Your Thursday appetizer before the binge of Saturday: No. 3 LSU at No. 25 Mississippi State:
Classes in Starkville have been canceled for the day. The tailgate kicked off Wednesday afternoon. And for the first time in school history, both LSU and Mississippi State are ranked heading into their annual division tilt. This Thursday night classic-in-the-making is festooned with pageantry it didn't used to deserve, and rightly so: Battling tonight are two teams who've already made last year's national title combatants grind for every point they got.
These are not the Bulldogs you remember. These are exactly the Tigers you've come to expect. The result is a potent concoction of on-field showmanship (emanating from both sidelines this year), crazy-eyed coaching and a clash between a horde of cowbell-wielding partisans and a traveling pack of revelers who might be the only fanbase capable of out-hollering metal noisemakers on the road.
The Bayou Bengals bask, still, in the glow of a dismissive Week 1 win of Oregon. State players and faithful have to know what they're up against; the Bulldogs haven't beaten LSU in over a decade and are operating on a short week after a tough loss to Auburn. And yet, the game is sold out, and even Vegas shows some deference, with MSU installed as a three-point underdog.
Where the scoreboard will cease flashing is difficult to say. The simple act of playing LSU in the first place seems to draw an unshakable veil of chaos over the on-field proceedings. Les Miles will, if given the chance, sit on an opponent's head and smoke a hookah (figuratively, all of that), relying on a perennially lethal defense and bottomless well of blue-chip tailbacks to stay ahead. This is the kind of plan that enables one to win games when one is forced to field Jarrett Lee as one's starting quarterback.
State has shown an abysmal run defense against talented backs thus far, but if Dan Mullen & Co. can somehow force the Tigers to the air, Lee is historically stoppable, even with favorite target Rueben Randle in tow. MSU rang up one interception against Memphis and another against Auburn; if that Bulldog secondary is inclined to stretch for loftier numbers to pad its picks column, Lee would be the guy to try it against.
Flip the field, and there's just no facet of LSU's defense wise teams are eager to try their luck against. The Bulldogs, however, are fielding weapons of a caliber the Tigers might not have ever seen in Starkville. Quarterback Chris Relf is large enough to take a few hits and mobile enough to weave his way out of trouble. Tailback Vick Ballard outweighs LaMichael James by a good 35 pounds, and as such might be reasonably expected to net more yards against the LSU line than the Ducks managed. And among the Bulldogs' surprising number of downfield targets, there's the guy in the No. 1 jersey, who has three catches for 75 yards thus far in 2011, and whose every reception makes announcers' tongues sing: "Pass complete, Relf to Bumphis." College football is a poet's pastime, truly.
LSU and Mississippi face off at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.