BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — No. 6 LSU begins its national title defense with a game featuring numerous new faces on both sidelines.
The Tigers have Myles Brennan taking over at quarterback for Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow while Mississippi State has a new coach in Mike Leach whose reputation for high-flying offenses precedes him.
Neither new-look team got the soft opening against lower-level competition that had been initially scheduled. The COVID-19 pandemic led the SEC to delay the season openers to this Saturday and confine all member teams to a 10-game, league-only slate.
While the Tigers have gotten respect in the polls, they’re by no means favorites to repeat after seeing 14 players from 2019 selected in the NFL draft. LSU absorbed another big blow in late August when Ja’Marr Chase, the nation’s top receiver, decided to opt out of his junior season.
“I don’t want to put too much pressure on this football team because there’s a lot of young players out there,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. “We have a first-year quarterback. I remember when Joe was a first-year quarterback. Not everything was perfect all the time, and I don’t think everything is going to be perfect.”
Orgeron also had to replace defensive coordinator Dave Aranda after he took the head job at Baylor and passing game coordinator Joe Brady after he moved to the NFL as Carolina’s offensive coordinator. In came Bo Pelini for Aranda and Scott Linehan for Brady.
But while Orgeron concedes there’s uncertainty, he also sounds energized by it.
“I kind of love it. You know, I call it internal fuel. I digest it. It makes me want to work harder,” Orgeron said. “You know, there’s questions. You know, ‘Hey, they lost Joe Brady. They lost Joe Burrow. They lost Ja’Marr Chase.’ You hear it all. We know what goes on here. ... We believe in ourselves.”
Leach says the change in schedule and an opener in LSU’s Death Valley – albeit at 25% capacity – has forced him to adjust his approach to installing his “Air Raid” offense. He's dialed back on playbook volume and experimentation.
“Less trial and error,” Leach said. “We’ve really got to hone it down and try to feature what we’re best at.”
Leach also noted that all the turnover on LSU's roster and staff complicated preparations for the opener in some ways.
“What’s tough about them is, you know, there is going to be some change in some of what they do scheme-wise on both sides of the ball,” Leach said. “They have some new faces, too, and I hope those new faces are worse than the guys that left, okay?”
Mississippi State also has a new starting QB. Leach brought in Stanford transfer K.J. Costello, who protrays himself a “football nerd.”
Costello said he loves watching old game footage from Leach’s previous stops at Washington State and Texas Tech.
Costello said he watched every former Leach QB from Wahsington State’s Gardner Minshew back to Tech’s Graham Harrell because he “wanted to see who was the most successful in the system.”
Costello passed for 6,151 yards and 49 TDs during three seasons at Stanford, including two as starter.
Orgeron hasn't been shy about hyping up freshman tight end Arik Gilbert, who was one of the nation’s top recruits. Orgeron says Gilbert has the skills of an elite wide receiver to go with his 6-foot-5, 249-pound frame.
“I haven’t had a tight end like him in my coaching career,” Orgeron said. “I’m not comparing him to Calvin Johnson. I don’t want to put too much on him, but he’s that type of football player and has that type of body and can do those type of things.“
Expect both teams to rely on their running backs.
Senior Kylin Hill is Mississippi State's most productive returning offensive player and this season may have more opportunities as a receiver out of the backfield in Leach's spread offense.
While LSU lost Clyde Edwards-Helaire to the NFL, three highly regarded rushers are back in Chris Curry, Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emmory.
Curry said versatility will be a strength of LSU's running back corps.
“We have speed, power, we have vision," Curry said. "We're just smart all around.”
The game day environment around Death Valley will be far less festive amid COVID-19 protocols. LSU's renowned tail-gaiting scene — replete with Louisiana fare — has long been an attraction itself, luring thousands more for parties around campus than 102,000-seat Tiger Stadium can hold. But LSU interim System President Tom Galligan said the university is “on high alert” and will enforce policies banning tailgating on campus and requiring mask-wearing at the game.
“If we have to go beyond persuasive and gentle, we’ll do so,” Galligan said this week. “Everybody loves to tailgate, but not this year.”
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