It’s only the third week of the college football season, but with that, it’s hard to imagine that we’ll see a better Thursday night game than the one we have on tap for this evening.
That’s right, at 8:00 p.m. EST, a pair of ranked teams hit the field, when No. 3 LSU travels to No. 25 Mississippi State, for a rare weekday, SEC showdown. And as weird as it sounds, this could be the most important game for each this season.
First for Mississippi State, it’s no secret that the Bulldogs probably aren’t anywhere near competing for a National Championship. No one is arguing that. But with that said, this was a program which entered the year with high expectations in the SEC West, and after falling behind the eight-ball with a loss last Saturday at Auburn, they simply can’t afford to lose again. The loss was especially crippling since Mississippi State outgained Auburn by 150 yards, and because the Tigers were able to make a goal-line stand to prevent overtime, and preserve the win. My colleague Michael Felder did an amazing job breaking down that game here.
As for LSU, unlike Mississippi State, they’re a real, bona-fide contender in the National Championship hunt after their opening win against Oregon. But should they get tripped up here, those visions of holding up the crystal ball would be put on life-support, if not dashed completely. Remember the Tigers still have trips to West Virginia, Tennessee and Alabama in their future (all three could be ranked at the time of the game), as well as visits from Florida, Auburn and Arkansas. As we’ve been saying all fall long, LSU has the toughest schedule in college football. If the Tigers are to be a true BCS title contender, getting tripped up here simply isn’t an option.
So with that, let’s look at this game quickly, with keys for each team.
Key for Mississippi State: If you watched LSU’s showdown with Oregon earlier this year, the one thing that stood out above all others was the Ducks complete and utter inability to run the ball. Part of that may have had to do with struggles along the offensive line. An even greater part had to do with LSU’s defense though.
Either way, for Mississippi State to win this game, they need to stay strong in the trenches, and prove the ability to move the ball on the ground. Through two games, the Bulldogs actually rank sixth in the country in rushing yards (312 per game), but going against LSU’s defense is a totally different beast than what they’ve seen this year from the lowly Memphis Tigers or even Auburn last weekend. LSU has been outstanding in run defense, allowing an average of just 45 yards on the ground per game. That stat is made all the more impressive by the fact that one of those wins was against Oregon, the No. 1 rushing team in the country in 2010.
Needless to say, this will have to be a big game for running back Vic Ballard (who has averaged a staggering 9.7 yards per carry this season), and maybe even more so for quarterback Chris Relf. Relf makes a lot of decisions running Mississippi State’s option, and he needs to be quick, decisive and smart with the ball. Few teams create turnovers better than LSU does.
Key For LSU: The question that I want answered above all is this: How does Jarrett Lee handle the crowd noise in Starkville?
Understand, that’s not to take anything away from what Lee has done so far. He looked a lot better than I personally expected in the win over Oregon, and to his credit was poised and in control in the pocket, and made smart decisions when the Ducks defense got pressure on him. Still, as good as we remember Lee being, he did only throw for 98 yards and never showed the ability to stretch the field vertically. He may need to do that once or twice tonight against Mississippi State.
More importantly, say what you want about the win, but there’s no doubt that Cowboys Stadium was decidedly pro-LSU. The crowd noise that Lee faced in Jerry’s World with be nothing compared to the cowbell-clad, maroon and white fans at Davis-Wade Stadium on Thursday night.
So with that, we enter the great unknown with Lee. Can he handle that hostile environment?
Key Stat For Mississippi State: 0-9. That’s the Bulldogs combined record against Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn and LSU under Dan Mullen entering tonight’s game. That number obviously includes last week’s loss at Auburn.
Key Stat For LSU: 11. That’s the number of consecutive times the Tigers have beaten Mississippi State, dating back to the year before Nick Saban arrived in Baton Rouge in 1998. Most of the players that’ll be on the field this evening were barely in elementary school at the time.
Key Stat, Period: 0. That’s the number of times in 105 matchups, that these two teams have met as ranked opponents. That will change this evening (stat courtesy of NOLA.com).
Verdict: Look for this game to be back-and-forth and low scoring. Mississippi State’s defense is better than they showed last weekend, and LSU’s offense still has plenty of question marks with Lee under center. It certainly doesn’t help that big-play wide receiver Russell Shepard remains suspended until next weekend.
We’ll go ahead and take LSU 17, Mississippi State 16. Unlike last weekend’s Mississippi State-Auburn game, this will be low-scoring SEC football at its finest.
Follow Aaron Torres on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.