For Mississippi State, the magical 2014 season really began when the unranked Bulldogs shocked the nation by beating then-No. 8 LSU 34-29 in Tiger Stadium. Led by quarterback Dak Prescott, State rolled up 570 yards of total offense against what would prove to be the SEC’s toughest defense. Though the final score was close — and LSU had the ball with a chance to win on the final play of the game — the Bulldogs controlled the tempo of the game from start to finish and it never felt like the outcome was in question.
Much has changed since last year’s game in Baton Rouge, but one thing remains the same: LSU is expected to beat Mississippi State. How can the Bulldogs score another upset? There are three things that must happen.
1. One Last Great Performance By Louisiana Native Dak Prescott
Prescott is the best quarterback in the SEC, and the Haughton, Louisiana, native always seems to save his best for his home state team.
Prescott didn’t play much against the Tigers as a freshman in 2012, but he did toss a nine-yard touchdown pass in his only passing attempt. As a sophomore, Prescott struggled throwing the football (9-for-20, 106 yards 0 TDs, 1 INT), but he was an effective runner and gained 103 yards on the ground, including a 28-yard touchdown, which helped the Bulldogs stay within one score heading into the fourth quarter of an eventual 59-26 LSU victory.
Last season, Prescott blossomed against the Tigers with 268 passing yards on 15-for-24 passing and two touchdowns, while adding 105 rushing yards and another score. But the numbers don’t even tell the whole story. Mississippi State fed off the energy and confidence Prescott showed all night. It looked like every player on the sideline didn’t just think they could beat LSU in Tiger Stadium, instead they knew they were going to march into Death Valley and come back with a victory. And that feeling started with Prescott.
For State to score another upset Saturday night, they will likely need an even better performance from Prescott, who was 22-for-38 for 237 yards and two TDs last week against Southern Miss, and added 72 yards and another touchdown on the ground.
2. Make Brandon Harris as Uncomfortable as Possible Early
Because of inclement weather in Baton Rouge last weekend, LSU starting quarterback Brandon Harris didn’t have an opportunity to warm up for this week’s trip to Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville. Therefore, the sophomore will make just his second career start in yet another hostile environment.
Last season, Harris was pegged as the starter for the Tigers against Auburn. He was dreadful and completed just three of 14 passes for 58 yards (52 coming on one play) in a 41-7 loss. Simply, Harris made Auburn’s terrible defense look great, and he promptly lost the starting job and attempted only one more pass the rest of the season.
Fast-forward to 2015, and Harris could have used the confidence boost — and the practice — that would have surely come from a 30- or 40-point victory over McNeese State. Instead, his first real action of the season comes against new Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who is sure to have a few tricks up his sleeve for Harris Saturday night.
Diaz’s Louisiana Tech defense was responsible for more turnovers than any team in the country last season, and his attacking Mississippi State unit forced two interceptions last week against Southern Miss. The Bulldogs are strong up front, and the pass rush — as well as 61,000 cowbells clanging loudly throughout Stark Vegas — will be vital in making Harris uncomfortable early.
Because there are holes in the defense (as evidenced by the 311 passing yards and 413 total yards the Golden Eagles picked up Saturday night) the Bulldogs need to rattle Harris early and get him out of the pocket in hopes off forcing mistakes or to come up with a big defensive play. If the State D succeeds like Auburn did last season, they Bulldogs have a chance to pull off another big win.
3. Feed De’Runnya Wilson
Arguably the best player on the field in terms of raw, physical talent, 6-foot-5, 225-plus-pound wide receiver De’Runnya Wilson was invisible throughout the majority of Saturday’s 34-16 victory over Southern Miss. Prescott’s favorite target in 2014, who had 680 receiving yards and nine touchdowns on 47 catches, didn’t grab his first pass of 2015 until the fourth quarter in Hattiesburg.
Wilson is a matchup nightmare for any defensive back, and because Prescott is such a dangerous threat to run, it often forces defenses to play man-to-man on the outside. Even with the LSU secondary once again stocked with NFL-caliber talent, including Tre’Davious White, Jamal Adams, and Kevin Toliver II, Mississippi State would love to see Wilson in single coverage Saturday. For the Bulldogs to outscore LSU, they must take advantage of Wilson’s abilities and feed him early and often.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Allen's work on college football can also be found on SaturdayBlitz.com and FanSided.com. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.