No. 8 Auburn went into Starkville to take on Mississippi State Saturday night, and left with shattered College Football Playoff dreams and more questions than answers after a 23-9 loss to the Bulldogs
The hapless Tigers offense managed just 304 total yards and converted 3-of-14 third down opportunities in the loss. It's the fourth straight game in which Gus Malzahn's offense -- which used to be known for its offensive prowess -- has been held under 350 total yards. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham went 19 of 38 overall, had happy feet all night and was pestered by the fierce Mississippi State front seven early and often.
Stidham and the Tiger offense struggled, but it was all smiles for the home crowd. Bulldogs QB Nick Fitzgerald solidified himself as a superstar. The senior dual-threat weapon had 195 rushing yards on the night, which brought him to 2,999 rushing yards for his career. That breaks former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow's all-time SEC record for rushing yards by a quarterback (2,947).
Auburn fell to 4-2 (1-2 SEC) with the loss, and Mississippi State jumped to 4-2 (1-2 SEC) after the dominating win.
What did we learn in the game?
1. Auburn was finally exposed as a pretender: Coming into the game, the Tigers have done very little to warrant that No. 8 ranking. Sure, the win over Washington looked good on the resume and the loss to LSU could be termed as a "good loss," but throughout the season, the Tigers have shown to be remarkably average on offense. In fact, that might be putting it lightly.
The offensive line has been a wreck against every FBS opponent on the schedule, the rushing offense came in averaging just 2.99 yards per carry against FBS teams and the offense hasn't had rhythm since the first half of the first game of the year.
To make matters worse, Stidham has regressed as a passer. Even in the win over Washington, a game in which he arguably won with his arm, he didn't see wide receivers running free. That has been a theme all year, including in Saturday night's loss to the Bulldogs. Even when he does see open receivers, he's either hesitant to let it fly or overthrows them badly -- including on a gadget play Saturday night in which he overthrew Darius Slayton who had nobody within 30 yards of him.
The defense is great, and has been all year, but it can't do everything, and simply ran out of gas in Starkville. As a result, Auburn's hopes of a College Football Playoff appearance stalled on the side of the road.
2. Nick Fitzgerald is a legend: The senior from Richmond Hill, Georgia, doesn't have the hype that former Bulldogs quarterback Dak Prescott had toward the end of his career, and is nowhere close to "Tebow mania," but he should be considered a legend within the SEC and will go down as one of the best players in Mississippi State history. Not bad for a guy whose only other FBS offer coming out of high school was from Middle Tennessee.
Even more important to the here and now is what his performance means for the 2018 Bulldogs. His re-emergence as a weapon came at a great time for an offense that was reeling under first-year coach Joe Moorhead. The Bulldogs gained just 56 yards and 104 yards on the ground in back-to-back losses to Kentucky and Florida, respectively.
With the offense back on track, the Bulldogs have the chance to make some more noise in the SEC West. Or, at the very least, make things difficult for the top-tier teams. The two conference losses to SEC East teams will be hard to overcome, but the Bulldogs that everybody expected to see before the season finally showed up against Auburn.
Or, to put it more simply, Mississippi State just became a "team chaos."
3. The Bulldogs defense is loaded with stars: Auburn's defense has been widely known as one of the best in the country all season, but Mississippi State showed Saturday night that it should take a backseat to nobody.
Montez Sweat showed why NFL scouts are drooling over him with three sacks on the night, tackle Jeffery Simmons had one tackle for loss and routinely disrupted plays in the backfield and safety Mark McLaurin notched 10 tackles and busted up bubble screen after bubble screen to keep the Tigers in check.
The Bulldogs don't get noticed all that much, but they've been doing it all year long. They haven't given up more than 357 yards in any game this season, and had let opponents convert just 26.87 of third down opponents coming into the dominating performance Saturday night.
Mississippi State might not beat everybody, but they'll certainly beat you up.