When Mississippi State (1-1) travels to Baton Rouge to face No. 20 LSU (1-1) on Saturday, the SEC West showdown will feature two sharp defenses and two offenses searching for their identity. Mississippi State enters the game with nothing to lose while LSU still has heavy expectations upon their shoulders for an SEC championship-contending season.
Something had to give at some point for LSU head coach Les Miles’ offense with Brandon Harris at quarterback. The straw that broke the camel’s back came after two possessions against Jacksonville State last week. Harris’ stat line for the season through parts of two games, 13-of-25 for 139 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. The season may now hinge on backup and Purdue graduate transfer Danny Etling.
Mississippi State switched from a two-quarterback system of Nick Fitzgerald and Damian Williams in their opener against South Alabama to head coach Dan Mullen sticking with just Fitzgerald against South Carolina. Fitzgerald turned in a fantastic performance against the Gamecocks, leaving a window of hope for MSU that he might be able to do the same against the Tigers. In MSU’s favor, LSU had trouble corralling Jacksonville State quarterback Eli Jenkins, letting him pass for 248 yards and run for a team-high 82.
Mississippi State at LSU
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: LSU -14
Three Things to Watch
1. LSU’s Quarterback Play
One of the keys to any LSU game from last season and on into the future, until a solid playmaker emerges under center, will be the Tigers' production and game management by their quarterback. Chances are Danny Etling is now the starter for LSU throughout the season, but that is still a question mark. Etling started hot against Jacksonville State, hitting six of his first eight pass attempts, but once the game got into a flow, Etling threw a pick in the end zone, fumbled, and then missed his final six pass attempts.
How will either Etling or Harris, whoever starts or finishes the game, play against a solid MSU defense?
2. Leonard Fournette’s Ankle
Fournette seems to be the human equivalent of a Mack truck, unstoppable and unbreakable. After sitting out last week with a left ankle injury, everyone assumes the talented junior will bounce back to his old form but a cautious approach should be taken. Even if Fournette is limited, sophomore tailback Derrius Guice is extremely talented in his own right. Guice got the bulk of the work against Jacksonville State and made the most of the opportunity, rushing for 155 yards on 19 carries.
Any team is better with Fournette at full strength, but just how healthy is he?
3. Can Nick Fitzgerald Have a Repeat Performance?
South Carolina maybe in rebuilding mode, but that should not diminish what MSU’s quarterback did against the Gamecocks, especially following in the footsteps of Dak Prescott. Fitzgerald posted a school record for rushing yards from the quarterback position with 195 on 17 carries. The sophomore also had 178 yards through the air and a pair of touchdown passes.
Playing in Death Valley, at night, is a different beast. The Bulldogs' ground game, not counting Fitzgerald’s production, ended with 95 yards on the ground on 28 carries — not great. If MSU cannot get more push up front in the ground game, Fitzgerald may find himself running for his life in Tiger Stadium.
LSU and Mississippi State are two teams still trying to find their identity. One of them arguably has the best player in the nation at tailback. If Leonard Fournette is a full-go on Saturday it will be tough to go against LSU.
The Tigers squeaked past the Bulldogs last season 21-19 in Starkville when MSU had more experienced talent on their roster, namely do-everything quarterback Dak Prescott. LSU will still be feeling its way on offense with Danny Etling at quarterback and potentially with Derrius Guice serving as the lead running back should Fournette be limited by his ankle or worse. Mississippi State's offense did not look sharp against a rebuilding Gamecocks defense last week, can the Bulldogs get it together in time for LSU?
Prediction: LSU 28, Mississippi State 14
— 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. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.