- Greg Ostendorf, ESPN Staff Writer
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AUBURN, Ala. -- All the talk has centered around Alabama and Texas A&M this week, and rightfully so, but there’s another intriguing SEC matchup taking place on the Plains this weekend. Auburn versus Mississippi State, a game that features two similar teams vying to start the conference season off on the right foot.
Both coaches know how important it is to win that first SEC game.
“I think it gives you great momentum moving forward,” Auburn’s Gus Malzahn said. “You don't feel like you're in an uphill battle the rest of the conference season. Of course in this conference, if you're going uphill, it's tough. So it's definitely a big game.”
“It's the first SEC game of the year,” Dan Mullen added. “Here at Mississippi State in the little time I've been here, I think even prior to my time, it's been against Auburn every single year, so I think it adds a little bit of a rivalry aspect to the game. I think the first game is so critical on how you start your year off in conference play.”
You could argue that Mississippi State needs a win on Saturday. After a 7-0 start last season, the Bulldogs have lost six of their last eight games, and a loss to Auburn could put their postseason aspirations in serious jeopardy after only Week 3.
But nobody needs a conference win more than Auburn. It’s been nearly two years or exactly 685 days since the Tigers last won an SEC game. Malzahn was still the offensive coordinator at Auburn when the Tigers won their last conference game. They finished 0-8 last season, winless for the first time since 1980.
“I haven’t even thought about it,” Malzahn said. “I've told those guys I'm not even worried about last year. It's a new year, and it's a new season. We understand the SEC and that we're going to have to play well to win. But we've not talked about last year.”
There might not be much talk of last year on Auburn’s campus right now, but the players on that team didn’t forget. They had to play through it. They remember how difficult it was, and that’s why they understand the importance of Saturday’s game. They want that elusive SEC victory, not just for their teammates and coaches, but for the fans too.
“It's very important,” defensive end LaDarius Owens said. “We haven't had one in a while and it was a good feeling leaving the stadium. A lot of fans walking up to me saying it feels good for them. We put them and ourselves through a lot of turmoil last year, a lot of trouble. We want to get a win for us as well as for our fans. They deserve it.”
But all week, the Auburn coaches have been preaching to the players that it’s a different season now. The Tigers are 2-0, one win away from matching their win total from all of last year. The offense has looked much improved. The defense is keeping teams out of the end zone. There’s a general buzz around the program again.
But the real season begins Saturday, and although it will be Malzahn’s first SEC game as a head coach, he understands what’s at stake and embraces it.
“I think you have to, especially in this league,” he said. “You've got to be real with your players. I think our more experienced guys understand that. We play in the best league in college football, and any time you play an opponent you've got to have your best. We understand that.”
The players will be ready, and even the newcomers will likely have an extra bounce in their step come game time.
“It will be a little extra excitement, first SEC game,” first-year running back Cameron Artis-Payne said. “I know I’ve never played in an SEC game, so I’ll be a little more amped. But at the end of the day, it’s still just football.”
So while Alabama and Texas A&M will be the center of attention on Saturday, Auburn and Mississippi State will play a game just as critical to both teams.
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2dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough