JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -Derek Pegues can isolate the exact moment Mississippi State's fortunes turned.
``We got a lucky bounce,'' Pegues said of his 20-yard interception return for a touchdown that helped the Bulldogs upset Auburn 19-14 last season. ``The ball really bounced off the tight end's pads. I had a good read on the quarterback, made a jump on the ball and was able to catch it before it hit the ground. I think it was one of the bigger plays of the season.''
And what a season. Mississippi State went 8-5, won the Liberty Bowl and replaced memories of embarrassing probation-fueled losses with a highlight reel of big plays, big wins and poignant moments in Sylvester Croom's first winning season.
Mississippi State's story line in the Auburn game became a recurring theme. The Bulldogs were opportunistic, disciplined and dependent on turnovers to fuel their first season with more than three wins since 2000.
ear later, it's time to play Auburn again and Croom and his Bulldogs could sure use another big play in another big win after their stunning season-opening loss to Louisiana Tech.
Saturday's Southeastern Conference opener for both schools will answer many of the questions rekindled by that loss. Are the Bulldogs for real? They can prove it by beating the No. 9 Tigers and making an early move in the Southeastern Conference Western Division race.
``Looking at other teams, watching them play I feel like we've got enough athletes on the field that we can play with anybody in the SEC,'' Pegues said. ``I feel like this year, since I've been at Mississippi State, this is the only time we've really had a chance of winning the SEC. There's a lot of teams that are on the same level.''
A lot of people will be watching the Bulldogs try to prove which tier they belong on. The game is on ESPN2 in prime time, a near-capacity crowd is expected and the atmosphere will be uniquely Mississippi State.
Cornerback Jerraud Powers has an enduring memory of his last trip to Starkville.
``The cowbells, man,'' he said. ``My redshirt freshman year, we played there. It was a day game and it was a packed house. We were up 28-0 or 28-3, whatever it was, and they were still ringing those cowbells. You can't hear nothing. It's a tough place to play just because of the crowd noise.''
more than noise. In an era when even Auburn has switched to the spread offense, Mississippi State remains a throwback to the heyday of power running and quarterbacks who hand off first, throw second and run only when threatened with bodily harm.
Asked what he remembers about Mississippi State's offense last season, defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks said: ``SEC football. Downhill. Backdoor. Straight power lead, I-formation, running the ball.''
With the team's starting quarterback lost to injury and a freshman doing most of the signal calling, Mississippi State used that running game to squeeze Auburn for a win last year, snapping a six-game losing streak in the series. Anthony Dixon gained 103 yards and Christian Ducre finished off the Tigers with a fourth-quarter touchdown.
Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville expects much of the same.
``Everybody likes to have two good ones and they have that,'' Tuberville said. ``They have physical guys, they have speed guys. They can make a difference and give you a change of pace. It's like bringing a pitcher out of the bullpen.''
Whether the Bulldogs will provide another curveball this season is the question. It's unlikely they'll catch Auburn off guard. The Tigers are eighth in the nation in scoring defense after allowing 13 points in two games, a fact overshadowed by the changes on offense where the team has settled on starter Chris Todd at quarterback.
uburn's coming prepared for a classic bloody-nose SEC matchup.
``We have to come out tough,'' Marks said. ``It's going to be rough, especially when they beat us last year at our home. We've got a favor to pay back to them.''
---
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Auburn, Ala., contributed to this report.

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