Mike Leach makes his SEC debut as his Bulldogs take on the defending national champions
College football fans have been waiting since Jan. 9, 2020, for the SEC debut of head coach Mike Leach and the time has finally arrived. On Saturday, the Mississippi State Bulldogs travel west to Baton Rouge taking on the No. 6 LSU Tigers in Death Valley. In a week packed with some interesting gridiron matchups, none promise to hold as much intrigue as this SEC West showdown.
Seemingly, there is not a pass Leach does not like which leads to a wide-open offense that spreads defenses thin across the field. Leach's talents for creating mismatches have led to some of college football's best offenses, even with perhaps less recruited talent, during his time at Washington State (2012-19). Under Leach's guidance, the Cougars ended the 2019 season with the nation's seventh-best offense chomping up 505.2 yards per game. Can he keep up the offensive production in the talent-laden SEC West?
LSU's 2019 run was one of the all-time greatest making a clean 15-0 (8-0 SEC) run cutting down seven top-10 ranked teams along the way. Senior and early NFL draft attrition gutted the roster and COVID-19 concerns took another piece away from the 2020 roster. The Tigers lost three more returning starters due to virus opt-outs, including Fred Biletnikoff Award winner Ja'Marr Chase. LSU's title defense run will be put into the hands of talented but young players with only five starters in total returning.
Mississippi State vs. No. 6 LSU
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 26 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: LSU -16.5
When Mississippi State Has the Ball
All the offensive stats Mississippi State compiled during the 2019 season can be thrown out the window under this new staff. What can be counted upon going forward is running back Kylin Hill. The senior tailback returns after finishing third in the SEC in rushing yards (1,350) and tied for fifth in scores on the ground (10). Hill took the rock a conference-leading 242 times a year ago, but may not have such a heavy load with handoffs in 2020. Leach highlights the tailback but in different ways. His leading rusher last season, Max Borghi, carried the ball 127 times for 817 yards with 11 touchdowns. Borghi was a big part of the passing attack as well hauling in 86 for 597 yards with five trips into the end zone.
The signal-caller is the emphasis in the offense for Leach, and he brought in a senior grad transfer from Stanford to make it happen. The depth chart lists K.J. Costello as QB 1 ahead of returning gunslinger Garrett Shrader. Costello was limited last season due to injury and threw for just 1,038 yards with six scores in five games, but he had a breakthrough year in 2018 tossing for 3,540 yards with 29 scores. Costello is big with a quick release, an ideal fit to run Leach's offense.
LSU's defense took some verbal and written barbs in 2019 for not being on the level of the offense, but they did finish with the nation's 31st best unit allowing just 343.5 yards per game. Two variables MSU will want to capitalize on early is LSU's lack of experience, only three starters back, and their change from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3. New defensive coordinator Bo Pellini will certainly apply pressure on Costello, especially with a very talented secondary capable of covering, but the Bulldogs have an experienced line protecting their quarterback. What gives here, an inexperienced group running a new defense or a formidable squad running a new offense?
When LSU Has the Ball
Even though passing game coordinator Joe Brady (Panthers) is gone to the NFL along with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow (Bengals), this offense still remains intact under coordinator Steve Ensminger. Burrow's backup, Myles Brennan, takes over after completing 24-of-40 passes for 353 yards with one score and one pick. Brennan knows the offense, has speed on the outside and has a talented stable of backs behind him. If the line can provide protection, this group will still be able to move the ball downfield. Watch for true freshman tight end Arik Gilbert to have an impact season.
Between the offensive line and all the running backs, LSU has just one starter back, right tackle Austin Deculus. Yet, this group has the potential to be formidable. If the line can get a push, the list of running backs ready to make their mark in LSU's history book is impressive. Chris Curry, Tyrion Davis-Price, and John Emery Jr. are as capable as any other backfield in the SEC, just not battle-tested for an entire season as a featured back. Davis-Price is the leading returning rusher, but Curry and Emery have the speed to break any run from anywhere on the field.
The Mississippi State players may not be the only ones with some butterflies in the stomach come kickoff. MSU defensive coordinator Zach Arnett is making the jump from the same role with San Diego State to Starkville, now trying to stop powerful SEC offenses as opposed to Mountain West squads. On a unit lacking returning talent, Arnett can depend on senior middle linebacker Erroll Thompson. Thompson, a preseason third-team All-SEC selection, must control the box forcing Brennan to move the ball with his arm.
Worth noting that WSU quarterback Anthony Gordon threw for 5,579 yards with 48 touchdowns completing 72 percent of his attempts last season. Costello will get his chances to exploit LSU's defense. Can LSU keep everything bottled up limiting explosive plays?
The play of LSU's offensive line will not only dictate the outcome of the game but for the entire season. If the line is up to the task, Mississippi State will have limited chances. With first game jitters and a simple offensive approach to get the ball out quick, Mississippi State should push LSU until adjustments are made.
Prediction: LSU 24, Mississippi State 21
Podcast: The SEC is Back Too & Week 4 Preview
— 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.