Mississippi State and LSU open SEC play with an intriguing and critical conference matchup in Baton Rouge on Saturday night. This game likely will be overshadowed nationally by Florida-Alabama and Florida State-Clemson, but the meeting between the Bulldogs and Tigers could end up being one of the best games of Week 4.
One game should never define a coach’s tenure at a program, but Saturday’s game is a huge opportunity for Mississippi State and coach Dan Mullen. In six seasons, Mullen is 39-28 and has guided the Bulldogs to four consecutive bowl appearances. Expectations are always high at a SEC program. But realistically, it’s tough to consistently win big at Mississippi State – especially with Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Texas A&M are top 10 teams. Mullen is doing a good job at one of the SEC’s toughest jobs, but the Pennsylvania native has yet to beat a team ranked in the top 10. Again, expectation levels for each fan are different, but while Mullen is doing a good job in Starkville, it’s time to take the next step as a program and beat one of the top programs in the SEC.
Players depart, new starters emerge and LSU doesn’t miss a beat. That’s the theme in Baton Rouge under Les Miles, as the Tigers have won at least 10 games in four consecutive years. Even though the win over Wisconsin was a solid non-conference victory, how much did we learn about LSU against a one-dimensional offense? And it’s hard to read too much into the Tigers’ blowout wins over ULM and Sam Houston State.
LSU has not lost to Mississippi State since 1999. But the Bulldogs have not won in Baton Rouge since 1991.
Mississippi State at LSU
Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: LSU -9.5
Three Things to Watch
1. MSU’s Front Seven vs. LSU’s Rushing Attack
Mississippi State’s upset hopes likely rest on its ability to stop the run. LSU’s offensive line is a veteran group that ranks among the best in the SEC. The Tigers boast a solid yards per carry (4.3), and the offense is averaging 226.3 rushing yards per game. Also, LSU is tied for third in the SEC with seven rushes of 20 or more yards. Five Tigers have at least 20 rushes, with Kenny Hilliard and Leonard Fournette leading the way as the team’s top options. Hilliard and Fournette will test a Mississippi State defense that has allowed just one rushing score on 103 attempts. The Bulldogs rank No. 2 in the SEC against the run and are holding opponents to 2.3 yards per carry. Additionally, Mississippi State leads the SEC with 29 tackles for a loss, and there’s no shortage of depth up front, headlined by end Preston Smith and tackles P.J. Jones and Chris Jones. If the Bulldogs can stop LSU’s power (and run-first offense), then this forces extra pressure on quarterback Anthony Jennings.
2. LSU’s Big-Play Passing Offense
Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris were locked into a tight battle for the starting quarterback job in the preseason, and both players were expected to play early in the year to sort out the No. 1 spot. But after three games, Anthony Jennings has seized control of the starting job. So far, Jennings has produced a mixed bag of results. The good: Averaging 20.9 yards per completion. The bad: Completing only 51.9 percent of throws. If LSU establishes its ground attack, Jennings will have ample opportunities to hit big plays downfield to top target Travin Dural (30.8 ypc). However, what if the Tigers can’t get anything going on the ground and Jennings has to win it through the air? Is he ready to do that in his fifth career start? Big plays are always a positive for any offense. Can Jennings show consistency to move the ball downfield in smaller chunks if the Bulldogs play deep to prevent the big play?
3. LSU’s Defense vs. Dak Prescott
The growth of LSU’s defense is something to monitor over the course of 2014. The Tigers lost a couple of key players from last year’s unit, including both starting defensive tackles. But so far, this defense hasn’t missed a beat. LSU has not allowed a point in 147:24 minutes of game action and is limiting opponents to just 3.5 yards per play. This defense is young (only three projected seniors in the lineup) but incredibly talented. Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott will be the best quarterback the Tigers have played this year, so this is a much tougher test than the Wisconsin, Sam Houston State and ULM offenses. Prescott is the catalyst for the Bulldogs’ offense, averaging 323 yards per game and has scored 11 touchdowns in three contests. The junior isn’t the only weapon on offense for Mullen, as receiver Jameon Lewis and running back Josh Robinson provide plenty of big-play ability.
LSU has been impressive so far this year, but this is the first real test for Les Miles’ team. Mississippi State’s offense has more balance than Wisconsin, and quarterback Dak Prescott will test the Tigers’ stout run defense and secondary. If the Bulldogs are going to break through with a big win, this is the perfect opportunity. However, even though Mississippi State’s rush defense should be able to hold its own against LSU, the Tigers will find a way to win this game in the fourth quarter.