Week 3 of the college football season is guaranteed to provide powerful SEC fireworks when the No.12-ranked LSU Tigers (2-0) travel to Starkville to take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs (2-0). The showdown between the Tigers and Bulldogs pairs two explosive SEC West offenses against defenses rated among the best in the nation in the early stages of the 2017 season.
Two games into the official Ed Orgeron era in Baton Rouge, it's been business as usual. The Tigers' defense continues to stifle opposing offenses — it's ranked No. 5 out of 130 FBS teams, limiting opponents to 170 total yards per game. The offense, under new coordinator Matt Canada, is still run-heavy, but the evolving passing attack with senior Danny Etling in the pocket is showing far more promise than in years past.
As mighty as the Tigers' defense has been, the Bulldogs can make a similar claim. Ranked No. 6 nationally, MSU's defense is holding teams to 174 yards per game and only 10.5 points per game. But where the Bulldogs pull away from the pack is on offense. Head coach Dan Mullen has all the cylinders firing, producing 507 yards of total offense per game led by preseason All-SEC quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. The junior dual threat is off to a solid start in the pocket and continues to be one of the more explosive runners in the nation from the quarterback position.
LSU at Mississippi State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 16 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: LSU -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Mississippi State’s rush defense vs. LSU's Derrius Guice
The SEC’s returning leading rusher gets his first true test of the 2017 season going against new MSU defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s overhauled squad. The Bulldogs have been stingy against the run, holding teams on average to 85 yards per game. Guice was in a backup role last year to Leonard Fournette in this matchup, picking up only 19 yards on five carries.
LSU’s offensive line has not fully adapted to Canada’s blocking schemes — Guice is averaging 5.3 yards per carry this season as opposed to his 7.6 a year ago. Guice is still a game changer, but will MSU’s defense limit his explosive plays and force third-and-long situations?
2. Danny Etling on third down
The sample size is small, but the passing offense for LSU has improved. The vertical game has resulted in an increase from 7.9 to 12.8 yards per completion by Etling. The Tigers field general is still a game manager, averaging 199 yards passing per game, but his passing completion percentage has skyrocketed upwards. In 2016, Etling was hitting 60 percent of his passes but is up to 71 percent. The Tigers offense has been stymied on third downs, getting conversions just 45 percent of the time. Mississippi State’s defense has been fantastic, allowing only a 21 percent conversion rate.
3. Nick Fitzgerald vs. LSU’s defense
This matchup alone is worth tuning in on Saturday. Last season, Fitzgerald was two games into his career as a starter entering the LSU game. The Tigers held him to 12-of-24 passing for 120 yards. The Tigers 3-4 defense also corralled him for 21 yards on 13 carries, sacking him four times. Fitzgerald’s maturation and abilities in the pocket a year later will be on display, giving him a chance to step out of former MSU quarterback and current Dallas Cowboy Dak Prescott’s looming shadow into his own role as a potential All-American. Can he rise to the occasion?
The scrimmage games are over for both LSU and Mississippi State. The strengths of schedule for both teams are paltry — LSU is No. 92 in that category and MSU No. 114 — making this game a big step up in competition. Statistically, this is a clash-of-the-titans kind of game with two snarling defenses against opportunistic offenses that can score from anywhere on the field.
Over the past three seasons, MSU and LSU have played tight games, with an average winning margin of three points. Both teams will ground and pound while taking the occasional shot downfield. The Tigers have a knack for pulling out tight games against Mississippi State.
Prediction: LSU 28, Mississippi State 24
— 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.