Oh, you thought that was the end? Nope, LSU has to dust themselves off and play their fifth consecutive top-25 opponent this week, as No. 21 Mississippi State comes into Baton Rouge for an odd November matchup. Seriously, I could not find the last time LSU and State have played this late in the year. It hasn't even been an October game since 2001. Thanks SEC home office!
What to Watch For on Saturday
Weeks like this are part of why we pay football coaches a lot of money. Because they have to dust these kids off after a heart-breaker like that Alabama game, and get them ready. Not just for another game, but a game against a ranked opponent. Is an SEC title still out there for this team? No. But there's pride. Plus, a BCS Bowl Game could still be a possibility as well, and you don't just come to a school like LSU to play in big regular season games, you come here for stages like the Superdome or Cowboys Stadium.
There are three games left for this team to show that they are every bit the Tigers that took Alabama to their absolute limit, and prove that they are as good as any in country. Three games left to prove that those lofty preseason rankings were deserved, and that they will be again for those who return in 2013. Three opponents left to dominate, like LSU can.
Just have to go out and do it.
We're all fairly familiar with Mississippi State and Dan Mullen at this point. What they are going to do on offense and defense. We've watched them get better each season the last few years, but they've still been the Washington Generals to LSU's Harlem Globetrotters. And you damn sure don't want to be the team that breaks a 12-game winning streak.
And to this point, the Bulldogs have looked decidedly average. They are ranked right around the middle of the pack in most of the team statistical categories. Solid enough, but nothing amazing. Tyler Russell has taken some very nice strides this season, and the offense very much has a different look from last year. Not nearly as option- and power-heavy without Chris Relf and Vick Ballard. There's still some, but the offense more revolves around zone plays for Ladarius Perkins and Mullen's concept-based passing game. Russell has been incredibly efficient. He's very much fills the "quarterback as point-guard" cliché, distributing the ball well to a veteran receiving corps that understands their rolls and knows how to get open and catch the ball but lacks that true, No. 1 playmaker. Chad Bumphis is solid, but at the end of the day he's still a 5-9 or 5-10 possession guy. Chris Smith has been the main man on third down, with 11 catches and seven conversions. State likes to stick to some simple concepts like Smash and Houston, which are generally hard to defend with a veteran group, and are, as you might guess, at their best when they can avoid third-and-long situations. Perkins reminds me a lot of Florida's Mike Gillislee. He's a smart, tough zone runner with enough speed to pop outside and more toughness than his 190-pound frame would suggest. And the offensive line is a veteran group that is second in the league in both sacks and tackles-for-loss allowed, largely due to Russell's smart decisions with the ball. This is the exact kind of passing game that can eat up young corners on short passes if they are not on-point.
Defense has been a struggle for State, largely due to a weak front. They're in the bottom quarter of the league in sacks, tackles for loss, and not surprisingly, third-down defense. There are some playmakers in the back-seven. Jonathan Banks is the obvious headliner, but linebacker Cameron Lawrence and safeties Corey Broomfield and Nikoe Whitley are all SEC veterans, but they can't hold offenses in check by themselves. It'll be interesting to see of Zach Mettenberger avoids Banks -- he can likely eat this secondary up with throws to slot receivers like Jarvis Landry and Russell Shepard, but I'm not so sure testing a potential All-American and high draft pick is the something he needs to do too much, even coming off of last week's success.
And besides that, the Tiger offensive line should have no problem winning the line of scrimmage. State has given up 175 yards or more four times this season, and even allowed Tennessee to rush for over 200.
You have to think State is going to be doing everything they can to try and break said 12-game streak. State is reeling off of back-to-back big time losses. Yeah, they started this season out 7-0, but the Bulldogs have been blown out by the only SEC teams they've played with above-500 records.
We've all been watching the development of the Mississippi State program under Mullen. It's been incremental. Year one, they didn't win, but they were a much tougher out for everybody on their schedule, and they dominated their in-state rival. They've notched a winning record every year since, and continued to blow the doors off of Ole Miss, but there hasn't been much more to it. They haven't quite been able to break through beyond wins over teams like the Rebels, or Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Even this season's wins over Auburn and Tennessee aren't exactly that impressive.
Now, I'm usually one for taking the long view on coaches. If it were easy to achieve sustained winning at a place like Mississippi State, it would have happened much more regularly than it has in their history. Mullen and the State administration has been slowly raising money and improving infrastructure, but the pressure might be starting to mount a little bit. Yeah, beating Ole Miss is great, but fans are tired of butting their heads against the top tier of this league. The Bulldogs aren't LSU, Alabama, Florida or Georgia, but a win here or there while they continue to build doesn't feel like a lot to ask. I expect the Dawgs to come out very eager to get that signature win here.
Was last weekend's offensive explosion a turning point, or an aberration? Is the LSU passing game a force to be reckoned with on par with the running game, or was Mettenberger merely in the zone for one night? A carryover of last week's offensive success may be the single biggest thing Tiger fans will be watching for on Saturday night.
We've seen LSU make the running game work without much passing. I'm not worried about that. Like I said, State has a fairly week defensive front, and this LSU offensive line has gotten better each week. If nothing else, they should be more than capable of grinding them up with the quartet of running backs (even if Jeremy Hill is a little hobbled after last week). An efficient passing game, like we saw last week, takes the offense to another level and gives us even more confidence for next season, when most of the pieces involved should be returning (Mettenberger, the top receivers and backs -- plus another talent infusion on signing day). And that's not only crucial for the players, it's crucial for the coaches, whom had to answer for the stagnant air attack for most of the season.
A championship might not be there for LSU to play for, but they can continue to improve for the future and close out this season on a high note. A lot of the concepts we saw last week, like the three-level, will work again. State's had some issues with underneath defenders getting crossed up on route combinations, and it'll allow Mettenberger to avoid tempting Banks too often. He's the type of bigger corner that has out-muscled LSU's receivers at times, similar to Florida and Texas A&M's DBs. Jarvis Landry could be in for a big night, isolated on safeties and linebackers while Banks runs with Odell Beckham Jr. and Kadron Boone outside.
Overall, LSU's gameplan will be exactly what it's been all year. Look for the team to come out running and throwing off of that. If the team can get a two score lead or so early, there has to be a chance that the Bulldogs will get that "not again" look after the blowouts in the last two weeks.
All of these questions come to ahead on Saturday night, and I'd be very surprised if the Tigers don't answer them with an affirmative.