LSU and Mississippi State open SEC play with one of college football’s must-see matchups on Saturday night in Starkville. The SEC West is the toughest division in the nation, as all seven teams enter Week 2 ranked in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll. While there’s still a lot to be decided in this division over the next few months, Saturday’s matchup is a good barometer test for both teams.
For LSU, it’s a chance to show improvement in the passing game. The Tigers aren’t hurting for talent, but the offense can’t be one-dimensional again. And this is also the first look at coach Les Miles’ team after the opener against McNeese State was canceled due to weather. Mississippi State lost a handful of key players from last season’s 10-win team, yet this program is positioned for a quick reload. Quarterback Dak Prescott is one of the nation’s best, and there’s promising talent in the program waiting to emerge on both sides of the ball.
LSU and Mississippi State have played 108 times, with the Tigers holding a 71-34-3 series edge. The Bulldogs ended LSU’s 14-game winning streak in this series last season, defeating the Tigers 34-29 in Baton Rouge in the SEC opener for both programs.
LSU at Mississippi State
Kickoff: 9:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: LSU -4
Three Things to Watch
1. LSU QB Brandon Harris
LSU’s passing game struggled mightily last season. The Tigers averaged only 162.9 yards per game, while Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings combined for just seven passing scores in SEC contests. Harris has the edge in talent over Jennings, and after spending most of 2014 as a backup, the sophomore earned his place at the top of the depth chart this offseason. Will this move spark the LSU passing attack? Harris has one of the SEC’s best receiving corps at his disposal and a solid offensive line leading the way. The supporting cast isn’t a concern. A road start in the SEC is no easy assignment, but coordinator Cam Cameron can ease Harris into the game with a heavy dose of running back Leonard Fournette. While all eyes will be on the stat column for Harris, it’s important to remember that he doesn’t need huge statistical totals. The sophomore just needs to make timely throws and eliminate any turnovers or mistakes. Mississippi State’s secondary features talented cornerbacks in Will Redmond and Taveze Calhoun, so this will be a good test of just how far Harris has progressed since 2014.
2. Mississippi State’s Run Defense
Despite losing tackles P.J. Jones and Kaleb Eulls and end Preston Smith, Mississippi State’s defensive line entered 2015 in good shape. Tackle Chris Jones is the headliner for this unit, as the junior is a rising star and could be one of the league’s top linemen by the end of 2015. A.J. Jefferson and Ryan Brown are experienced options off the edges and combined for three tackles for a loss in the opener against Southern Miss. The linebacking corps lost Benardrick McKinney and Matt Wells, but Beniquez Brown, Zach Jackson and Richie Brown are a solid trio for coordinator Manny Diaz to build around. Additionally, the Bulldogs held the Golden Eagles to 102 rushing yards and just 2.8 yards per carry last week. This group passed its first test last Saturday, but the going gets a little tougher in Week 2. LSU running back Leonard Fournette is one of the nation’s best and averaged 5.4 yards per carry in limited action against the Bulldogs last season. Considering the question marks for the Tigers in the passing game, Mississippi State should load the box and force Harris to win. But if Fournette has success on early downs and limits long-yardage situations for Harris, that’s a bad sign for the Bulldogs’ defense.
3. Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott
While LSU has an advantage at several positions for Saturday night’s matchup, the best player on the field is on the Mississippi State sideline: Quarterback Dak Prescott. In last year’s game, Prescott completed 15 of 24 passes for 268 yards and two scores and rushed for 105 yards and a touchdown. LSU has one of the best defensive backfields in college football, and a revamped offensive line, as well as a new cast of talented and versatile weapons at running back surround Prescott. Adding to the uncertainty of this game is LSU’s defensive scheme, which has changed under new coordinator Kevin Steele. The senior is capable of carrying Mississippi State to a win on Saturday night, and it’s clear the Bulldogs need his “A” game.
Revenge is on LSU’s mind after Mississippi State stunned the Tigers in Death Valley last season. But both teams enter this matchup with question marks. The Bulldogs had a solid opener against Southern Miss, but coach Dan Mullen’s team wasn’t overly impressive. LSU’s opener was canceled, so it’s hard to know just how far the offense has progressed under Brandon Harris. While Harris is the x-factor here, this game is still decided in the trenches, and the Tigers have an edge up front. Fournette delivers in the fourth quarter to give LSU a 1-0 start in SEC play this year.