A pair of southern schools from neighboring states will kick things off in the Big Easy when Mississippi State takes on Louisiana in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. This marks the fifth meeting between the two programs. The Bulldogs have won the previous four matchups, including last season's 56-10 victory at home.
Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead inherited what Dan Mullen left behind and did a solid job, winning eight games in his first season. Gone is quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and a handful of highly coveted draft picks on the defensive side of the ball, but the cupboard is far from bare. Moorhead landed Penn State transfer quarterback, a player he is familiar with going back to his time as the Nittany Lions' offensive coordinator (2016-17). Stevens won the starting job in fall camp and should provide Bulldogs fans with plenty of reasons for optimism in the near future. There should be some drop-off on defense after losing four NFL draft picks but the unit shouldn't completely fall apart due to the overall depth on the roster.
Louisiana is coming off of a 7-7 campaign in head coach Billy Napier's debut season. The Ragin' Cajuns played for the Sun Belt title last year and return 15 starters from that team. The offense boasts some playmakers but the bigger questions are with a defense that finished 105th nationally in points allowed per game last season.
Mississippi State vs. Louisiana
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 31 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome (New Orleans)
Spread: Mississippi State -20.5
When Mississippi State Has the Ball
Expect a solid run-to-pass ratio from Joe Moorhead as he breaks in a new quarterback. Junior running back Kylin Hill returns after finishing second in rushing last season with 734 yards while averaging 6.3 yards per carry. Tommy Stevens will have plenty of experienced targets to throw to in seniors Stephen Guidry and Deddrick Thomas, as well as junior Osirus Mitchell. Mitchell led the team with 26 catches in 2018. The offensive line features all upperclassmen, led by senior center Darryl Williams, who's making the move after starting 12 games at left guard last season. Stevens' learning curve running this offense will be fascinating to watch, not just this week, but all season long.
When Louisiana Has the Ball
The Ragin' Cajuns will lean on junior running back Trey Ragas, who ripped off 1,181 yards and eight touchdowns a year ago. When unproven junior quarterback Levi Lewis drops back to pass, expect him to be looking for senior Ja'Marcus Bradley, turned 40 catches into 10 touchdowns last season. Protection shouldn't be an issue Lewis, as he will be surrounded by five seniors on the offensive line. Even with all of the changes for Mississippi State on defense, Louisiana's veteran front will be tested by an SEC-caliber unit.
This should be a game well into the second half, but ultimately one that Mississippi State should put away late. Louisiana has an offensive line that should hold up respectably and enough talent returning to keep this game competitive until the strength and speed of an SEC foe proves to be too much. Billy Napier is a former Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney assistant, so he will have his Ragin' Cajuns prepared after over-achieving in year one. Joe Moorhead didn't forget how to coach offense and I'd expect Tommy Stevens to have a solid debut at the helm of the Bulldogs offense.
Prediction: Mississippi State 38, Louisiana 17
— Written by Nick Kayal, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network as a college football and NFL writer. Nick is a Morning Show Host in Nashville on 102.5 The Game. Follow him on Twitter @NickKayal.