*Both teams are coming off low-scoring losses, though the defeats can't be compared in much any other way. LSU lost 10-9 at Auburn on a last-minute touchdown (and replayed PAT) in their league opener. The Bulldogs fell 9-7 to Division I-AA Maine. State also opened SEC action this year against Auburn, at home, but lost 43-14.
When Nick Saban was lured to Baton Rouge—and then when he stuck around despite the constant (and wishful) foes' rumors of departing for the NFL—it was only a matter of time before LSU reached the peaks of national prowess. It only took four seasons. The 2003 Tigers put together a marvelous string of victories, interrupted by a lone flukish loss to Florida, to claim the BCS crown. It was the culmination of four years' exceptional recruiting and iron-fisted organization in the coaching offices, as ringmaster Saban has been able to take and keep control of what had been a permanent circus. While graduation of some key leadership and NFL raids of underclassmen have taken some edge off LSU's premier talent, there's more than enough size, strength, and speed here to contend for more titles. Even the loss to Auburn doesn't eliminate the Tigers from championship contention, as last season proves. And if this team doesn't win Saban's third SEC title, a look at the lineup and the stockpile of young talent (ten true frosh have played already in '04) bodes even better in '05. Hmmm, anybody know of a prize NFL job coming open soon?
There's nothing very fancy about the way LSU moves the ball. Of course when a coach has great linemen and fast backs there is not much need of trickery. The Tigers prefer to roll their big blockers straight ahead and send speedsters Justin Vincent and Joseph Addai through gaping gaps. Sugar Bowl MVP Vincent is a Walker Award candidate after gaining 1,001 yards as a freshman; he has 184 yards through three games. Junior Addai has 118 yards alternating as starter, and the surprise has been bruiser Alley Broussard with 84 yards at Auburn. Oh, and after a four-game suspension Shyrone Carey is activated this week. LSU might not rank with the league-leaders in straight running stats, but don't be fooled. The Tigers can pound anyone, and the big bangers are up front. Center Ben Wilkerson is the SEC's best, a Rimington Award candidate and consensus all-American. The sheer bulk is on the left side with 325-pound tackle Andrew Whitworth, an Outland nominee, and 320-pound guard Will Arnold. But experts notice 295-pound right tackle Nate Livings, an all-SEC pick as a soph. David Jones is a 260-pound tight end who obviously blocks but also will catch the ball and is up for all-conference honors again. There's some question as to who will throw the passes, but no doubts of the potency either Marcus Randall or JaMarcus Russell provides. Randall is listed #1 this week; he's just under 50% on completions so far with two TDs and one pick and his faster feet are a problem for defenses. Redshirt Russell has hit on just 43% of his throws through three games but has the stronger arm with four TD tosses. And if the accuracy looks lowly the Tigers are able to hit the throws they need. Junior Skyler Green missed one game and was limited at Auburn by an ankle but is back at ‘X' receiver this week. In his absence soph Craig Davis stepped up and has nine catches for 170 yards. At the other end soph Dwayne Bowe has thrived at ‘Z' receiver with 179 yards on 10 grabs and four scores. Maybe it's because defenses are terrified of the ground game, but LSU is getting more yards in the air now, 196 to 161. Now for the really bad news: only two seniors, Wilkerson and Randall, are even on the offensive two-deep this week. Sigh.
Since LSU likes to play it straight on offense, Saban saves his tricks for the other side of the ball. Not that he has to with the sort of speed the Tigers possess, of course. If there is a faster squad in this land it must be running in NASCAR, not the NCAA. Take FS LaRon Landry as an example of how to cover lots of ground quickly. The soph ranks seventh in SEC tackles through three games but is tied for first in sacks. And he's not even the secondary's premier all-star candidate! That would be left cornerback Corey Webster, nominated for four national awards already. He has 14 career interceptions and leads all active SEC defensive backs in picks and deflections. Going the other way isn't much better with senior Travis Daniels on the right corner. LSU ranks second in the SEC in rushing defense and has not given up a running touchdown yet, even after facing Auburn's ground game. That's largely due to a stout four-man front that is offensive line-sized. Senior LE Marcus Spears is the best-known, a 298-pound beast teams just run away from. He still has 11 career sacks, while RE Marcus Oliver has ten more. Tackles Claude Wroten and Kyle Williams are 295-pounders clogging up the middle, and LSU has developed a eight-man rotation to keep fresh legs in the trenches. With muscle like that up front, and secure coverage behind them, Tiger linebackers are free to attack at will out of a variety of blitz packages they disguise very well, and LSU leads the league in sacks through three weeks. MLB Lionel Turner was a Coaches All-SEC last fall and is off to a fast start again, ranking fourth in SEC tackles. On the strong-side E.J. Kuale is having a breakout junior year and should be LSU's next all-star ‘backer. SS Jesse Daniels brings extra speed to the support as if it was needed. With this sort of speed and muscle the Tigers rank 19th nationally in yardage allowed and 14th in scoring, and let opponents convert on only 30% of third downs. Oh, and LSU's defense has scored eight touchdowns in the last 17 games.
