After a 14-year run by LSU (2000-13), the annual SEC West showdown against Mississippi State has become a contentious back-and-forth affair with last-minute finishes and shocking wins. When the No. 2 Tigers (6-0, 2-0 SEC) head to Starkville on Saturday, a Mississippi State (3-3, 1-2) team in need of a boost will look back to the 2017 season to retrieve any upset magic that might still be in the crisp autumn air.
The Tigers head on the road for the third time this season looking like serious title contenders after taking down their second top-10 opponent last week in then-No. 7 Florida. The 42-28 victory over the Gators represented a dramatic shift in national perception of LSU with fans and media alike jumping on the national championship bandwagon. LSU is overwhelming the opposition with one of the nation's best offenses and a defense holding teams to 316 yards per game.
After back-to-back losses on the road to Auburn (56-23) and Tennessee (20-10), the friendly confines of Davis Wade Stadium is needed for some stability for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have stayed in games this season thanks to a power-rushing attack but have not been able to get over the proverbial hump with a lackluster pass game. Most SEC teams in the modern era pass for more yards than they rush, but not MSU. The Bulldogs are picking up 192 on the ground and 184 in the air. The defense has been tough but is not getting enough help from the offense on the scoreboard.
LSU at Mississippi State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 19 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: LSU -18
When LSU Has the Ball
When the ball is teed up on Saturday, all eyes will be on the play of senior quarterback Joe Burrow. Burrow leads the nation in completion percentage (80) and QBR (218.1) and is second in yards (2,157) and touchdowns (25). The Tigers have the nation's second-best passing attack covering 396 yards per game. The top two targets on the outside are Justin Jefferson (40/670/8) and Ja'Marr Chase (30/578/8).
As tough as Mississippi State's defense has been at times this year, the Bulldogs have yet to face an offensive unit like LSU. MSU is holding teams to 231 passing yards and 163 rushing, but had no answers for the most complete team they faced in Auburn giving way to 578 total yards. Free safety CJ Morgan and middle linebacker Erroll Thompson are the main playmakers for this defense. MSU is very good at coming away with turnovers — 16 (10 fumbles, six INTs) through six games.
Balancing out the LSU passing attack is a run game that is improving. Against a very good Florida run defense, LSU clawed forward, picking up 218 rushing yards with three scores. The squad is now gaining 166 per game led by Clyde Edwards-Helaire's 494 yards and seven touchdowns.
When Mississippi State Has the Ball
The uncertainty in the pocket between Garrett Shrader and Tommy Stevens has halted progress on offense. Statistically, Stevens has better numbers but in nine fewer pass attempts, he has thrown two more interceptions than Shrader (4 vs. 2). Not being able to push the ball downfield is showing on third downs with a mediocre 38 percent conversion rate. Of the two, Shrader presents a bigger challenge to the opposition with his running abilities averaging 6.3 yards per carry covering 374 yards on the season. That may be one reason why head coach Jor Moorhead has already tabbed Shrader as the starter this Saturday. The one bright spot for MSU in the passing game has been Osirus Mitchell. Mitchell leads the team in receptions (24), yards (335), and touchdowns (4).
Entering the Tennessee contest, Kylin Hill was leading the SEC in rushing yards. But the Volunteers played spoiler, holding him to 13 yards on 11 carries leaving Shrader as the team's leading ground gainer (62 yards) in the loss in Knoxville. After going for 111 yards against Kansas State and 120 with three scores against Kentucky, Hill has 56 total yards in the last two outings. If he gets going, he is still a load to handle with 609 total yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
LSU's defense has looked good at times, but in games against Power 5 competition the Tigers are giving up 35 points per contest. Even struggling Vanderbilt managed to score three touchdowns and a pair of field goals while accumulating 374 yards. Of course, the Commodores couldn't keep pace with LSU, who lit up the scoreboard with 66 points and maxed out the box score with 599 yards in the win in Nashville a month ago. The most points Mississippi State has scored against Power 5 competition thus far is 28 in a win over Kentucky. Barring some sort of turnaround, the Bulldogs' offense probably won't be able to stress LSU too much.
When the Tigers last visited the Bulldogs in 2017, State pulled off an improbable 37-7 win over the No. 12 team in the country. LSU got a bit of revenge last year posting a 19-3 win in Baton Rouge. State has two advantages, playing at home and the possibility that the Tigers be looking ahead to a home game against No. 11 Auburn next week. The reality is as long as the real LSU team shows up, the Bulldogs don't have the weapons on offense to trade touchdown punches. The Tigers need to put this one away early, if possible, to keep everyone fresh for next Saturday's showdown in Tiger Stadium.
Prediction: LSU 48, MSU 21
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.