If I wasn’t convinced that, among his strengths, Les Miles possesses an ability to get his team ready to play on a consistent basis, I’d be sure that there would be a bit of complacency around Nicholson Drive as LSU heads to Starkville to play No. 25 Mississippi State today.
And I have to admit, it’s pretty understandable.
Anytime LSU sees a Mississippi opponent across from it, Tiger fans have reason to feel pretty good. Since Gerry DiNardo was sent packing and Nick Saban ushered in the new, dominant era of Tigers football, LSU is 19-3 against its two Mississippi SEC rivals, 11-0 against the one with cowbells.
And, State is coming off a tough loss at Auburn just five days ago while LSU was relaxing through a win over FCS Northwestern State, bringing out the bench in the second half like an NFL team playing a preseason game. And MSU is a bit beat up.
And, did I mention, it’s Mississippi State, a program that LSU absolutely owns.
But don’t get so comfortable today as you leave work early to throw burgers on the grill. There’s real reason to be a little nervous about this one.
I’ll give you three reasons.
1. State’s good.
While LSU is a national championship contender and the Bulldogs probably aren’t, this is the No. 25-ranked team in the country coming off a season where it won a New Year’s Day bowl, beating Michigan at the Gator Bowl.
This isn’t one of those years where State’s so bad you wonder how they’ll get a first down against a good LSU team. This is year three under Dan Mullen, the Urban Meyer disciple who has State leading the SEC in offense. The Bulldogs may not have the depth of the top programs, but Mullen’s put together a core that can compete with top-level SEC teams.
2. It’s in Starkville.
After 2009, you shouldn’t take anything for granted when the Tigers load the bus to head to across the state line to the east. On the last trip to Mississippi, LSU was forgetting to call timeout and losing on its last possession at Ole Miss in 2009. It’s something that only winning will keep Miles from being constantly reminded of.
In the same season, the Tigers barely escaped Starkville by the hair of their chins when Ryan Baker and Chad Jones kept State quarterback Tyson Lee barely out of the end zone in the game’s final second, preserving a 30-26 win.
Speaking of being reminded of something, perhaps Mullen’s been reminded of that play a few times this week. Lee was running the option on the last play and maybe should have pitched the ball. In last week’s 41-34 loss at Auburn, current quarterback Chris Relf kept on an option and was, like Lee, tackled just short, inches, of the end zone as time ran out.
What would the tone for this game be if Relf made the last few inches, then Mullen, who said he would have gone for two and the win, dialed up a better play than the option for a winning 2-point conversion?
3. State’s a power team.
That should worry LSU fans for two reasons.
First, as good as LSU’s young defensive front has looked this season, it hasn’t faced a team that lines up and tries to knock the other team off the ball. State, with the nation’s third-leading rusher in Vick Ballard and a 240-pound Tim Tebow-like quarterback in Relf, will be the first to try.
On paper, the young Tiger defensive line should hold up just fine with athletes like impressive sophomore Mike Brockers.
But we don’t really know that will happen in reality because it really hasn’t really been tested yet. Oregon is a pure speed team that tried to beat LSU to corners and downfield. Northwestern State, bless its FCS heart, was trying to dink and dunk with its passing game. Today will be a test where we’ll see if Brockers and Co. can control an “A” gap and we’ll see if LSU’s relatively unproven group of linebackers can step up and make solid tackles on Ballard.
Which leads me to the second reason State’s power offense should worry LSU fans a bit: It may get LSU out of its best personnel package.
When teams spread LSU out and play a speed game, the Tigers go to a 4-2-5 look on defense that allows Tyrann Mathieu to play at the nickelback spot, a position where he’s particularly effective.
But if MSU lines up in a power formation, LSU will likely go to its base 4-3 look, meaning Mathieu, arguably LSU’s best defender, goes ouside to corner while rising star corner Tharold Simon will leave the game while a somewhat unproven linebacker enters the game. Make no mistake, if there’s an area on LSU’s defense where star quality is lacking, it’s at linebacker.
So yeah, things can get a little dicey.
I’m not going on a limb and telling you to fear the cowbell.
I’m just saying, in LSU’s era of dominating Mississippi, there have been some 45-0 games, like LSU’s last Thursday night trip to Starkvegas in 2007, and there have been games where a missed timeout or a bad read on an option play were the difference between winning and losing.
Looking at this one on paper, there’s a better chance of the latter happening than the former.