– LSU-Mississippi State:

Breakdown:

This game will be a game pitting strength versus strength, as Mississippi State’s run game will be facing a very tough LSU run defense. They are fast enough to take away a speed rushing attack like Oregon, but they are big enough and strong enough to match-up relatively effectively with a more powerful attack like Mississippi State’s. This match-up will be important, but because LSU will be so worried about stopping the run it may be just as critical for Chris Relf to demonstrate the ability to threaten the defense with the pass, especially downfield in the 10-15+ yard range. If they can’t do that, I think that Mississippi State will struggle to run the ball consistently throughout the game.

On the offensive side of the ball for LSU, running the ball will be key as well, but the deciding factor of the game may reside on Jarrett Lee’s ability to stretch the field, move the ball through the air, and keep running lanes open for Spencer Ware and the rest of LSU’s rushing attack. If they can run the ball effectively play action will be a key weapon for Lee and the rest of the offense, but if the burden falls on Lee to loosen up running lanes with downfield passing then LSU could struggle. Lee is an accurate passer but doesn’t have a rocket arm and I would compare him to Matt Flynn, a very successful former LSU Tiger quarterback. If Lee steps up and can carry the offense (this would be significantly easier if his receivers caught passes once they hit them in the hands) then LSU should be fine either way, but if Lee isn’t up to the challenge then LSU could be in trouble in their conference opener.

Key Players- LSU:

Jarrett Lee will be making his third start of the season and he has looked solid thus far, though his statistics have been hurt by some dropped passes in their opening games. This will be my second opportunity to watch him, the first being in the opening week against Oregon. I will be interested to see how he plays and how he has progressed since the opening weekend of the season. I think he has potential, and while he won’t be a first round pick by any means, I do think he warrants mid-late round consideration. He would fit into a West Coast offense very nicely, perhaps similar to Colt McCoy in Cleveland.

I’m a big fan of Tyrann Mathieu, and watching him play is always a treat. I think he has first round potential and I’ve thought that since he was playing at an All-American level early on in his freshman year last year. He is very good in coverage, he blitzes extremely well, he’s a great tackler, and he has a great knack for forcing fumbles and just being around the ball. He is the definition of a ball-hawk. I would be surprised if he didn’t force a turnover in this game.

Spencer Ware will be an important component of this game. He has had a relatively slow start to the season relative to his great cap to his freshman year with a 10 carry, 102 yard performance against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, but I think he will get stronger as the season goes on. He’s definitely a power back as he is relatively compact at 5’11”, 225 pounds and he shows it. I like his running style and I think he will be a key cog in LSU’s offense because if the run game is slowed or ineffective Jarrett Lee won’t be able to utilize play action effectively and the offense may become one dimensional. Considering Lee’s relatively limited amount of starting experience I don’t think that is a path LSU should go down in their conference opener, especially on a national stage. But I think a lot of people underestimate what Lee brings to the table, and I think he is ready to step up should the running game not pace the offense in this game.

Deangelo Peterson, the tight end on LSU, is another key guy to watch. His stat line may not blow you away (5 receptions, 71 yards and 1 TD in 2 games so far) but he has great size at 6’4″, 235 pounds and he is very athletic. I imagine as Lee becomes more comfortable in the starting role that Peterson will become one of his frequent targets, and I don’t think it is out of the ordinary for them to split him out in the slot. He is a very dangerous red zone threat, and because of his size he is an easy target for Lee to throw to. I predict that he will have a touchdown in this game, and I hope that his skills will be on full display tonight.

Morris Claiborne is going to be an interesting guy to watch in this game because if Mississippi State has any success throwing the ball it will probably be going after someone other than him. He is replacing Patrick Peterson as “the” corner on LSU’s defense, and he’s got the size and athletic ability to do it. He had 6 pass break-ups and 5 INT’s last year when defenses targeted him instead of throwing at Peterson consistently, but now this year teams will certainly be avoiding him if they can help it. I don’t know if they will match him up against Mississippi State’s perceived best receiver (I’m a fan of Chris Smith), or if they will just let him attempt to shut down one side of the field, but if Relf decides to test him he had better make sure it’s a good ball because if he makes a mistake Claiborne knows how to make him pay.

Sleeper: Barkevious Mingo, on top of having an absolutely fantastic name, has a boatload of potential as a defensive end. He’s only a sophomore and he is about 6’5”, 240 pounds, but as a freshman last year he had 35 total tackles (18 solo), 5.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 6 pass break-ups, which is pretty great for a freshman at a position that generally has a long development period. He is very athletic and has chased down some pretty athletic running backs in his day, and seems to have a very good motor as evidenced by his backside pursuit. I’m excited to see how he will do against a Mississippi State offensive line that likes to run the ball, but is missing their best pass protector from a year ago in Derek Sherrod. Mingo could have a big game, though he is pretty raw, but I am excited about his potential so I want to see how he does.

