|No. 12 LSU, Mississippi State bracing for physical SEC opener|
No. 12 LSU and Mississippi State have compiled similar resumes on the way to their head-to-head match-up in the SEC opener Saturday night in Starkville, Miss.
Both teams are 2-0 after lopsided victories against non-conference opponents, using balanced, productive offenses and stifling defenses.
The Tigers beat BYU and Chattanooga by a combined score of 72-10; the Bulldogs beat Charleston Southern and Louisiana Tech by a combined score of 110-21.
Now comes the real thing.
"Seems like we're getting into the season now," LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. "It's cranking up."
Both teams know this game represents a significantly stronger challenge than either has faced so far.
"Once you get into conference play, things are going to ramp up," Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald said.
"If anyone needs any outside motivation other than we're playing an SEC team, they probably shouldn't be playing. This is what we're here for; this is why we came to school here. This is the conference we play in, for which we're really excited and really ready to go."
LSU has won the last two meetings. Each of the past three meetings have been decided by five or fewer points in the final two minutes.
"Obviously this is going to take 60 minutes from all three phases," Orgeron said. "Look at Mississippi State the last two years, we get up on them, they get behind, they come back, they almost tie the game. It's going to be a battle."
Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen said the Tigers' offense presents a third different scheme in as many games.
"We go from the wishbone to a team we had to prepare for a real up-tempo offense," he said. "We've got a week to practice, adjusting and getting lined up to all the different shifts and motions that (the Tigers) do and being ready to go when the ball is snapped.
"(LSU) is built on running the football, and obviously they've got some fantastic running backs and a good offensive line. It starts with the run game for them. You know they're going to do a great job of scheming you to try to gain the numbers advantage and be able to run the football. They set up the pass game off the run."
The Tigers' Derrius Guice has had more than 100 yards rushing in each of the first two games, making things relatively easy for quarterback Danny Etling.
Mississippi State leads the SEC in scoring (53 points per game) and is averaging 507 yards per game.
"We're physical; they're more physical," Orgeron said. "(Running between the tackles) is where they're really good, especially with (Fitzgerald)."
LSU could be without its best interior defensive linemen in Rashard Lawrence, who missed last week's game because of an ankle injury, but he practiced in full pads Tuesday.
"We may have to move some guys around," Orgeron said.
But the Tigers' defense received a boost when outside linebacker Arden Key was cleared for contact this week for the first time since undergoing offseason shoulder surgery.
"We'll play him as much as we can," Orgeron said.
Orgeron said LSU had targeted this game for Key's return; Mullen said he assumed as much.
"He's probably one of the most dominant players in our league," Mullen said.
"It's a mismatch. He has the speed and physicality to be a run stopper, but he's extremely disruptive as a pass rusher and can change the game. When you scheme up plays, you've got to really pay attention to him. He can make things happen all by himself."
Meanwhile, LSU's offensive line will have to contend with State defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons, who was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week after last week's game in which he blocked a PAT, blocked a punt and recovered the football for a touchdown, and returned a fumble 90 yards for another touchdown.
"He's really getting there," Mullen said. "I've really seen him take up the game and try to be a much better fundamental player. He's a gifted athlete, and you can see that in some of the special plays he makes."
And for the first time this season, these teams will have to contend with SEC talent on the other side.