By LEE ADAMS
Week two will mark the beginning of Southeastern Conference play and a huge measuring stick for the No. 16 Mississippi State Bulldogs.
When MSU travels to Auburn to face the defending national champion Tigers, it will give coach Dan Mullen more of an idea about the Bulldogs.
"We're excited to start conference play," said Mullen. "There's no better judge of how the season is going to be than starting conference play against the defending conference and national champions."
In week one, MSU rolled Memphis 59-14, but Auburn struggled to squeak past Utah state 42-38.
Tigers head coach Gene Chizik knows his team will have to perform at a higher level on Saturday against the Bulldogs.
"Mississippi State is extremely talented and well-coached football team and their going to come in here ready to play." said Chizik. "Watching them in that first game is very evident that they've made a lot of strides since we played them last year, and for us to have a chance to win, we're going to have to play much better than we did this past weekend."
Chizik isn't the only coach to take something away from watching his opponents game as Mullen noticed one key thing about the Tigers.
"They know how to win games," said Mullen. "No matter what the situation is they find a way to win and obviously anytime you go on the road in the SEC, it's going to be a tough challenge."
The challenge of going on the road in the SEC is always tough, but opening up conference play on the road adds to the challenge. Despite having home field advantage, Chizik is expecting a challenge for his team.
"They've had a lot of success since we played them, and their offense has found its identity, they control the clock, and they control the running game," said Chizik. "Their last two football games they put up 50 plus points. They're not afraid to run the quarterback and the difference at this point and time versus last year is night a day."
Running the quarterback is something MSU does well with senior Chris Relf and Mullen likes what Relf can do with his feet as it opens up other areas of the offense.
"I think the thing that Chris adds to the running game is the other team has to pay attention to him," said Mullen. "He really opens things up because they can't just lock in on Vick Ballard, so it allows Vick to really excel."
Excel is an understatement for Ballard's week one success where he rushed for 166 yards and three touchdowns on 10 carries, earning SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
For some reason, many believe Ballard is an underrated running back, but Chizik isn't one of them.
"I don't think anybody who watches film would say he's underrated," said Chizik. "He is extremely talented and extremely physical. He's a very, very good running back and is very dangerous back."
Having a "very dangerous back" in Ballard, is good for the Bulldogs as Auburn has a lot of new players on the defensive side of the ball. However, offensive coordinator Les Koenning doesn't feel that those new faces are going to be push overs.
"They just won a national championship so they have good players," said Koenning. "They're young players but their coaches have them playing hard and we look forward to a battle."
Koenning's mentality about the Tiger defense has trickled down to his offensive line.
"They have a lot of fresh faces on defense, so we just have to do our thing and not focus on that," MSU senior lineman Addison Lawrence said.
Auburn's offense will be out to prove a point after dropping out of the Associated Press Top 25 poll, but the Bulldogs are trying to prove a point of their own defensively by fixing their mistakes from week one.
MSU missed 29 tackles in the season opener which defensive coordinator Chris Wilson wasn't happy with.
"We have to clean up our fundamentals," said Wilson. "We harp to our guys to control the things you can control. We had 13 mental errors last week and those are the things that will get you beat in big games."
They will have to fix those mistakes quickly as Auburn runs fast tempo offense, but Wilson feels they are prepared for that.
"Going against our offense every day helps us as they are very similar schematically," said Wilson. "Memphis gave us a lot of tempo at times and it was good for our guys to see how fast it goes."
The game is a must-win for both teams if they want to achieve their goals of being champions.
Mullen sees every game as a must win but this is a little more meaningful since it a conference showdown.
"If you want to become a championship team, you have to beat these type of teams, and we'll have our hands full with the team with the longest winning streak in the nation," said Mullen. "We're going to play really hard and execute at a high level. If we do those things on the road in the SEC, we're going to have the opportunity to win."
Chizik is also looking forward to SEC opener and said, "it will be a fun game and great challenge for us."
Auburn has won the last three meetings but only one of those games was decided by more than three points. The Bulldogs are a six-point favorite in Saturday's game, but they still feel as the underdogs.
"It's still us against the world," said Relf.
The game will be broadcast on the SEC Network and locally on WCBI-TV with kickoff set for 11:21 a.m.