— STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Auburn and Mississippi State are out to prove they belong in the conversation of contenders for the Southeastern Conference Western Division title.
Whoever wins Saturday's game at Davis Wade Stadium will have a much better case for that argument.
The Bulldogs (1-0) and Tigers (0-1) are generally viewed in a similar fashion — two solid programs that are a notch below the division's elite class of Alabama, LSU and Arkansas.
A victory on Saturday won't necessarily change anyone's mind. But a loss almost certainly knocks either team out of the running.
"It's very important to find a way to win this game and catapult ourselves into the rest of conference play," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said.
While Mississippi State started its season with an easy 56-9 home victory over Jackson State, Auburn opened with a 26-19 loss to No. 14 Clemson at a neutral site game in Atlanta.
Mullen said the loss didn't do anything to dim his respect for Auburn. He also said it's difficult to prepare for the Tigers considering they're still getting used to new coordinators on both the offense and defense.
"We're going to have to be kind of prepared for the unknown in this situation," Mullen said. "But the key is if we execute and take care of the ball and play hard, we're going have the opportunity to win the game."
Mississippi State has a revamped offense led by junior quarterback Tyler Russell and senior running back LaDarius Perkins. Both players had plenty of success against Jackson State, which plays at the Football Championship Subdivision level, but Auburn's defense should provide a much greater challenge.
The Mississippi State-Auburn series has been extremely close in recent years, but the Tigers have pulled it out in the end, winning 17-14 in Starkville in 2010 and 41-34 at Auburn in 2011. Both sides expect the same scenario on Saturday in Starkville.
"They've been losing to us the past three years, and I'm sure that they're going to be tired of losing to us," Auburn offensive guard Chad Slade said. "It's always come down to the wire. It's always come down to that last-minute touchdown or that last-minute stop. We're going to see whose team is going to be more physical."
Auburn struggled to throw the ball against Clemson last week, with new starting quarterback Kiehl Frazier completing just 11 of 27 passes for 194 yards. Mississippi State defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said he hopes to stop the Tigers' potent running game early and force them to throw the ball.
Mississippi State's veteran secondary will be waiting. The Bulldogs are led by a pair of seniors — cornerback Johnthan Banks and safety Corey Broomfield.
"The key is having them throw 27 times," Wilson said. "If you can hammer the running game and get them throwing the ball 27 to 30 times, you would think that's your advantage. But they do a great job setting up their play-action pass off the run game, which is what makes Auburn different."
Auburn hopes to slow down Mississippi State's offense with defensive linemen Corey Lemonier and Dee Ford. Lemonier had two sacks against Clemson and Ford had another.
The Tigers also had some success running the ball with Tre Mason, who gained 106 yards on just 14 carries.
If recent history in the series is any indication, Auburn should have plenty of confidence heading into Saturday. But coach Gene Chizik said it's becoming harder and harder to deal with the Bulldogs.
"This is a team that has continuously improved over the last two years," Chizik said. "We were able to edge them out two years in a row. I know that by looking at the front end of their schedule, I'm sure that this game's been circled on their calendar for a long time."