At first blush this matchup between Mississippi State and Kansas State looks lopsided at best. Both teams started their season last week by taking on FCS opponents and came away with vastly different results. While MSU was in one of those name-your-score type of wins over Stephen F. Austin, the Wildcats were pushed to the final play in a 27-24 escape win over South Dakota. Okay sure, USD was in the playoffs last year while the Lumberjacks went 4-7, but still.
It’s not often that you see Bill Snyder schedule a Power 5 conference team in the early part of the season, especially not a team that is ranked in the preseason. Usually there is a steady diet of UMass, Charlotte, UTSA and the like. So this is a real treat. And that rabid fan base in Manhattan will relish having an SEC team come to town. The last time that happened was when No. 5 Auburn played at KSU in 2014 and barely escaped with a six-point win.
Mississippi State at Kansas State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 8 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Mississippi State -9
Three Things To Watch
1. The MSU D-line
The Bulldogs were a freaking demolition crew against the poor Lumberjacks, bombarding their quarterback Foster Sawyer to the tune of four sacks for 29 yards in losses, and what seemed like 45 QB hurries on the day. Sawyer ended up just 10-for-27 as he saw All-American Montez Sweat register a pair of sacks and 3.5 tackles for a loss. In all, Stephen F. Austin was plunked for 17 plays of lost yardage by that Bulldog D. Athlon Sports had MSU's D-line in its top 10 coming into the season, so the Wildcats' O-line (also a top-10 unit), which returned four starters, will have their hands full, especially since they seemed to struggle with USD’s defense last week. This will be big boy football, comparatively.
2. The return of Fitzgerald
It has been almost three full games since MSU has had the services of starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. He injured his leg early in game vs. Ole Miss last November and also missed the bowl win over Louisville. Fitzgerald was suspended for last week’s win over Stephen F. Austin but will unleash his dynamic talent this week. He threw for 1,762 yards and scrambled for 954 yards in 11 games a year ago. Under new head coach Joe Moorhead, look for Fitzgerald to throw the ball a bit more, especially to the running backs since last year Saquon Barkley caught 54 passes at Penn State under Moorhead’s direction.
3. How special are the special teams?
Let’s face it, the only way Kansas State escaped with a W against South Dakota was by getting special play from its special teams. And the only way the Wildcats can pull of the upset against Mississippi State is by getting more of the same. K-State has scored an FBS-best 112 non-offensive touchdowns since 2000 but lost nearly every marquee player from their special teams of a year ago. Their game with South Dakota flipped completely when Isaiah Zuber returned a Coyote punt 85 yards for a touchdown. Also, first-year placekicker Blake Lynch nailed all four of his field goal attempts when the offense bogged down.
This one is a real sticky wicket. As stated above, if you simply look at the results of the first weekend, you would have to make the Bulldogs a heavy favorite. But you never know when a Bill Snyder team is just playing possum after the week one struggle. Was this a case of their getting caught looking ahead to this game? If you’re a Wildcat fan, you hope so. One thing is for sure, any kind of repeat of last week’s 13-penalty, four-turnover effort and KSU will get taken to the woodshed quickly.
It will be a wild environment in the Little Apple but don’t look for the Bulldogs to crumble. This is an uber-experienced team that returned 93 percent of its offense from a year ago and also 77 percent of its tackles on defense. Though he may have to knock off some rust early on, Nick Fitzgerald’s return will be a shot of confidence for Mississippi State. But one thing to keep in mind, Kansas State QB Skylar Thompson was the field general for three come-from-behind victories last year and pulled the trick again vs. South Dakota last week. So don’t leave the game early 'Cat fans.
Prediction: Mississippi State 35, Kansas State 17
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.