Key Players- Mississippi State:

Chris Relf is a guy who is better known for his running than his passing, but his size definitely helps him in both aspects. He stands at 6’4”, 245 pounds and could probably convert to RB or FB at the next level, but I haven’t watched him enough to specifically project him to any one position yet. I don’t think he will be a QB at the next level, but he has shown some signs of improvement since last season. He threw for 1,776 yards in 13 games (an average of only 136.6 yards per game), completing 59% of his passes (128/217, a low number of passes attempted) for 12 TD’s and 6 INT’s. He was an efficient QB, but he wasn’t throwing the ball very much. This year it seems to be a bit different having already attempted 54 passes in just two games (33/55 for a 61.1% completion) for 397 yards, 3 touchdowns and only one interception. LSU will be a big test for him one week after he had a solid but relatively unspectacular game with 195 yards (60.6% completion with a 5.9 YPA, well below his average from last season) and 1 touchdown and interception against Auburn. LSU has a very tough defense that frequently creates turnovers, so ball security and making smart decisions will be critical for him in this game. I have to say that if Relf ends up throwing 25+ or even 30+ times in this game I think Mississippi State will lose. That will mean their running game is being slowed by LSU’s tough front seven, and the onus will be placed on Relf to move the ball through the air to open up running lanes. Against Memphis (obviously a totally different class of opponent) he threw 21 times, was very efficient and they won easily. Against Auburn in a close game (final score of 41-34) he threw 33 times, was less efficient with one interception and only a 5.9 YPA (which is in stark contrast to his 2010 season average of 8.2 and his 9.6 YPA against Memphis). To drill this point home a bit, when Relf threw 25 times or more last year Mississippi lost both games which accounted for two of their four losses on the season. The other losses were against LSU when he threw the ball only 8 times for 35 yards and 2 interceptions and against Alabama when he threw the ball 16 times for 70 yards and an interception. In the two other losses he threw the ball 25 times or more and lost in a close game (17-14 to Auburn and 38-31 to Arkansas, though he had a good game against them). So that is a trend of three losses in a row when Relf throws the ball 25 times or more, and it will be interesting to see if he is forced to surpass that number of attempts against LSU’s defense.

Vick Ballard is the other key cog to Mississippi State’s offense that focuses intently on the running game. Ballard had a fantastic season last year rushing 187 times for 981 yards (a 5.25 ypc average) and 20 touchdowns. This year, as a senior, he already has 301 yards rushing on just 31 attempts (an astounding 9.71 ypc) and 4 touchdowns. His success tonight against LSU’s tough run defense will set the tone for the game, and if he can find running room and grind out tough yards and first downs then it will make life significantly easier for Relf and the rest of Mississippi State’s passing attack. Don’t be surprised if he ends up with a game with about 20 attempts, 75-80 yards and maybe a score though, because yards are hard to come by against LSU’s defense.

Chris Smith is a receiver on Mississippi State that I came away impressed with after watching him against Michigan last year. He had a relatively mediocre statistical year last year with only 24 receptions, 264 yards and 1 touchdown as a sophomore, but I like his size and his hands impressed me last year as well as his route running. Keep in mind, his 24 receptions were about 11.1% of Relf’s total completions last year, so even though it is a low total and not overly impressive, he still accounted for 11% of Relf’s total completions and almost 15% (14.86%) of Relf’s total passing yards. So while it might not be obvious, he was a target for Mississippi State last year in the passing game. He only has two catches for 11 yards so far this year, so I am really hoping he finds a way to step up and make some plays in this game. I love players that find a way to make plays in critical games like this, especially on big stages, and I am hoping that Smith will find a way to do that tonight even against a talented LSU secondary.

Jonathan Banks is a cornerback that I came away very impressed with last year when I was actually watching the Bulldogs to get a look at Derek Sherrod. He has been very reliable and consistent for the Bulldogs ever since his freshman year. Now a junior, Banks already has an interception and two pass break-ups this year, bringing his career total to 8 interceptions (7 in his previous two seasons) and 12 pass break-ups. He is a very tall, skinny corner as he stands at a listed height and weight of 6’2”, 185 pounds. I mentioned him in a previous post listing potential break-out players for this 2011 season, and mentioned that I am going to be watching him to evaluate his hips, namely his ability to flip his hips in coverage, his ability to click and close on passes in front of him, and his ability to recover if and when he makes a mistake. He has already demonstrated his ability to use his size to his advantage, and he has shown the ability to turn and run with receivers downfield. I just want to see how well he transitions, because it’s pretty obvious when you watch him play that he can locate the ball in the air and make a play on it. He has impressive ball skills, and his size really helps him defend 50/50 balls even against very tall wide receivers. LSU has some big guys like they always do, so look for Banks to mirror them and take away some of Lee’s bigger, more physical targets.

Nickoe Whitley is a safety that I noticed around the same time I noticed Banks last year. He demonstrated impressive ball skills when I watched him last year and seemed to be a pretty good tackler which is evidenced by his 34 solo tackles (52 total). He also had 1.5 sacks, 3 pass break ups, 3 INT’s and 1 forced fumble last year. He already has an INT this year as well as one pass break up (plus a pretty impressive 6 solo tackles out of 7 total). It will be interesting to see if he is tested deep much as Jarrett Lee doesn’t have a very strong arm. I could see him playing up in the box more, so it will be interesting to see if he lets anyone get behind him in this game.

Sleeper: My sleeper for the Bulldogs is Jameon Lewis, a freshman receiver. He already has 5 receptions, 116 yards and 1 TD as well as 2 rushes for 29 yards and 1 TD. In addition, he returns kicks and punts as well though his success has been limited in that aspect so far. He is a smaller guy listed at 5’9”, 185 pounds, though packing 185 pounds onto that small of a frame is actually pretty impressive (has a similar build to Jerrel Jernigan, the WR from Troy who actually was very well built for a small receiver). The Bulldogs have shown that they like to get the ball in his hands any way they can, whether it is throwing it to him, handing it off or letting him return kicks and punts, so look for at least one big play from him in this game.

I apologize for the length of this post. It started out shorter but I got really in depth. Hopefully you enjoyed the read and it got you excited for this SEC matchup tonight. Enjoy!

–Tom