A couple of years ago, coming into Starkville on a Thursday night may have been a walk in the park for an LSU team of this caliber. Since Dan Mullen donned the maroon and white colors of the Bulldogs, that opinion has been changed entirely. LSU has one of the tougher early-season schedules in the SEC. Opening up in Dallas against the defending Pac 10 champion and BCS runner-up Oregon Ducks can and will show the nation what we can expect out of the Tigers in the coming months. However, the LSU team that shows up in Starkville on September 15th will be even more important. The Tigers return virtually every impact player on their team, with the exception of losing Patrick Peterson and Stevan Ridley to the NFL. Les Miles will once again field one of the most athletically talented teams in the country, but just like every year, the question is whether or not they can perform to the high expectations that linger over Baton Rouge every summer leading up to opening kickoff. Jordan Jefferson will once again be at the helm of an LSU offense that failed to have the “wow” factor last season, but managed to make just enough plays to win some of the bigger games on their schedule. As a fan of SEC football, however, one cannot mention the LSU Tiger football team without having noted that Les Miles has been behind some of the worst play-calling decisions in the history of major college football. As history has proved, the grass-chewing “Mad Hatter” has been on the better end of most of these decisions, but one can’t help but ponder every season that is THIS the season that the river of luck that runs through Baton Rouge will go dry.
The Bulldogs of Mississippi State will once again be enjoying the roll of underdog this season. The element of surprise is something that has worked to their advantage over the past few seasons, including last year, as the Bulldogs defeated both Georgia and Florida, as well as a 52-14 thrashing of the Michigan Wolverines in the Gator Bowl. Dan Mullen’s offense has been anything but flashy in Starkville. However, he has shown that he wants to play hard-nosed, smash-mouth football instead of the run-around-you offense he constructed at Florida. This style of football has worked well with the hand he was dealt at State, with Chris Relf taking firm control of the offense last season as a solid dual-threat quarterback. Relf ended the season with 1,800 yards through the air, as well as 880 on the ground—and that was in spite of the fact that he was splitting time early in the season. Relf will once again be joined in the backfield by Vick Ballard, who also ran for nearly 1,000 yards while splitting carries for most of the 2010 campaign. One thing is for certain—if there is a mismatch on the field, you can bet that Dan Mullen will find it and attempt to take advantage of it all night. The State defense looks to return to its 2010 form as well, however losing every starting linebacker could weaken the front seven, and lose some of the sting of last year’s vaunted pass rush. Three of the four starters on the defensive line will be returning, and Mullen has some solid talent coming in that should keep the Bulldog front four fresh throughout the season, and some of the pressure off of the new linebacker corps. They also return their entire secondary, which is not afraid to play a very physical man to man coverage on the outside. The Bulldogs open up the year against a JV team in Memphis. They will be coming off another very winnable game the previous weekend in Auburn against the defending BCS Champions*.
This is Mississippi State’s chance to shock the country on primetime national television. You can believe that Davis Wade Stadium will be at capacity, and everyone in maroon will have a cow bell in hand. Will the “Mad Hatter” need his late-game magic to come out of Starkville with a victory? If you’re a fan of the LSU Tigers, you better hope not.
Check out the other SEC Key Games:
September 10–South Carolina at Georgia