SEC time: Just not the same

LSU season takes a turn in a new direction with the opening of SEC play as the Tigers and Bulldogs lock horns in Starkville.

On the surface, an SEC game is the same as any other.


Two teams with talented players slugging it out for 60 minutes.


But anybody who has ties to an SEC school – fan, player, coach, whoever – understands there’s just something a little different when teams from this league get together.


Something more.


No. 3-ranked LSU jumps into the 2011 SEC season tonight when the Tigers (2-0) square off with No. 25 Mississippi State (1-1, 0-1) at 7 p.m. at Davis Wade Stadium.


There will be cow bells, of course.


There will be an amped-up crowd as State plays at home for the first time this fall.


The Bulldogs will take aim – again – at ending an 11-year losing streak to LSU, the longest in the 105-year-old series between the two old rivals.


And above everything else, there will be a whole different level of football.


“This is like playing family,” LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery said. “They work just as hard as we do. We’re ready for this challenge because we know it’s going to be some fierce football.”


Added receiver Rueben Randle, "This week things change. They're going to be more physical. The SEC is one of the most physical leagues in the country. You've got to prepared to hit hard and get hit hard."


State just missed a chance for a 2-0 start with a 41-34 loss at Auburn last week, a last-gasp drive ending inches away from the goal line as the final seconds evaporated.


Third-year coach Dan Mullen downplayed his team’s level of desperation, but didn’t hide how big a week this is for his program.


The Bulldogs entered the season with not-so-subtle designs on competing in the tough-as-nails SEC West this fall, so losing the league opener was a gut punch.


Going 0-2 with both losses to divisional foes could be an early knockout blow.


Combine that with a national television spotlight and the ever-present need for the Bulldogs to carve out some respectability and this game should be an attention-getter for both teams.

"Since I've been here, we've always rebounded pretty strongly," said , who is 2-9 against West Division foes, the only wins coming vs. Ole Miss. "We handle adversity pretty well around here."


“It would be great for our team to get back on track and get back in the SEC West race. … There’s no better challenge. LSU is probably the top team in the country right now today.”


That team isn’t about to sell State short, though.


“We’re never going to take an SEC team lightly, but this is team is especially one that we know is tough and will really be hungry to play us,” senior lineman T-Bob Hebert said. “They’ve gotten better every year we’ve played since I’ve been here and we know they’re going to come out pumped up about the chance to beat us.”


And for the first time since the late 1990s, State appears to have the talent to stand toe-to-toe with the Tigers.


The Bulldogs lead the SEC in total offense (588 yards a game), anchored by the league’s top rushing attack (321 yards a game).


Senior quarterback Chris Relf has established himself as one of the top dual-threat signal-callers in the country with 397 passing yards and 554 on the ground this season. Tailback Vick Ballard tops the SEC with 301 rushing yards and a 9.7-yard-per-carry average.


“They’ve made (Relf) more of a passing quarterback than we’ve seen in the past and that’s made them a lot tougher to stop,” LSU safety Brandon Taylor said.

Brandon Taylor


“They’re actually running a tempo offense, so we’ve been practicing for that. We’re going to run a lot of nickel because they like to motion a lot and we’re going to have Tyrann (Mathieu) in there playing in the box so he can make a lot of plays.”


That’s the recipe that has worked to near dominant perfection so far for LSU.


Oregon’s high-octane offense scrounged up only 335 yards against the Tigers and FCS foe Northwestern State couldn’t do much of anything, finishing with 95 total yards.


Mississippi State will be a different challenge, though, with a bigger offensive line – albeit a revamped one because of injuries to left tackle James Carmona (out) and center Quentin Saulsberry (questionable) – and Relf’s tools.


The Bulldogs won’t be as interested in as much finesse as Oregon was. Their goal, as like most teams in the SEC, will be to line up and pound away at LSU’s defense and strike for whatever big plays pop up.


So far, those lightning strikes haven’t been all that common against the Tigers. The longest running play they’ve given up is 13 yards and the long pass was a 25-yard catch-and-run on a fake punt by Northwestern State.


Now, the versatility of Relf and the Bulldogs’ spread-option present a new test.


“You can’t read that offensive line and tell if it’s going to be a run or a pass,” Taylor said. “You just have to watch a man because they actually pass block on their runs, too.


“We’re going to need the linebackers to step up a lot this week because (the Bulldogs) double-team with their offensive lineman on running plays and try to get the runner into the second and third levels, so we need those linebackers to make some plays.”


State’s defense is likely counting on the same thing against a Tigers’ offense geared toward grinding away on the ground behind Spencer Ware and Michael Ford.


The Bulldogs gave up 235 rushing yards against Auburn, with Michael Dyer slashing for 150 of those on 18 carries.


MSU limited LSU to 264 yards last season in a 29-7 loss and returned three of the four starters up front which allowed only 119.1 rushing yards a game in 2010 (15th nationally).


But the ’Dogs lost end Pernell McPhee and their top two tacklers – linebackers Chris White and K.J. Wright. Maybe the biggest void was created when coordinator Manny Diaz bolted for Texas.


Junior Cameron Lawrence has stepped in nicely at the weakside backer spot vacated by Wright and leads State with 14 tackles. But the Bulldogs’ defense doesn’t seem to have the same bite as last season.


Not that LSU is expecting a cakewalk.


T-Bob Hebert

“Looks can be deceiving,” Hebert said. “A couple of missed tackles and a couple of big plays can make you look bad. They have a stout defense and run a lot of different stuff. They play hard and low, so it’s going to be a battle.”


It won’t be a surprise if State comes out with a scheme stacked to stop Ware and Ford from getting loose – with a goal of making Jarrett Lee throw the ball as much as possible.


Anchored by three returning starters, the Bulldogs’ secondary has been solid so far, allowing 160 yards a game.


LSU has thrown for 98 and 225 yards in the two wins, and Lee looked much more comfortable – as did his receiving corps – last week.


With State equipped to double-team Randle, Lee will likely have to look at different options when he goes airborne.


“Part of being a quarterback in this league is being able to find your matchups, and if somebody like Rueben is covered or getting doubled, you have to find the guy who’s open,” Lee said.


Make no mistake, though, whatever Lee supplies will be a sub-plot to the Tigers’ running game – if they expect to have any offensive success.


LSU coach Les Miles stuck to the same mantra this week that he wants the offense to be balanced. As true as that is, the Tigers will always begin and end their offensive game plan with the running game.


And against State or any SEC foe, that means a major step up in toughness.


“It’s going to be very different because it’s going to be more physical,” said Ford, the Tigers’ leading rusher with 168 yards, 6.2 yards a carry and four touchdowns.


“You have to be ready to take it to a whole different level. Holes close faster and the speed of the game is going to be a lot faster. You have to take one step and hit it and not think about it.”


That’s football in the SEC after all. Just a little different.


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