said. “You”re looking at having to beat Alabama, LSU and run the table to just have a shot.”
Since 2001, MSU has lost every game to Auburn except a 19-14 victory in 2007 when the Tigers had three interceptions. Except for that game, the Auburn has won the previous matchups at Jordan-Hare Stadium by an average of nearly 22 points.
While Mullen downplayed the idea of being a road favorite entering this weekend, the only sure thing will be the winner Saturday will have an advantage in the early race to get to Atlanta.
“People can predict us to win, but we have to know in our locker room we can win games like this,” Saulsberry said.