One of the hardest teams to figure out in the SEC West early this season has been Mississippi State. No one really expected the Bulldogs to be a contender coming into this season, so the reaction to their narrow loss to LSU two weeks ago was practically coated in confirmation bias. And while a 17-9 win against Auburn on Saturday night keeps Mississippi State in the hunt for the division title, just how long they can stay in the race is another matter entirely.
One thing that the Bulldogs definitely have going for them -- perhaps the only thing they definitely have going for them -- is Dak Presscott, who has learned how to win games with his arms instead of his legs. Prescott might not have dazzled, but he also had the kind of steady performance you expect out of a veteran, going 29-of-41 passing for 270 yards and a pair of touchdowns. And he did that despite the running game being almost completely shut down; the Bulldogs gained just 56 yards on 21 carries, with the longest run of the night going for 14 yards. Instead, Prescott connected with eight different receivers during the game to drive the State offense.
And the rushing game wasn't the only thing that suffered. Auburn's 389 yards of total offense might not be alarming in isolation, but it's the largest yardage total the Tigers have against an FBS team this year and only 12 fewer yards than Auburn gained against Jacksonville State out of the FCS in overtime. Auburn picked up 25 first downs, and things might have been different if the Tigers hadn't ended a 70-yard drive with an interception and a 67-yard drive with a missed field goal in the first half. And that doesn't even count the touchdown opportunities in the second half that turned into field goals.
All of which should turn up the pressure on Gus Malzahn after a team that some saw as a contender for the playoffs now looks like it might not even make a bowl. The two remaining non-conference games are likely wins (though the near-upset against Jacksonville State might argue otherwise), but there are not two sure things on the SEC slate. The game at Kentucky might end up being the swing game for Auburn's postseason hopes, and no one expected to be saying that at the end of September.
For Mississippi State, though, the tantalizing question of what could be will likely have to wait until next week, at least. Win at Texas A&M, and people might start to take the Bulldogs seriously for a second straight year. But it would still be a long road to contention, with the Bulldogs needing to run the table in the SEC while LSU loses twice (or ends up in a one-loss circle-of-death tiebreaker that goes Mississippi State's way) for Atlanta to even be possible. Then again, the expectations for the SEC West are already coming apart at the seams, so who's to say it's impossible?