STARKVILLE – Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen is excited to start the season with in-state foe Southern Mississippi.
The Bulldogs and the Golden Eagles meet Saturday night with a 9:05 p.m. kickoff on Fox Sports 1.
MSU beat Southern Miss 49-0 in last season’s opener in Starkville. This will be the first time since 1989, that MSU makes the trip to Hattiesburg. The Bulldogs won that matchup 26-23 and they have won the last three meetings in the rivalry. The Golden Eagles lead the series 14-13-1.
“This is a game that can have a lot of tradition to it and a lot of people in the state of Mississippi that take a lot of pride,” Mullen said. “I know that everybody has so much pride in their schools, so the opportunity when the schools get to play each other is huge. We are fortunate to be able to be apart of it and I am happy for us to be able to renew this rivalry.”
MSU is a huge favorite in this year’s matchup and many don’t think the game will be close, but here are five things to keep an eye on:
1. How will the MSU running backs fare?
Josh Robinson rushed for 1,203 yards and 11 touchdowns during his junior campaign last season. He was the first Bulldog running back to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark since LaDarius Perkins rushed for 1,024 yards during the 2012 season.
Robinson decided to forgo his senior season and declared for the National Football League Draft and was taken by the Indianapolis Colts with 205th overall pick in the sixth round.
MSU lists four running backs on the depth chart – junior Ashton Shumpert, junior Brandon Holloway and redshirt freshmen Dontavian Lee and Aeris Williams – but there are no starts between the foursome.
Shumpert has the most experience between the four with 24 games played in and 464 yards to go along with five touchdowns. He is expected to get the start.
Holloway has also played in 24 games during his Bulldog career, but he has 332 yards with a lone touchdown coming last season.
“When you have that guy stepping into a starting role for the first time, that is a little different,” Mullen said. “I have been pretty pleased with the physicality of our running backs and how we have been running the ball.”
Lee and Williams, a former West Point standout, have yet to play for MSU, but they have high expectations surrounding them.
2. How many freshmen will play for MSU?
MSU will more than likely start 22 seniors and juniors, but a couple of freshmen could find their way onto the field.
Two years ago, the Bulldogs had to play nine freshmen because there was a lack of depth. The Bulldogs have depth at almost every position, but a couple of first-year safeties could find themselves earning playing time. Both Jamal Peters and Mark McLaurin stood out on the first day of practice due to their 6-foot-2 frame. The Bulldogs don’t return any starters at safety.
“We want put a kid in a situation until we feel like he’s ready and that he feels that he’s ready,” MSU safeties coach Tony Hughes said. “The last thing you want is to put them in a situation and something doesn’t go well and now you’ve got a confidence factor that you have to deal with other than just the learning curve.”
Junior Kivon Coman will start at free safety, while senior Kendrick Market, who is coming off an Achilles heel injury, will get the nod at strong safety. Neither Peters or McLaurin are listed on the two-deep, as junior Deontay Evans is backing up Coman and redshirt freshman Brandon Bryant is backing up Market.
3. Who will handle the field goal kicking duties for MSU?
Evan Sobiesk made 12 of the 14 field goals he attempted last season, but he entered dental school and did not return to the team this fall.
He was the only Bulldog kicker to make a field goal last season, as Westin Graves and Logan Cooke attempted one apiece and missed both.
The depth chart lists either senior Devon Bell or sophomore Graves as the place kicker.
“It’s a fine line between statistical analysis and gut feeling of who is going to do it in a game situation,” Mullen said. “That’s a very different deal. It’s not something I plan on making decisions on all the way through game week of where we are at statistically and who is where we need them to be.”
Bell last attempted a field goal during his sophomore season. He made six in 14 attempts that season, but had a good freshman campaign with 14 made field goals in 21 tries.
4. Who will be the USM starting quarterback?
The Golden Eagle depth chart lists both juniors Nick Mullens and Tyler Matthews as possible starters for this week’s game.
Mullens started in 10 games last season and threw for 2,470 yards and 12 touchdowns. He got the start against the Bulldogs in Starkville last season, but threw two interceptions and had 212 yards.
Matthews, a TCU transfer, appeared in four games for the Horned Frogs without completing a pass in 2013.
“We anticipate both to play, because both are good players,” third-year Golden Eagle coach Todd Monken said.
This will be the fourth time in five years that Manny Diaz has faced a Monken offense. Diaz, the first-year MSU defensive coordinator, saw Monken’s offense twice when he was at Texas and Monken was at Oklahoma State. They met last year when Diaz was at Louisiana Tech, so there is some familiarity.
“It doesn’t really matter because ultimately they have to do what they can do. They’ve got to run their offense and we’ve got to run our defense,” Diaz said.
5. How will the late kickoff affect both teams?
Mullen hasn’t been a big fan of the late kickoff, but he has been practicing his team later at night this week to get ready for the late start.
“We have to get ready to play,” Mullen said. “I don’t particularly care to start a game that late. These are young college students. We will make sure we are ready to play and we will adjust our schedules around it.”
The Bulldogs will travel to Hattiesburg after 6 p.m. on Friday and stay in a hotel. Gameday will be filled with meetings and walk-throughs getting ready for the game.
The Golden Eagles have also practiced later and later this week and Monken will let his players sleep in on gameday.
“Obviously you have to hydrate and do a great job of keeping their minds off their anxiety of the game and waiting around all day,” Monken said. “They have to deal with the same issues we do and that won’t be an issue one way or another. The team that prepares the best and plays the best will win.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Ben Wait on Twitter @bcwait
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.