Callin' Baton Rouge: Five questions for an LSU insider from a Mississippi State perspective
The countdown is on. Five days remain until Mississippi State battles No. 6 LSU in the season opener down in Baton Rouge.
But what exactly should the Bulldogs expect out of the Tigers when the two teams hit the field in Death Valley? Sports Illustrated's Cowbell Corner reached out to SI's LSU Country publisher Glen West to get a feel for things by asking five questions from a Mississippi State perspective, as well as get West's prediction for the outcome.
Cowbell Corner: Under Mike Leach, Mississippi State is almost assuredly set to throw the football somewhere around 75 percent of the time now. Given LSU’s personnel (secondary, pass rush, etc.), how equipped are the Tigers to shut down the Air Raid?
West: If there's one position group on defense that's stayed (relatively) intact this offseason for the Tigers, it's been the secondary. The Tigers lost safety Kary Vincent, who opted out of the 2020 season in August, but return All-American Derek Stingley as well as fellow sophomore Cordale Flott who earned major playing time as a freshman. Elias Ricks figures to be either the starter opposite Stingley or take Vincent's role from a season ago as the slot corner. With speedy linebackers in the form of Jabril Cox and Damone Clark as well as safeties JaCoby Stevens and Maurice Hampton, the Tigers are well equipped to handle the Air Raid offense, though it will present a strong first test.
Cowbell Corner: Offensively for LSU, of course Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow is now in the NFL and assistant coach Joe Brady is too. Both of those guys, for good reason, got a ton of credit for LSU’s success a season ago. It seems fair to say the LSU offense will at the very least take a small step back. Is that a fair assessment, or do you think the Tigers can keep it up without missing much of a beat?
West: That's a very fair assessment and the losses extend well beyond those two pioneers of last year's offense. The Tigers will be in a tough spot finding replacements for Justin Jefferson, four of the five starting offensive linemen from a year ago and most recently, Biletnikoff winner Ja'Marr Chase. Expect junior receiver Terrace Marshall, senior Racey McMath and freshman Kayshon Boutte to handle the receiving duties. Freshman phenom Arik Gilbert is the x-factor with this team as he very well could become the go-to target for quarterback Myles Brennan this season.
Cowbell Corner: There have been numerous opt-outs and opt-back-ins for LSU over the last few weeks. So as the Bulldogs get ready to come to town, can you give an update on which key players are out and which are expected on the field? (And you can also include any players who might be hampered by injury)
West: Chase, Vincent and defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin are without question the three biggest opt outs at this point. All three were starters and key contributors to the Tigers in their 2019 championship quest. There have been rumblings that Shelvin could elect to opt back into the season but even if he does, there's really no chance he has a shot to play against the Bulldogs. As for other opt ins, the Tigers received some great news when senior defensive lineman Neil Farrell elected to return. He opted out originally to tend to his grandmother, who contracted COVID-19. She's on the mend and the Tigers get one of their veteran players back just in the knick of time.
Cowbell Corner: Given attendance restrictions, every team is likely to suffer from a lack of a true home-field advantage this season to some extent. However it seems like some schools might feel that more than others and LSU, given the usual intimidating environment in Baton Rouge, might be one of those. How much do you think having only a quarter of the stands full might neutralize things from an atmosphere standpoint on Saturday?
West: I think it'll definitely be neutralized. LSU is expected to allow around 25,000 fans in the stadium for Saturday's game which is nowhere near the 102,000 that normally pack in Death Valley. It's something that coach Ed Orgeron talked about a few weeks back, saying the team needs to find a way to generate its own energy.
"Hey, we have to create our own energy. We have to create our own excitement. It may not be what we expect, but the other team is there, they're here to win," Orgeron said. "Everybody's playing on an equal playing field so it's going to be something new. I think if you pipe in noise for away games, but that's expecting a big crowd. When you pipe in noise, the players don't have to make the energy and I think that's a mistake. I think that we have to learn how to make our own energy, how to create our own noise. We have to do that on the sideline."
Cowbell Corner: If the final horn sounds in Death Valley on Saturday and Mississippi State has somehow pulled the upset over LSU, what do you believe is the most likely reason or reasons for that happening?
West: The most likely scenario for me is that the offense isn't nearly what we thought it was. This offseason, we've been really running with the hope the system is sustainable but there obviously is that potential that there's just been too much turnover in an offseason where the players really haven't had a ton of time to develop that chemistry. I do feel pretty confident the defense will be able to hold Leach and company to 20 points or so. But there is a world where the LSU offense struggles in week one with so many players making their first SEC start. (Score prediction: LSU 30, Mississippi State 23)
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