For many major college football teams, it can be easy to overlook the early season cupcake games for the first conference game, or that big non-conference showdown that your team has scheduled. But those often overlooked games can sometimes be the difference in a 10-win season or a complete implosion.
Two of Mississippi State's first four games in the 2013 season will come against Alcorn State and Troy. Neither of these two games are going to make headlines in State's schedule, but they are a vital part of MSU's hopeful return to a bowl game this year. Win these two games and State is well on their way back to at least the minimum six wins and bowl eligibility. Lose these two games, however, and State is facing a daunting back half of the schedule with little to no chance of getting over the six game threshold.
No pressure or anything, guys.
To say that new Braves coach Jay Hopson has an uphill challenge in front of him in Lorman is the understatement of the century. The Braves were an abysmal 4-7 in 2012, which led to a change at the top. At SWAC Media Days earlier this month, the Braves had just one player selected to either the first or second team All-SWAC in Memphis senior DB Jamison Knox. The Braves were also predicted to finish dead last in the SWAC's eastern division, and were just two votes above Texas Southern for the league's cellar. The good news is that Hopson is starting fresh at Alcorn, and he will return some key pieces to do so with.
2012 leading rusher Arnold Walker (390 yds, 4 TDs) and 2012 leading passer John Gibbs (1,406 yds, 8 TDs) return in 2013, giving the Braves at least some hope for a brighter 2013 season.
Overall, I, like most State fans, am not too concerned with what Alcorn State brings to Starkville. A SWAC team with a new head coach and coming off of a really bad 2012 season shouldn't worry too many for the second game of the year.
Score Prediction: 49-16 (because that's what it was the last time in 2010)
I need to clarify something that I said in the opening: I do not think Troy is a cupcake, not at all. But I would imagine that out of Oklahoma State, Alcorn State, Auburn, and Troy, State fans can find a game or two that they are more concerned with than the September 21st rematch. State was fortunate to survive a 30-24 win last season against the Trojans, but a good portion of that talented team doesn't return in 2013.
Gone is Shawn Southward, the great running back who gashed Mississippi State's defense for 137 yards and two touchdowns last year. Southward is one of eight starters who have moved on from last year's Troy offense that finished 11th in the nation in total offense.
One of those three that is returning for the Trojans is Senior QB Corey Robinson, who also had his way with State's defense last year, racking up 343 yards through the air. Robinson will also again have 1st team All-Sun Belt TE Eric Thomas to throw to this fall, as the talented TE who caught seven balls for 74 yards against MSU last season returns in 2013.
So what can we expect from this game for MSU? Frankly, I would expect another dogfight. Sure, Troy's record against the FBS in the last two years has been awful (four wins since 2009, per USA Today), but they played several games last year against decent teams that they should have won, including the 24-30 loss to State, and a 48-55 track meet loss against Tennessee in Knoxville. If you flip those two games to the win column for Troy, who knows how their 2012 season turns out. As it stands, however, the Trojans finished just 5-7 last year, and much of that team is gone. Everything points to what could be another down year for them.
Despite everything that appears to favor MSU on the surface of this game, I still expect it to be a close game well into the second half. If State's defense shows up - or doesn't show up - like it did last year, then it could be another high scoring affair as well. I have to imagine that we will see a different defense this year however under Geoff Collins, but even if they are improved, Troy's Robinson and that wide open offense could still pose a threat. Not enough of one to win, in my opinion, but still enough to make the game closer than we'd like.
Score Prediction: 35-14 (State pulls away late from a game that was never in doubt, but too close for comfort throughout)