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Mississippi State Bulldogs vs. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs Preview and Prediction

Nick Fitzgerald

Nick Fitzgerald

Mississippi State didn’t take any chances on a repeat performance of its 2016 season-opening loss to South Alabama. The Bulldogs scored 23 first-quarter points and built a 35-0 halftime lead over FCS member Charleston Southern en route to a 49-0 victory. The Buccaneers’ offense gained just 33 yards in the loss, while Mississippi State accumulated 555 yards of total offense.

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While Mississippi State was handling business in Starkville, Louisiana Tech did the same at home against its FCS opponent, cruising to a comfortable 52-24 victory over Northwestern State. Louisiana Tech was efficient as it scored 21 points off of turnovers and went 5-for-5 in the red zone.

These pair of Bulldogs last met in 2015, a 45-20 Mississippi State victory. The Bulldogs from the SEC hold a 9-3 advantage in the series. Louisiana Tech last defeated Mississippi State in 2008.

Mississippi State at Louisiana Tech

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 9 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Mississippi State -7.0

Three Things to Watch

1. The progression of Mississippi State's defense

Last week’s shutout of Charleston Southern should be taken somewhat with a grain of salt considering the Buccaneers hail from the FCS ranks. However, that fact also shouldn't take away from what the Bulldogs' defense did in new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s Mississippi State debut either.

The Bulldogs limited Charleston Southern to 15 passing yards and 18 rushing yards, as the 33 total yards were the fewest allowed by a Mississippi State defense in 54 years. It's obviously early, but the sterling performance has the Bulldogs ranked among the top six teams in the nation in the four major categories — total, scoring, rushing and passing defense.

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Louisiana Tech, which also played an FCS member, rolled up 497 yards of total offense last week and boasts a bit more offensive firepower than Charleston Southern. So consider this matchup a better litmus test of what to expect from Grantham's defense moving forward.

2. Louisiana Tech defensive end Jaylon Ferguson

Ferguson (above, right), who was recruited by Mississippi State, became Louisiana Tech’s single-season sack record holder with 14.5 in 2016. The redshirt junior entered the season listed as a first-team All-Conference USA pick and an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-Conference USA selection.

Ferguson tallied two solo tackles and two quarterback hurries last week against Northwestern State but didn’t register a sack. It shouldn’t take him long to get one, as he recorded his first sack last year in the second game of the season.  Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald did a lot of his damage from the edges in 2016, and he rushed for 43 yards and a touchdown on seven carries last week. How Mississippi State's offensive line blocks Ferguson and whether he can get pressure on Fitzgerald will be one of the key matchups to watch.

3. The maturation of Nick Fitzgerald

Last year, Fitzgerald had the unenviable job of replacing record-setting quarterback Dak Prescott. But after an impressive debut, the expectations surrounding the junior signal-caller have risen significantly, and for good reason. Besides finishing eighth in the SEC with 2,423 passing yards, Fitzgerald also was the conference's No. 2 rusher with 1,375 yards.

He picked up right where he left off against Charleston Southern, throwing for 239 yards and accounting for three total touchdowns. Fitzgerald could be in for a big day against a Louisiana Tech defense that gave up 389 total yards to an FCS team.

Final Analysis

Opponent notwithstanding, Mississippi State put on a clinic in its season opener. Louisiana Tech cruised in its first game of J’Mar Smith’s tenure as starting quarterback. Louisiana Tech, which started slowly last week, showcased its offensive firepower later in the game as it reeled off 28 unanswered points. Mississippi State should get a good road challenge Saturday, but strong defensive play will be enough to move it to 2-0 by game’s end.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Mississippi State

Prediction: Mississippi State 31, Louisiana Tech 23

— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A sports reporter for The Meridian Star Newspaper, Hayes also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.