In preparation for Saturday’s season-opener between Mississippi State and Southern Miss, Saturday Down South is taking a look at the key matchups that may decide the showdown between the Bulldogs and the Golden Eagles.

Mississippi State defensive line vs. Southern Miss offensive line

Anything short of complete and utter domination would be a disappointment for the Bulldogs in this matchup.

Southern Miss struggled on offense in 2013, especially in the ground game. The Golden Eagles’ top-two rushers last season – Kendrick Hardy and Jalen Richard – combined to carry the ball 177 times for 735 yards, an average of less than 15 carries and less than 62 yards per game. The two combined to rush two of the team’s five rushing touchdowns for the season.

Southern Miss’ offensive line wasn’t any more impressive in the passing game, allowing 35 quarterback sacks in 12 games in 2013. Ten different players started along of the offensive line for USM last season, five of which return for the coming season. Saturday’s opener against Mississippi State will serve as a test of the unit’s improvement during the offseason and of its cohesiveness entering the new season.

Meanwhile, in Starkville, the Mississippi State defensive line is chomping at the bit for a chance to take on the USM offensive front.

The Bulldogs’ d-line is led by sophomore Chris Jones, a preseason All-SEC selection by the conference’s coaches one year after earning Freshman All-America honors. Jones led the team in quarterback hurries and tackles for loss in 2013 despite just three starts and a mid-season position change, and he’s poised to become one of the SEC’s most feared defenders in 2014.

Complementing MSU’s dominant defensive tackle will be defensive ends Preston Smith and Ryan Brown. Smith finished last season third on the team in sacks behind Jones and linebacker Benardrick McKinney with 2.5, and finished tied for second on the squad with 6.5 tackles for loss.

Brown had just 2.5 tackles for loss and one sack as the backup to departed defensive end Denico Autry in 2013, and presents the biggest question mark along MSU’s defensive front entering the coming season.

Still, Brown and the rest of the defensive line should have no trouble hitting their stride against one of the most inconsistent offensive lines in the nation. If the Bulldogs can silence the Southern Miss rushing attack early and pin their ears back in obvious passing downs, they’ll feast on quarterback Nick Mullens all afternoon.