College football fans are in for a thrilling roll-back-the-clock kind of game on Saturday when No. 22 Mississippi State (4-2, 1-2 SEC) heads to Death Valley to take on No. 5 LSU (6-1, 3-1). The collision of SEC West teams pits strength against strength in a test of run game execution against run game defense.
Mississippi State stopped the sting of a two-game losing streak in Week 6, putting a proverbial nail in the coffin of then-No. 21 Auburn’s season with a 23-9 win. The Bulldogs dominated the line of scrimmage, holding the Tigers to 90 yards on the ground while gaining 349 yards against the battered Auburn defense. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and running back Kylin Hill stole the show, rushing for 195 yards and 126 yards, respectively. On defense, senior safety Mark McLaurin was all over the field with a team-high 10 stops, while senior end Montez Sweat worked over Auburn’s offense for three tackles for a loss.
LSU will take the field against MSU on a confidence high after upending then-No. 2 Georgia 36-16 in a dominating display of ground dominance and overall defense. Led by sophomore tailback Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the Tigers romped on Georgia’s defense for 275 yards on the ground. The LSU defense was seemingly perfect, limiting the feared Bulldogs attack to 322 yards of total offense.
Coming off a bye week, Mississippi State heads to Baton Rouge seeking to play spoiler for an LSU team now back in the hunt for a potential College Football Playoff berth if it can win out.
Mississippi State at LSU
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: LSU -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Mississippi State’s run defense
Mississippi State has the second-best run defense in the SEC, holding teams to 115 yards per game, but can the Bulldogs stop one of the nation’s best rushing attacks in LSU? Against a very similar ground-and-pound kind of team in Kentucky, MSU saw the Wildcats control the game with their rushing attack, accumulating 229 total yards on the ground led by Benny Snell’s 165 yards with four touchdowns.
LSU is averaging just over 200 yards per game on the ground this season and has already faced noted run-stopping defenses in Miami, Auburn and Georgia. MSU's leading tackler, safety Johnathan Abram (43 tackles), and its top linebacker, Erroll Thompson (37), will be busy on Saturday.
2. LSU’s run defense
The Tigers have just faced a very talented rushing offense in Georgia, but the manner in which the yards are gained on the ground by MSU is different. Bulldogs head coach Joe Moorhead is not afraid to put the entire game in Fitzgerald’s hands, be it passing or running the pigskin. Fitzgerald leads MSU in rushing attempts (98), yards (513) and touchdowns (7). Additionally, Hill can make a defense look silly in a heartbeat; he's averaging 7.0 yards per carry this season. Up front, Rimington Trophy candidate Elgton Jenkins leads the way.
The Tigers linebackers and secondary will be tested by Fitzgerald’s ability to turn busted plays into first downs. The defense is led by linebackers Devin White (66 stops) and Jacob Phillips (43) with do-everything safety Grant Delpit (44) quick to come downhill to clean up plays.
3. Who wins on special teams?
With two offenses and two defenses that are similarly matched, the third phase of the game becomes all the more important in what could be a tight game. When it comes to flipping the field, LSU edges out MSU 44 yards to 39 on punting average. When it comes to putting points on the board after a stalled drive, LSU’s Cole Tracy has Jace Christmann beat. Christmann is 6-of-9 on the season with three missed field goals under 49 yards. Tracy has been a perfect 15-of-15 under 50 yards with two makes and two misses over 50 yards.
It's worth noting that neither team has scored on a punt or kick return this season.
Since the mid-80s, LSU has dominated this series — until the last four meetings. The two teams have split their last four, with MSU putting a 37-7 beatdown on then-No. 12 LSU last season. LSU has not performed well under head coach Ed Orgeron in trap games. Last season, LSU lost to Troy ahead of facing Florida and lost 27-19 this season to the Gators before manhandling Georgia. Which Tigers team will take the field this week?
The Tigers now have three wins over top-10 teams — Miami, Auburn and Georgia — and face a fourth top-10 team on Nov. 3 in bitter rival Alabama. Mississippi State is coming off a bye and will not get caught looking ahead to Texas A&M.
Prediction: LSU 27, 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.