Mississippi State, Auburn look to salvage seasons with a win

Published 7:45 am Saturday, December 12, 2020

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Gus Malzahn’s eighth season at Auburn hasn’t gone as he hoped. Nor has Mike Leach’s debut campaign at Mississippi State.

Both coaches are focused on trying to finish disappointing seasons on a stronger note going into their head-to-head meeting Saturday night in Starkville.

The Bulldogs (2-6) have had scant success since an opening win over defending national champion LSU. Malzahn’s Tigers (5-4) have to win their regular season finale to ensure a winning season, a huge letdown for a team that had been ranked in the top 10.

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The game was postponed from Nov. 14 because of COVID-19 issues within Mississippi State’s program.

Auburn has dropped back-to-back games to Top 5 teams Alabama and Texas A&M, getting blown out in the first one and wilting late in the second. Malzahn is once again facing questions about his job security.

“I’ve got a job that I’ve said before expects to win championships, and I do too,” said Malzahn, who will be in his 100th game as Auburn’s head coach. “The years that you’re not in the mix, that’s just part of it. But I’m blessed to be here and excited about not only this game but I’m excited about next year.”

The Bulldogs, who are scheduled to finish the season against Missouri in another makeup game next week, also have dropped two straight, but in more competitive games. Both were 31-24 losses, to No. 12 Georgia and rival Ole Miss.

Mississippi State has played its last three games with less than the Southeastern Conference-mandated minimum of 53 scholarship players because of COVID-19 issues, injuries, and players leaving the program.

Leach said the benefit to that adversity has been a number of young players getting game experience they might not otherwise have received. The Bulldogs have had 21 first-time starters this season, tied for third-most in the Power Five.

“We’ve got kind of a thin squad, but we have to put people in the positions that will help move the team the best and also can elevate their abilities,” Leach said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys that are going to do a lot of great things, but if it was such a great idea to play true freshmen then everybody would do it.”

Among the freshmen that have stepped up for the Bulldogs is quarterback Will Rogers. He seized the starting job from graduate transfer K.J. Costello early in the season and made it his with a string of solid performances in November.

Rogers has thrown 167 consecutive passes without an interception, the second-longest streak in the SEC and sixth-longest in the FBS. He had 1,000 passing yards and zero interceptions in November, when his 121 completions led all NCAA quarterbacks.

For the season, Rogers has completed 73.8 percent of his passes for 1,312 yards, with six touchdowns and four interceptions. He threw for 440 yards and three touchdowns in his last outing, two weeks ago vs. Ole Miss.

“I think he’s got progressively better. I think he’s got to keep improving. I do think he’s ahead of schedule,” Leach said. “Really, just overall, it’s not like there’s one big thing. It’s more like, just more polished, more everything quicker and smoother, more precise and then, the ability to do it more times in a row really. I think he’s played quite courageous, quite well for a guy his age.”

• Saturday, 6:30 p.m.
• TV: SEC Network
• Radio: 105.5 FM