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Mississippi State head football coach Joe Moorhead has recruited former Penn State quarterback Tommy Stevens to be the Bulldogs' starter this fall. 

There are some knowns for UL coach Billy Napier heading into Saturday’s 11 a.m. season opener against the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

For one, it’s an SEC school and the Cajuns are 0-44 against SEC schools.

Secondly, Napier’s Cajuns lost 56-10 to Mississippi State last year in Starkville.

Also, the Bulldogs’ defense was statistically the best in the SEC and arguably the best in the country last season.

But there are also plenty of unknowns as well.

Perhaps the biggest unknown is the annual uncertainty of season openers.

“It’s the same blueprint,” Napier said. “The thing about this game that’s a little bit different is it’s the opener. So you never know what kind of offseason studies and wrinkles that they’ve added to their base plan. That’ll be part of the game and the chess match within the game — the adjustments.”

In this particular matchup, though, it goes deeper than that. Late last week, Mississippi State’s program was hit with a three-year probation for academic infractions. The first impact of the penalties is the expected suspension of 10 unnamed players involved in the scandal.

The Bulldogs released a depth chart Monday, but didn’t indicate any of the suspended players. That won’t likely be known until the team hits the field Saturday.

For the record, the more long-range details of the probation include: the loss of two scholarships, fewer official and unofficial visits and a reduction in evaluation days.

“I think the most important thing here is, ‘What can we do?’ … ‘What can we control?’ ” Napier said. “That’s where we’re going to spend our time, not all the what-ifs. We’ve got to get aligned correctly, we’ve got to get our eyes in the right place, we’ve got to play with tremendous effort and we’ve got to communicate at a really high level. And we’ve got to finish plays and when given the opportunity, execute in those critical situations.”

Also adding to the guessing game is the Bulldogs’ new quarterback in senior graduate transfer Tommy Stevens. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Stevens came from Penn State where he backed up Trace McSorley for three seasons, including two years with MSU head coach Joe Moorhead serving as the offensive coordinator.

“I think this quarterback in particular is a guy who has great arm talent,” Napier said. “He’s an accurate passer. Many of the people that were at the Manning Camp this past summer felt like he was one of the better kids there.

“And he’s a good athlete. They used him in lots of unique ways at Penn State. So there’s surprise that he won a very competitive, spirited battle for that position. I think it’ll be a smooth transition, because of his history in that system in the past.”

Described as “a thrower who can run” by Moorhead, Stevens rushed for 506 yards and eight touchdowns, while throwing for 304 yards and four scores on 41 attempts in his three years as a reserve. He also caught 14 passes for 62 yards and two touchdowns.

“This kid is probably a much more advanced passer than maybe the kids they’ve had play quarterback in the past, but they’re all big and they’re all athletic,” Napier said. “We’ll see.

“I’ve got 65 plays of Penn State tape to watch and that’s all I’ve got.”

A year ago, Mississippi State struggled mightily on offense, scoring 16 total combined points in losses to Alabama, Florida, LSU and Kentucky. The Bulldogs were 13th in passing offense and 10th in total offense.

“All you can do is study the history of each play-caller and coordinator and go with what you know,” Napier said. “The personnel’s different. Their personnel is going to be different. Our personnel is going to be different.

“The chemistry and all the work that we’ve invested since January. So two new teams with different identities and teams that are very much a work in progress like most teams this time of the year.”

Defensively, the Bulldogs led the nation in scoring defense and was tied for second in total defense, while leading the SEC in nearly every defensive category.

Only four starters return from that celebrated defense.

“Sure, I know they graduated quite a few players, but they also have quite a bit of significant playing time coming back at that position,” Napier said. “Overall on defense, they’ll be very talented. Their linebacking corps in particular is big, fast, athletic and played quite a bit last year.

“A lot of the players that are going to end up being starters and playing a lot for them last year have significant time. They rotated a number of players that were deep.”

Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.