The first two games in the Southeastern Conference this season had Auburn beating Mississippi State 41-34 and South Carolina beating Georgia 45-42 in a pair of shootouts.
But the SEC hasn’t exactly turned into the Western Athletic Conference. There is still defense being played in the league that has produced the last five BCS champions.
“It will be very interesting to see how the quality offenses in this league match some of the best defenses in this league,” LSU coach Les Miles said.
One such matchup takes place Thursday night in Starkville, Miss., as the Tigers defense, which has yielded just 91 rushing yards and 30 points in two games, lines up against Mississippi State’s offense, which is averaging 321 rushing yards and 46.5 points per game.
No. 3 LSU (2-0) is playing its SEC opener against No. 25 Mississippi State (1-1, 0-1) as these longtime rivals meet as a pair of ranked teams for the first time in their 105th matchup.
“We want to go out there and be physical, be the toughest team on the field,” defensive back Tyrann Mathieu said. “As a defense we want to be the most dominant group on the field and definitely take control of the game.”
The Tigers defense did just that in the season opener against then-No. 3 Oregon, slowing down the Ducks’ spread-option attack, which averaged nearly 50 points per game last season, in a 40-27 triumph. The Bulldogs, though, present a different challenge.
“They’re very physical even though they run it out of the spread,” defensive tackle Michael Brockers said. “It’s almost like an I formation the way they come out with power plays. We have to play very physical with those guys.
“Oregon tried to run east and west and tried to get you out of your gaps, and this team doesn’t care where you’re at. They try and move you out of the gaps.”
State’s running game starts with senior halfback Vick Ballard, who leads the SEC with an average of 150.5 rushing yards per game.
“I really felt like the Oregon attack, which was very capable, did not necessarily use scheme to its advantage,” Miles said. “In this instance there is quality scheme. I think our guys are going to have to take the line of scrimmage. The nature of that offense is a physical brand. I think our guys will enjoy that.”
Bulldogs quarterback Chris Relf has played better the first two games this season than he did last season. He especially struggled in a 29-7 loss to LSU in Tiger Stadium, throwing two interceptions in eight passes.
“I think they took a lot of chances last year,” Mathieu said. “I think the quarterback is vulnerable to making a bunch of mistakes so it’s really about us rattling him early in the game.”
But, Miles said, that hasn’t been Relf’s reaction the past two weeks. He’s completing 61.1 percent of his passes compared to 58.6 last season and has one interception in 54 attempts after averaging one every 37 attempts last season.
“Chris Relf is an all-around quarterback who has improved in his ability to throw the football and rush it,” Miles said. “He is the field general that you want. He is a physical runner and handles the ball well. He does all of those things that you need to have happen at the quarterback spot.”
LSU hopes to put Relf in a position where he has to make more plays with his arm than with his legs.He rushed for 106 yards against Auburn.
“I feel like if we stop (the run) like we did the last two games, they have to throw,” Brockers said, “and I don’t feel like anybody in the nation can throw with our cornerbacks and safeties.”
State coach Dan Mullen said he was impressed watching the Tigers cause four turnovers against Oregon and hold the Ducks to 95 rushing yards.
“You learn that LSU is really, really fast,” Mullen said. “They took a team that played in the national championship game last year with a lot of returning starters, ranked No. 3 in the nation and pretty much blew them out. That’s what you learn from watching that.
“If you’re dominant against the No. 3 team in the nation, where does that rank you? That’s where they are.”
If this game does turn into another shootout, LSU wide receiver Rueben Randle said, that’s OK too.
“If the game comes down the line like that we’ve got the playmakers who can make plays for us,” he said, “so it’s not something we really worry about.”