If there are any questions about this lineup it is on special teams, or more specifically the specialists. PK Chris Jackson is just 2-of-4 so far on field goals and 7-of-9 at PATs. His punting isn't much better at the moment with a 38.6 average and LSU is near last in the league in net punting. Now healthy Green will run back punts. It's harder to get a read on Tiger kickoff returns as that defense doesn't allow too many chances.
This is Mississippi State's second-most-played series, trailing only the MSU-UM rivalry. And only Alabama (69) has more wins at MSU expense, with LSU leading 61-33-3 since 1896. It's hard to believe but through 1926 State (or Mississippi A&M) actually led, 10-9-2. But once the Bengal Tigers took the lead they kept roaring ahead, with streaks of eight and ten wins…the latter from 1964-73. LSU is 42-18-1 against State in Baton Rouge, where the Bulldogs have not won since 1991. Nick Saban is 4-0 against State. The last Mississippi State victory was in 1999 at Scott Field.
The Last Time: September 27, 2003
Visiting and 7th-ranked LSU made short and brutal work of the home team, outscoring Mississippi State early, often, and in every quarter to claim a 41-6 victory. A crowd of 45,835 and ESPN2 audienced watched the Tigers build a 34-0 lead before the Bulldogs ever got on the board. After a swap of turnovers LSU drove 65 yards in 8 snaps to set up a one-yard TD run by Shyrone Carey with 16 ticks left in the first period. In the second a 32-yard field goal was followed by an interception and return down to the MSU one-yard line, where Carey did the honors again. Another interception was turned into a touchdown directly on a 48-yard return for the 24-0 halftime lead. Matt Mauck threw to Devery Henderson for a 36-yard touchdown and LSU added one more field goal in the third quarter. State's only points came on a 92-yard drive in the fourth period with Kevin Fant throwing to Justin Jenkins for a 15-yard score. The meaningless two-point try failed and LSU burned up five minutes in a final TD drive with Justin Vincent scoring on a three-yard dash. LSU posted a routine 354 offensive yards to State's 239, but the Bulldogs netted just 31 yards on 30 runs.
*Bulldog tight ends coach Freddie Kitchens served as a graduate assistant to Nick Saban at LSU in 2000. MSU strength coach Jim Nowell was an assistant two years with the Tiger staff in 2000-01.
*There are four Louisiana natives on the Bulldog roster: NT Ronald Fields (Bogalusa), PK Keith Andrews (Bastrop), TE Rob Walker (Poncatoula), and TE Jeremy Jones (Harvey). On the Tiger roster are Mississippians guard Will Arnold (Gloster), defensive end Sean Merrill (D'Iberville), and tight end Mit Cole (Picayune).
Did You Know?
*Sure, there's the legend that Tigers don't like the light of day in their lair, fueled by a 11-19-3 homefield day-game mark from 1960-99. Forget it: Saban's teams are 5-2 by the Baton Rouge sunshine.
*Along that line, the last time J-P showed a game from Tiger Stadium, the 2002 Tigers beat Mississippi State 31-13.
How They Compare:
Should say ‘quarterbacks' as LSU will play two triggermen and State might have to, if Conner's tender shoulder takes a stiff shot. Dog throwers have better averages, Tiger passers have wins.
Running Backs: LSU
Tigers have three burners and a bruiser, any of ‘em able to get the job done against anybody. You have to ask, though, what Norwood and Reid could do behind that sort of blocking…
Offensive Line: LSU
No contest. Nor any need to say more.
Tiger catchers are deeper, faster, and proven in big games. Their thrower(s) have more time to throw also. State wideouts are improved and will get better but still lack a true game-breaker.
Defensive Line: LSU
This has been the best Bulldog defensive point, and it's a far better group than '03. But Tiger front is in a whole ‘nother league.
Great players in front and behind don't hurt, but this is a fine unit in its own right. State still tweaking the starters and backups in search of a consistently reliable trio.
Much like the offensive line, no comparison here. All four Tiger DBs could earn post-season honors. Bulldog secondary still looking for right combination of corners and safeties.
This is the only uncertain squad of Tigers, and it's still competitive with State's. Cook and Andrews haven't gotten off to the expected starts, though return game shows potential.
Coming off Auburn, and with road trips to Georgia and Florida immediately ahead, there's at least some chance LSU won't take this one quite as seriously. But not much chance with a pro-minded coach in charge down there. The fans aren't happy about a noonish kickoff but the Tigers are really happy about a loss and will be ready to right things. Hopefully the Bulldogs aren't still shaken by remembering the Maine.
What else is there to say? Other than, as almost 30-point under-Dogs there is apparently nothing more expected of State than to show up and accept a ‘L'. Except, Sylvester Croom expect more. He's not demanding his Dogs win, though. Just that they play as if they want to win, and to play with more effort and better execution every week. Including this one, no matter how imposing the mismatches. Which is another way of saying any Dog that appears to mail in this weekend's effort might think about not getting back on the bus. Times are tough but the new coach is sticking to his big-picture plans. And who knows? An early turnover, a cheap score or two, and things could be a lot more interesting than anticipated under the south Louisiana sunshine.