Every game between non-Alabama teams in the SEC this season cannot be assessed on its own. It must be viewed against the backdrop of the Crimson Tide’s ongoing reign over the conference. Alabama, 3–0 after a win over Colorado State Saturday, will continue to occupy the throne until someone else grabs it. The squad best equipped to do that, based on what took place Saturday night in Starkville, Miss., might just be Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs aced their first conference test of the season, slamming LSU 37–7 to move to 3–0 and continue their best start under head coach Dan Mullen since that magical 2014 campaign in which they ascended to No. 1 in the AP top 25 poll. After two breezy non-conference victories in Weeks 1 and 2, Mississippi State now owns a marquee victory to strengthen its claim as No. 2 team in the SEC.
The Bulldogs jumped on LSU with a three-yard touchdown run from dual-threat quarterback Nick Fitzgerald early in the first quarter and kept their foot on the gas. The Tigers failed to get Derrius Guice going on the ground; the star tailback finished with 76 yards on 15 carries. And senior quarterback Danny Etling didn’t fare better trying to connect with pass-catchers down field, posting a 13-of-29 passing line for 137 yards with zero touchdowns.
In an early battle between two new coordinators, Mississippi State DC Todd Grantham won the chess match against more heralded LSU OC Matt Canada. Losing that matchup would have put the Tigers’ in danger even if they’d found a way to slow the Bulldogs’ running game. But they didn’t: Fitzgerald and junior Aeris Williams combined for 234 yards and two touchdowns on 37 carries (6.3 YPC), compared to 133 total yards on the ground for LSU.
The latest chapter in Fitzgerald’s blossoming into Dak 2.0 involved an unexpected shredding of a defense stuffed with former highly touted recruits and a series critical of breakdowns, including on a touchdown pass to wide receiver Keith Dixon in the third quarter in which the sophomore calmly hauled in a pass over his left shoulder and, with no Tigers defenders in front of him, cantered into the end zone. Fitzgerald tallied 268 total yards and four scores.
Saturday night was a stark wake-up call for an LSU team that spent the first two games of Ed Orgeron’s first season as permanent head coach blasting an 0–3 Independent (Brigham Young) and an FCS opponent (Chattanooga) and had risen to No. 2 in Football Outsiders’ S&P + ratings. A week ago, the Tigers looked like Alabama’s biggest threat in the SEC. Mississippi State had wrested that status from them by early in the third quarter.
The beatdown casts serious doubt on the notion that the continuity brought by the Orgeron hire would pay immediate dividends. LSU has most of its conference slate to make up for an ugly conference opener, not to mention an upcoming two-week run against out-of-league opponents Syracuse and Troy, but any hope that Orgeron could get the Tigers to the playoff for the first time this season has all but vanished.
LSU’s fall will be Mississippi State’s gain, at least in the short term. The Bulldogs will get their shot at the Crimson Tide at Davis Wade Stadium in November, but first they’ll need to survive a road back-to-back against Georgia and Auburn, plus the rest of a rigorous conference schedule. Alabama still sits atop the SEC. If any team is going to change that over the next three months, though, it might be Mississippi State.