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Mississippi State football opponent preview: LSU Tigers

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A rematch of Leach’s wondrous debut.

NCAA Football: SEC Media Days Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Mississippi State football opens its 2021 Southeastern Conference slate on Sept. 25 as the Bulldogs host Ed Orgeron’s LSU Tigers.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a Mississippi State fan who doesn’t remember last year’s conference opener, versus those same LSU Tigers, who were fresh off a national championship that capped off one of the best seasons the sport has ever seen.

Entering the 2020 season, the Tigers were faced with replacing a ridiculous amount of talent, poached by everything from graduation, the NFL draft and COVID-19. The Tigers were also hindered by defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, who stubbornly refused to coordinate his defense in last season’s opener versus Mississippi State.

With LSU’s defensive backs left on islands, Mike Leach’s Air Raid scheme found success, leading to a shocking upset of the defending national champions. Mississippi State managed only three more wins that year.

As the 2021 season approaches, there is no Pelini to be found in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, nor anywhere, really. In fact, Orgeron gave his entire staff a thorough overhaul. The roster on the other hand, is made up of mostly familiar faces this time around.

The Tigers return a highly touted cornerback duo in junior Derek Stingley Jr. and sophomore Eli Ricks, who will likely benefit from a better scheme at the hands of new defensive coordinator Daronte Jones, plucked from the Minnesota Vikings where he coached defensive backs.

The Tigers had the worst pass defense in all of the FBS last season (yes, actually the worst), ranking 127th out of 127 schools in giving up 323 yards per game. With the hire of Jones, it’s clear that the issue is being attacked head on.

The Tigers return experience at every position group, including plenty of offensive talent. Sophomore wide receiver Kayshon Boutte is set to have a dominant season after a 700-yard and five-touchdown campaign last year. The running back group has depth, starting with juniors Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery Jr., who combined for over 800 yards last season.

At quarterback, LSU returns senior Myles Brennan and sophomore Max Johnson, both of whom took a considerable amount of snaps under center during the 2020 season. Brennan began the season as the starter before suffering a tragic season-ending injury only a couple of weeks into the Tigers’ 2020 campaign.

Unfortunately, Brennan suffered another serious injury just earlier this week, to his left arm. Thankfully, Brennan announced on Tuesday that the surgery went well.

In response to the injury, Orgeron announced that Johnson will be the team’s starter to begin the 2021 season. Johnson threw for 1,069 yards to go with eight touchdowns and just a single interception.

PREDICTION

LSU begins its season with three nonconference games against UCLA, McNeese State and Central Michigan, all of which the Tigers should win comfortably, meaning they’ll be undefeated but untested rolling into Starkville. Mississippi State should have a couple of nonconference wins of its own entering the matchup.

The Bulldogs will enjoy the benefits of playing at home and having faced tougher opponents in Memphis and NC State, while the Tigers will boast deeper talent and experience on the roster.

In the end, this game could very likely come down to execution of scheme, which could pose issues for LSU given the presence of new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Of course, no potential scheme mishaps could be even remotely as bad as Pelini’s seminar on how to ignore zone defense during last year’s opening day.

LSU will likely be favored comfortably in this matchup unless Mississippi State manages to defeat both NC State and Memphis, catching the experts’ eye. LSU could still be comfortably favored regardless.

Expect LSU to have the advantage this time around, escaping with a revenge win, but don’t be shocked if this matchup is closer than the experts think. Another upset win for Leach against the Tigers is not out of the question, just not as likely.