With every win that they've racked up over the past two weeks, there's been a sort of disclaimer to go along with Mississippi State. This is, after all, Mississippi State under Dan Mullen; just when you think they're about to break through, the Bulldogs remember who they are and come up short against the SEC's biggest teams. It's just a matter of time.
It's time to stop waiting. Mississippi State's 15-point win against Auburn on Saturday added the Tigers to a set of victories that also includes Texas A&M and LSU. After half of their season -- and arguably the more difficult half -- the Bulldogs control their own destiny in the SEC West and are increasingly looking like a team that belongs among the nation's elite.
Not that the game against Auburn was a thing of beauty. The teams combined for eight turnovers -- four apiece, including Mississippi State's truly puzzling fake-punt interception in their own territory up three scores -- and State spent much of the first half generously helping the Tigers stay in the game. The Bulldogs built up a 21-0 lead in the first quarter, and then twice allowed Auburn to pull within one score. Were it not for Auburn's own inability to hold onto the football, and perhaps even a questionable call or two by the officials, the result might have been different.
But it wasn't, and Mississippi State's offense still looked impressive when it wasn't shooting itself in the foot. Dak Prescott was 18-of-34 passing for 246 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. He ran for another 121 yards and two scores on 21 rushes. Josh Robinson added 97 yards and two touchdowns of his own on 19 carries.
The defense was less impressive. There's nothing to be ashamed of, per se, in allowing Auburn to ring up 441 yards of offense or average 5.4 yards a run. But State's defense seemed to wear down a bit as the game went by. One of Auburn's seven drives (discounting two one-play drives that ended in turnovers) went for 50 or more yards in the first half; two of the Tigers' five substantive drives in the second half went for at least 50 yards. It wasn't a huge letdown, but with games at Alabama and at Ole Miss left on the schedule, it could bear watching as the season goes along.
Auburn, meanwhile, faces a season-ending gauntlet that makes a recovery from this loss difficult, though hardly impossible. After a bye week and a game against South Carolina, the Tigers will face ranked teams in four of their last five games -- at Ole Miss, Texas A&M, at Georgia and at Alabama surround the gimme game against Samford. They're by no means out of the race for the SEC West, but there are other division teams with easier paths to Atlanta.
One of those teams happens to be Mississippi State. There are still dangerous games on the schedule, and there are still plenty of opportunities for the Bulldogs to lose the critical games that have always cost them respect in the past. But for the first time in a long while, there is no reason to believe that they will.