There are 12 games in a season, but there are eight of particular importance if you’re in the Southeastern Conference. So say Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and LSU’s Les Miles, at least.
The two face each other in Baton Rouge this weekend and it’s the first SEC game for each of their teams. To listen to the two talk on Monday, it’s a big game. It’s big because it’s the start of conference play and it’s big because the opponent for both owns a great deal of talent.
If Mullen and Miles are to be believed, Saturday night at LSU ought to be quite the battle between Bulldogs and Tigers.
“We were in a tough environment last week,” Mullen said, “but it’s going to be an even tougher environment playing at LSU on a Saturday night. That is always a tough environment to go in to. That is a team that brings so many weapons to the table. “
Said Miles, from his press conference video on LSUSports.net, “There will be more energy because it’s an SEC team. More energy because it’s two undefeated teams … It’s a talented Mississippi State team. They’re 3‑0. Dan Mullen has done a great job there. Should easily be a ranked team. I can’t imagine that they’re not. They have all of the abilities – offense, defense and special teams – that you would see in a ranked team.”
High praise. It came back to Miles in kind from Mullen just a few minutes later.
“On defense, they have given up seven points in the last 10 quarters,” Mullen recited off the top of his head. “They are giving up 200 yards total per game. I know that is No. 1 in the SEC and probably in the country. So it is obviously a huge challenge for our offense. Statistically, this is the best LSU defense we have ever played going into the game. On the other side of the ball, they have an enormous offensive line and wave after wave of enormous tailbacks to pound at you to make it a big, physical game. They have the leading receiver in the SEC in big plays. They are a Top-10 team in the country and playing on the road on a Saturday night is a big challenge for us. We are going to have to play at a very, very high level to find a way to win.”
Miles, too, was ready to heap more specific praise on a team he’s seen every year since arrival in Louisiana.
“Dak Prescott,” Miles said, “as good of a player as there is in his position in our conference. He’s running for about 100 yards and throwing for a little over 200 yards a game. He’s accounted for nine passing touchdowns and three rushing touchdowns. They have a running back, Josh Robinson who gets 100 yards per game. They can run it, throw it and offensively they are a big, strong physical group and we will have to play well and tackle well. Defensively they’re allowing 80 [rushing] yards per game. They’re opportunistic. They have five interceptions and three fumbles. Defensive line – Preston Smith among others are big, strong, mobile guys and will be a great challenge for us. We look forward to playing quality teams. This is a very quality football team.”
But what of recent history? LSU has won 21 of the last 22 games against MSU, and Miles is undefeated against State since his hiring in Baton Rouge.
Sure, both coaches say, those on the outside keep track. But they live inside the 60 minutes (or more, possibly) on Saturday night.
“You look at Mississippi State,” Miles said, “they call to you play best. I have no problem standing in front of my team. That is not an issue in any way, unrealistic expectations. We’re going to have to earn the victory, and we recognize that.”
Mullen, too, said his team is not preoccupied with things that happened before half his team can remember.
“All that matters is this week,” MSU’s coach said. “Every game that has ever been played there has no impact on this game. Every game we have ever played here has no impact on this game. Every game we will play against them in the future has no impact on this game. It is all about this week and our focus on this one game. That is what we talk to our guys about, and it is what our focus is on. With an experienced team it is pretty simple for them to understand that this is all about this one game on Saturday and not anything else.”
Miles, on his end, certainly has no doubts MSU will be ready for the game, history lesson shared or not.
“I think they know exactly what they want to do,” the Tigers’ head coach told reporters about the Bulldogs. “I think they’re focused. There is, again, a talented team there. It’s not just a quarterback. Guys that can catch it, offensive line that can block it, running backs that can run. It’s a talented team.”
The winner gets to keep their undefeated record. The loser finds themselves in a hole after just one division game.
“If we win this game,” Mullen said, “we are going to be where we want to be in the SEC race. It is always important to win your first game in conference play because that really gives you a big jump start in the conference.”