This game week is different for LSU.
The Tigers have an unusual schedule because they’re playing on Thursday night, but what really distinguishes this week is it’s the week of the Southeastern Conference opener.
LSU plays at Mississippi State in the first of many showdowns in the ultra-competitive SEC West. The Tigers are ranked No. 3, and the Bulldogs are ranked No. 25.
Three of the remaining four teams in the West are also ranked: No. 3 Alabama, No. 14 Arkansas and No. 21 Auburn, which beat State 41-34 Saturday. That leaves Ole Miss as the only team in the West that isn’t ranked in the top 21 percent of teams in the country.
It’s just the second week in September, but the SEC West already is off to the races.
This nationally televised game (ESPN) puts LSU in the national spotlight for the second time in three weeks. The Tigers opened the season by playing the marquee game of the season thus far, a 40-27 victory over then-No. 3 Oregon in the Cowboys Classic in Arlington, Texas.
“I think this game is bigger than our first game, because it’s an SEC game,” tight end Deangelo Peterson said before practice Monday. “They all count. The first game counted, but this one really counts. By them already losing to Auburn, they’ve already lost an SEC game, and we can’t come in not playing LSU football. We know we’ve got to put it together and come out with this win.”
Defensive back Tyrann Mathieu said there’s a noticeable difference between SEC games and other games, and even between preparation for SEC games and non-SEC games. He said he noticed it as a true freshman last season even though the conference opener was in a relatively tepid setting at Vanderbilt a week after the season opener against North Carolina.
“I definitely think the atmosphere was very exciting,” Mathieu said. “I think the guys around me on the team definitely turned it up a notch, so it really helped me turn it up a notch.”
The atmosphere and the competition in Starkville, Miss., will be more intense than they were in Nashville, Tenn., last season. It’s already different in preparation, Mathieu said.
“I think the coaches definitely turn the intensity up,” he said, “and we as players and leaders, we have to turn that intensity up, too, to really tune into the details that coach gives us.”
The Bulldogs know that an 0-2 start in the SEC would practically eliminate them from the West race even before they get around to playing Alabama, Arkansas or No. 11 South Carolina from the East Division.
“I think they’ll come out 100 percent, because they know they can’t lose another SEC game,” Peterson said. “That would put them out of it. So we know they’re going to come in and give us their all, so we have to give our all. It’ll be a tough game.”
The Tigers lead the SEC in rushing defense (45.5 yards per game) and are third in total defense (215 yards per game). They’ll be challenged by the SEC’s top overall offense (588) and rushing offense (321) in addition to State’s obvious sense of urgency.
“Any team would try to pull out all the stops, trick plays,” defensive tackle Michael Brockers said. “We just have to be ready for everything, coming in with our mind right. It’s desperation. You’ve got to do anything to survive, so I feel like we have to come out with our mind right to get this game started.”
The challenge for LSU’s passing game last week was to improve on the 10 completions and 98 yards it had against Oregon. The Tigers showed much improvement with 17 completions for 225 yards in a 49-3 trouncing of Northwestern State.
The receivers face a different challenge this week.
“It’s going to be more physical,” wide receiver Rueben Randle said. “The SEC is one of the most physical conferences in the nation, so as receivers we have to be prepared to get hit while the ball is in the air. We’ve got to be a more aggressive group this week.”
LSU, which has rushed for 175 yards in each of the first two games is counting on having run-pass balance closer to what it had last week than to what it had in the opener.
“I think that’s something we’re going to need in the SEC,” Peterson said. “Everybody in the SEC can run the ball and everybody has a defense that can stop the run, so I think by us having an offense that can run and pass we’ll do well in the SEC.”
The game Thursday night is also the Tigers’ first in an opponent’s home stadium after opening at a neutral site, which featured mostly LSU fans, and then playing in Tiger Stadium on Saturday.
The Tigers are piping crowd noise into practice to get players acclimated to the environment.
Welcome back to SEC play.