After what’s felt like an eternity, Mississippi State finally opens its 2018 season Saturday as the Bulldogs welcome FCS opponent Stephen F. Austin to Starkville for Joe Moorhead’s inaugural game as head coach. Mississippi State announced Monday returning starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was suspended for the season opener due for a violation of team rules earlier in the year, but 15 other returning starters will help usher in the Moorhead era.
Stephen F. Austin returns to the state of Mississippi for the first time since 1991, when it played fellow FCS member Jackson State. Moorhead won’t be the only coach at Davis Wade Stadium Saturday to make his debut. The Lumberjacks named defensive coordinator Jeff Byrd, a Mississippi native and former Southern Miss player, as interim head coach following the suspension and resignation of his former boss, Clint Conque.
Saturday marks the first meeting between the two schools. Mississippi State is 87-28-2 at Davis Wade in season openers, while SFA boasts a 47-9-5 record in those games.
Stephen F. Austin at Mississippi State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 1 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Mississippi State -46.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Keytaon Thompson gets the first shot at Moorhead’s offense
Fans hoping to see Fitzgerald make his return from the ankle injury he suffered in lats year's Egg Bowl loss to Ole Miss will have to wait another week. Thompson, meanwhile, will start his second consecutive game at quarterback.
Thompson got his first career start against Louisville in the TaxSlayer Bowl and helped lead the Bulldogs to a 31-27 win behind 147 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries. He also went 11 of 20 for 120 yards and an interception through the air.
As a dual threat, Thompson’s skills are well-suited for Moorhead’s offense, which generated 41.6 points per game at Penn State in 2017. Prior to coming to Starkville, Moorhead was the Nittany Lions' offensive coordinator the past two seasons.
2. Stephen F. Austin's Tamrick Pace is on record watch
At 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, Pace pulled in a team-high 53 receptions for another team-high 645 yards as a sophomore last season. Pace only needs 48 receiving yards to break into the school’s top 10 in that department.
Lumberjacks starting quarterback Foster Sawyer, a TCU transfer, enters Saturday with three career starts, but his job of getting the ball to Pace will not be easy. He’ll contend with pressure from Mississippi State's ultra-talented pass-rushing duo of Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons, who have a combined 26 career starts. Sweat and Simmons together tallied 15.5 sacks last season and both ended up earning first-team All-SEC recognition.
Pace’s quest to move up in the record book won’t be easy.
3. Mississippi State’s ground game
Perhaps no one was happier to learn of Moorhead’s hire than Bulldog running backs Aeris Williams and Kylin Hill. With Moorhead as his offensive coordinator at Penn State last year, former Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley rushed for 1,271 yards and 18 touchdowns en route to earning Big Ten offensive player of the year honors.
Williams ran for 1,107 yards and six touchdowns last year, while Hill added another 393 yards and two scores on the ground. MSU’s offensive line also is one of the SEC’s most experienced with its 76 career starts, which went a long way to helping the Bulldogs average 215.7 rushing yards per game last year.
Expect to see a lot of Williams and Hill with a healthy number of designed QB runs for Thompson Saturday night.
Not even the unexpected suspension of Nick Fitzgerald can dampen the excitement of the new era for Mississippi State football. After an offseason of implementing a new playbook and terminology, the Bulldogs will get the chance to test it out against a real opponent. And for Stephen F. Austin, head coach Jeff Byrd returns to his home state with the interim tag and will audition to have it removed by season’s end.
Mississippi State starting quarterback Keytaon Thompson became progressively better in the TaxSlayer Bowl win, and he should continue to develop into Fitzgerald’s successor. He’ll have a good opportunity to continue to grow against an overmatched Lumberjacks defense, and Aeris Williams and Kylin Hill should post big numbers on the ground. On the other side of the ball, Stephen F. Austin won't face a tougher opponent this season.
Prediction: Mississippi State 45, Stephen F. Austin 3
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A sports reporter for The Meridian Star, Hayes also has been an invited guest on "The Paul Finebaum Show." Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.
(Top photo courtesy of @HailStateFB)