Why Mississippi State might be catching LSU at the perfect time
In life and in football, timing is everything.
Take Alabama and USC last year. The Tide stomped on the Trojans in the season opener, yet when bowl season came around, few wanted a piece of USC. Why? The Trojans finally had their quarterback, and as we saw in the Rose Bowl, Sam Darnold was definitely a better football player than Max Browne.
Timing. Sometimes it works in your favor (it did for Alabama), and sometimes it doesn’t.
This weekend, it feels like timing is working in Mississippi State’s favor heading into its SEC opener against LSU.
That’s not usually the case for a team that’s a touchdown underdog. After all, LSU is No. 12 in the country for a reason. The Tigers are 2-0 having outscored their first two opponents 72-10. They’ve got a new and improved offense, arguably the best defensive coordinator in America and whole bunch of other reasons they should roll against a lesser-talented Mississippi State squad.
That could certainly happen. But even with all that the Tigers have working in their favor, MSU might’ve lucked out that it got to face them this particular weekend.
Last year, LSU was blessed by timing. The Tigers faced some lightly-recruited kid named “Nick Fitzgerald,” who had just two career starts under his belt.
Fitzgerald was inaccurate, tentative and just not very good. MSU rallied to make it a one-score game late, but that was only after Fitzgerald was forced to come out for a play (his helmet came off) and he watched Damian Williams lead the comeback attempt.
Call me crazy, but I don’t see a scenario in which a healthy Fitzgerald is on the sidelines for a fourth quarter rally Saturday. He probably tops 13 rushing yards, too. Considering Fitzgerald is arguably the most valuable offensive player in the SEC right now, I feel pretty confident about those two bets.
I asked Ed Orgeron about Fitzgerald’s development since he faced LSU in Week 3 last year.
“Super-talented quarterback. I think he’s made tremendous strides,” Orgeron said. “I understand what Dan (Mullen) coaches him and that he’s done a great job with him. He runs the offense like Dan wants him to. Very accurate with the football.
“I think they’re very explosive on offense because of the play of their quarterback.”
Mullen said that Fitzgerald understands the “why” more than he did last year. He knows why the Bulldogs operate the way they do against certain defenses. The result of his improved preparation understanding is a more confident quarterback.
That’s all stuff we’ve been hearing about Fitzgerald for the past few months. Look at Fitzgerald even closer and that’s not hard to see.
But the timing. Let’s get back to that.
LSU lost five defensive players to the NFL. Granted, the Tigers are still loaded with next-level talent on that side of the ball. Fortunately for Fitzgerald and the Bulldogs, though, not all of that NFL talent will be at full strength Saturday.
Highly touted defensive tackle Rashard Lawrence is practicing in full pads, but Orgeron doesn’t expect him to make his 2017 debut Saturday. Preseason All-American Arden Key is expected to make his 2017 debut, but after he was “a little rusty” in his return to practice, Orgeron said he’ll rotate with K’Lavon Chaisson.
Of course, we’re talking about adding arguably the best defensive player in the country to a unit that’s been No. 1 in FBS against the run without him. Odds are that the Tigers will remain at the top of the national defensive rankings all season.
Fortunately for MSU, we’re talking about one matchup in one individual game in the middle of September.
There’s another interesting thing about Saturday’s matchup. This will be LSU’s first showdown against a real pass rush. Last year, the Tigers had the opener against Wisconsin’s top-5 defense up at Lambeau Field two weeks before they began SEC play. No offense to BYU, but Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat are a different kind of challenge.
Let’s not forget that while LSU’s offense looked solid in two games, it still hasn’t faced an SEC pass rush yet. I like Matt Canada’s long-term ability to turn around the Tigers’ one-dimensional offense, but who’s to say it’ll look like a finished product in the SEC opener?
That’s no guarantee, especially against a Mississippi State defense that’s improved in its own right. Like Canada, Todd Grantham’s unit looked solid against weaker competition in its first two games with a new system.
LSU is ranked No. 5 in the country in total defense. You know who’s No. 6? Mississippi State.
And while Louisiana Tech isn’t LSU, the Bulldogs at least did some of that damage in a true road game. They had to be a bit creative in that 3-4, which is something LSU hasn’t really had to do against its first two opponents. LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said before the home opener last Saturday that his young defense only had three plays in.
LSU will open up its playbook more Saturday. Will that lead to the defense being a step slower? Mississippi State would certainly hope so. The Bulldogs wouldn’t mind if LSU looked like a team playing in its first SEC game, and vise versa.
Vegas is expecting LSU to continue its hot start. Surprisingly, the opening line of LSU -7 hasn’t changed since Sunday. The money says the Tigers will earn a solid road victory in Starkville and continue their push to the top 10.
But there’s no guarantee that LSU will be in midseason form Saturday.
Perhaps it’s Mississippi State’s turn to having timing work in its favor.