Could Mississippi State be Alabama's Biggest Challenger in the SEC West?
It was the score heard around the college football world Saturday.
Ok, it was one of the scores heard. After all, Oklahoma lost, Texas needed a basketball-like result to beat Texas Tech in overtime 63-56, and Miami hung 52 on Florida State without its head coach.
Regardless, Mississippi State 44, LSU 34, sent shock waves as Mike Leach won his Southeastern Conference debut over the regaining national champions. Granted, the Tigers had just three returning starters and was without its best player, it's still one of the biggest wins in program history.
It marked the first time the title holder lost its season opener since 1998 as MSU snapped the nation's longest active win streak at 16 games. It was the Bulldogs' second win in Baton Rouge out of the last four meetings, but those are the only ones since 1992.
K.J. Costello, a graduate transfer from Stanford with 25 career starts there, became the 11th quarterback in SEC history to top 500 yards en route to setting the league record with 623 passing yards.
He completed 36 passes on 60 attempts, which were also MSU school records, and matched the program record for passing touchdowns with five. Ironically, his previous career completion high (34) came against Leach’s Washington State team in 2018 and his yardage total topped Dak Prescott's school record (508 yards vs. Arkansas, 2015) by more than 100 yards.
Five different times MSU took a lead only to see LSU rally to tie or take the lead before the Bulldogs scored the final 10 points. Big plays keyed the win as MSU finished the game with 16 plays of 20 or more yards, all through the air. The receiving trio of Osirus Mitchell, Kylin Hill, JaVonta Payton each eclipsed the 100-yard mark, only the second time for a trio to do so in school history.
Former Alabama wide receiver Tyrell Shavers also had a touchdown catch, something he never managed to do with the Crimson Tide.
MSU posted seven sacks, the program’s highest single-game total since 2015 vs. Ole Miss. Erroll Thompson, the SEC's active career tackles leader with 227, had 10 tackles.
Consequently, Alabama's schedule suddenly looks very different moving forward.
Alabama has five games in the month of October, and four of those upcoming opponents won on Saturday. The lone loser was Ole Miss, and Lane Kiffin's team racked up 613 yards of total offense while scoring 35 points against No. 5 Florida. The problem was it gave up 51.
Remember, during his only season at Tennessee, Kiffin nearly managed to beat Alabama during its 2009 undefeated national championship season. Plus, he surely took some notes during his time in Tuscaloosa as Nick Saban's offensive coordinator.
The Crimson Tide's next four games are all against teams coached by former Saban assistants (Jimbo Fisher, Kiffin, Kirby Smart and Jeremy Pruitt), and that's always a difficult preparation because they know both tendencies and vulnerabilities.
He's still undefeated against his former coaches at 19-0, but he's never faced four in four weeks before.
Then Alabama gets Mississippi State.
Leach is already being asked about the game. On Monday it was suggested that he dress up like a pirate since it'll be played on Halloween (and Saban's birthday). He appeared to like the idea and joked that Saban seemed like the type who might get into costumes.
That shouldn't concern Alabama fans.
What should is that between then and now, the Bulldogs will face Arkansas, Kentucky and Texas A&M, and then have a bye before visiting Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Alabama's bye is the following week, before facing LSU.
A lot will happen over the course of the month, but if there's a coach this season seems ideally suited for its Leach.
"I have to be honest, I haven't quite gotten the hang of the cutout people in the stands," he said during his press conference in Starkville. "I mean that's an episode of Twilight Zone. You guys are all probably too young for Twilight Zone. I mean the black and white Twilight Zone where Rod Serling would get on there with the really creepy voice and the suit. All of a sudden, is this real? Is it outer space? It was almost like haunted houses met science fiction, that show.
"Now all of a sudden, we have these people frozen in time sitting there in the stadium with enthusiastic expressions on their face, but they can't move. And then you have the noise. I don't know. I for one, it's cool. If people enjoyed it, great. But that is a little surreal, the fake people in the stands. I don't even know how they decide the seating. Do the fake people have a lottery for where they sit? Because I know this, some of those fake people have way better seats than the other ones. I want to be one of those fake people on the 50-yard line about row 12, but you know some of them are still up in the rafters you know. In this day in age, in these funny times, even a fake person can get screwed. Live clean, live smart, and maybe when you become a fake person, you'll get good seats at the LSU game."
Some other news and notes from around the league:
Arkansas: Feleipe Franks was the Razorbacks' 10th starting quarterback since the 2017 season (Austin Allen, Ben Hicks, K.J. Jefferson, John Stephen Jones, Cole Kelley, Jack Lindsey, Connor Noland, Nick Starkel and Ty Storey).
