By Casey Gisclair
*Editors Note: This is the first part of a six-part series previewing LSU’s upcoming football season opponents.
For the first time since 2012, the LSU football team will not open its season in one of the various ‘kickoff classic’ games that take place around the country each fall.
In Week 1 of the college football season, LSU will play host to McNeese State—the annual Football Championship Subdivision contender from the Southland Conference.
I know, I know. You’re scoffing and calling the game a cupcake—one that the Tigers will win by 40-plus.
Maybe, maybe not.
These are the same McNeese Cowboys who were within an eyelash away from upsetting the University of Nebraska just one year ago, before losing the game 31-24 in the final seconds. The Cowboys are also the same team that opened 2013 with a blowout win over a major-conference foe—a 53-21 shellacking of South Florida.
“We look forward to playing those types of games in some of the best environments in college football,” Cowboys coach Matt Viator said last season after the Nebraska game. “We treat those games the same that we do every other one. We expect to win. We show up, compete and try and win a ball game.”
In previous seasons, the Cowboys had youth throughout the depth chart—one of the youngest teams in the Southland. This year, McNeese will be far more experienced, returning 17 starters off a group that finished 6-5 one year ago.
McNEESE STATE UNIVERSITY:
2014 record: 6-5
Conference: Southland (FCS)
Spring Game Standout: Walk-on halfback Benjamin Jones, who rushed for 110 yards and 2 touchdowns on 16 carries. Jones is a track star at McNeese, who possesses SEC-caliber breakaway speed.
Guy you may know: Quarterback Daniel Sams is a Louisiana native who signed with Kansas State out of high school before transferring to the Cowboys. He is one of several players competing for time under center.
Fun fact: These teams last played in 2010. LSU won the game 32-10. But something about the contest seemingly ignited a spark in the Cowboys, who responded with four-straight wins in Southland play.
FROM THE HOME OPENER TO STARKVEGAS
After taking on the Cowboys, LSU will travel up the road to Starkville, Mississippi for a meeting with SEC rival Mississippi State—the same Bulldogs team that trumped the Tigers in Baton Rouge last season.
That Bulldogs team was among the Cinderella stories in the country last season, a group that ascended to No. 1 in the polls after a 9-0 start, but those 2014 Bulldogs were loaded with experienced seniors.
This year, Mississippi State’s depth chart is a shadow of its former self, featuring just nine returning starters (five on offense, four on defense).
The Bulldogs do have arguably the best returning SEC starting quarterback in senior Dak Prescott. The senior quarterback was solid in every way for Mississippi State in 2014, completing 244-of-396 passes for 3,449 yards and 27 touchdowns.
As a runner, the 6-foot, 2-inch, 230-pound Louisiana native was just as lethal, grinding out 986 yards and 14 touchdowns.
But opposing defenses had such a tough time with Prescott because of all the other tools Mullen had in his toolbox.
This year, the cupboard is a little barer—at least on paper.
The Bulldogs lost bruising halfback Josh Robinson and all 1,203 of his rushing yards to the NFL Draft. Mississippi State also said goodbye to virtually its entire offensive line.
Defensively, Mississippi State also was hit hard, losing several players in its front 7, which could pose problems against the experienced offensive fronts that roam the SEC.
Mullen is optimistic for success, but folks around the SEC circles are not. The Bulldogs were picked to finish last in the SEC West by a wide margin at Media Days.
“This is my seventh year here, and I think all seven years, they’ve pretty much picked us to finish last in the West,” Mullen said. “It’s kind of like a tradition, I guess. We don’t really worry much about that. I’m more concerned with how we finish. … We kind-of like that role. That fits us.”
MISSISSIPPI STATE UNIVERSITY:
2014 record: 10-3
Conference: Southeastern Conference (Western Division)
Spring Game Standout: Redshirt freshman quarterback Nick Fitzgerald made his case to be Prescott’s backup and heir apparent in 2016 when he passed for 255 yards and three touchdowns to lead the White Team over the Maroon Team 28-24 in the Bulldogs’ Spring Game. Fitzgerald is a 6-foot, 5-inch pocket passer from Richmond Hill, Georgia.
Guy you may know: By now, just about all SEC fans know fifth-year senior quarterback Dak Prescott. A consensus pick as the best returning quarterback in the league, some folks think that Prescott has a shot to win the Heisman Trophy if he can lead the Bulldogs to enough wins in 2015 to garner the national recognition.
Fun fact: Despite this being his seventh season at Mississippi State, Dan Mullen, 43, is still the youngest coach in the SEC. A member of the Urban Meyer coaching tree, Mullen coached under the legend at Bowling Green (2001-02), Utah (2003-04) and Florida (2005-08). With the Gators, Mullen did a lot of work in the development and grooming of Heisman Trophy quarterback Tim Tebow.