Georgia: Smart told reporters that transfer quarterback JT Daniels will be cleared from a knee injury and be available to play in Saturday's game against Auburn at Sanford Stadium. However, he isn't ready to name a starter in the rivalry game after redshirt freshman D'Wan Mathis struggled against Arkansas, completing 8 of 17 passes for 55 yards with one interception before being replaced by Stetson Bennett. "All I can tell you is that we're going to continue to work with all of the guys we've got to put the best guy in there that gives us the best opportunity to win the football games," Smart said. "D'Wan did not play as bad as it seemed to some." Daniels tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee in the 2019 season opener with USC, and needed an arthroscopic procedure to clean it up some more last winter.
Kentucky: School officials are still waiting to learn if former Auburn quarterback Joey Gatewood can play for the Wildcats this season. Coach Mark Stoops revealed on Monday that the SEC is planning to have a vote on whether in-conference transfers like Gatewood can be eligible right away.
LSU: There's nowhere to go but up for the Tigers after allowing the single most passing yards in SEC history. LSU featured a youthful and inexperienced bunch in the secondary and getting All-American cornerback Derek Stingley back should provide be a much needed spark to the unit but even he can only do so much. Ed Orgeron said on Monday that the hope is for Stingley to return for Saturday's game against Vanderbilt after being a late scratch due to an acute illness that required medical attention. ... Third downs and fundamentals will be the keys in practice this week as the Tigers allowed the Bulldogs to go 8-for-16 on third downs while missed tackles and assignments led to 383 yards after the catch by Mississippi State receivers. "It put some fire in me. I guaran-damn-tee you that. And we're gonna have a fire," Orgeron said about the loss. "And this is a big game for us, and we'll take it one at a time. And we're gonna play with some fire, and we're gonna play with some energy." —Glen West, LSU Country
Ole Miss: If nothing else, Kiffin's debut was entertaining. The Rebels, led by Matt Corral’s 395 yard passing performance, put up over 600 yards of total offense on what was the No. 3 defense in the nation by ESPN's SP+ rankings. ... Meanwhile, the defense gave up 642 yards to Florida. It would be better if you could single out a particular area of issue, but really the Rebels need to improve on all three levels going into week two. — Nate Gabler, The Grove Report. @nategabler
Mississippi State: Football season just got a whole lot more interesting in Starkville. The question now becomes, what exactly is the ceiling for this Mississippi State bunch that most predicted to finish below .500 and no higher than fifth or sixth in the SEC West? "I feel like we have a long way to go,” Leach said Monday. "I think there's a lot of work we can do. What's fulfilling about (the win at LSU) is we played hard and we had a winning effort, but I see a lot of things we can do better and so do our coaches and our players.” ... Arkansas visits Starkville on Saturday. Not all that long ago, most had this upcoming game earmarked as the Bulldogs’ most likely first win. Instead, having already banked a victory and competing as the heavy favorite against the Razorbacks, State has a great chance to start 2-0 and build even more momentum. "They're committed to getting better and I hope we can take a big step that direction this week,” Leach sais. — Joel Coleman, Cowbell Corner
South Carolina: While it wasn't the start to the season they were looking for, there were some positives to take from the Gamecocks’ 31-27 loss to Tennessee. The main one was the offense and the emergence of Shi Smith as the primary target. Smith made 10 catches for 140 yards and showed that he's ready to be the focal point after playing behind the likes of Deebo Samuels and Bryan Edwards the last few years. As ready as he is to be the focal point, he can't be the only target and the Gamecocks have to find other consistent options. Kevin Harris held down the running back position and showed flashes in the first half but finished with just 55 yards on 13 carries. Head coach Will Muschamp said he's confident in the weapons they have. “Obviously Shi had a hot hand and we had some things designed to go to him, Xavier [Leggette] made a couple of really nice plays and obviously the 42 yarder there. Nick [Muse] been a guy that's been a threat over the middle. We've like throwing the ball our backs in camp. Deshaun [Fenwick] and Kevin and ZaQuandare [White] have all caught the ball well out of the backfield and Dakereon [Joyner] has done a nice job. We had a bunch of guys play, I just don't know that we got the balls to them. Sometimes the primary reads going somewhere else at this time, but I think those guys can all help us.” — Chaunte'l Powell, Gamecock Digest
Texas A&M: Fisher announced on Monday that another player, reserve defensive back Clifford Chattman, had opted out of the season. He's the seventh player to do so for the Aggies. Chattman, a senior, played in 13 games last season, but was a backup nickel and didn't play in the opener.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores exceed almost all expectations, other than their own, during the 17-12 loss at Texas A&M. Granted, it's hard to take a positive out of a loss, but when you were a 30.5-point underdog and manage to lose by only five while having a chance to actually win the game in the closing minutes, you feel good about that effort. ... LSU comes calling and figures to be an angry bunch. No one is expecting Vanderbilt to win, but if the Commodores can manage another solid performance it would go a long way toward changing the perception of this program, even at 0-2. — Greg Arias-Commodore Country.
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