We continue our "Most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold a special meaning for one of the teams involved.
Today, we take a look at Mississippi State.
Most important game: Sept. 20 at LSU
Key players: In a way, highlighting the "key players" is a part of why this game is so important for Mississippi State. Because, given all that LSU lost from last season, we can't have any way of knowing who will make an impact on this game. The Tigers won't have an established starter at quarterback, running back or wide receiver. The defense, while promising, won't be on its feet yet.
In other words, it's the perfect time for Mississippi State to get LSU. You don't want to face a team that talented when it's had time to realize its potential.
Mississippi State, on the other hand, is loaded with experience. Dak Prescott is the unquestioned starting quarterback, and he has all the tools to make coach Dan Mullen's offense go. The running backs, led by Josh Robinson, are deep, as is the wide receiver corps, which features a couple of playmakers in Jameon Lewis and De'Runnya Wilson. But the real question will be how the offensive line, minus former great Gabe Jackson, will hold up against a defense in LSU's that routinely dominates the line of scrimmage.
Why it matters: This will be a "prove it" type of game for Mullen and Mississippi State. There's so much reason for optimism around Starkville -- a talented quarterback, an emerging group of playmakers, a defense that is truly two-deep at every position -- but until we see results, it's hard to believe that this year will be any different. By beating a team like LSU on the road, it would send a message that this year's Bulldogs are for real.
The second reason -- and maybe the most compelling -- for this being a pivotal game is the way the schedule sets up, which is about as well as any coach could ask for. Mississippi State feasts on cupcakes the first three weeks of the season (Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama) before going on the road to LSU (again, you want the Tigers early). If the Bulldogs survive Baton Rouge, then they get a well-timed bye week before hosting Texas A&M and Auburn (you want both at home). Survive that and there's another bye week before a nice run of winnable games against Kentucky, Arkansas and UT Martin.
Think its unreasonable that Mississippi State goes 8-1 in that time? Think again.
If Mississippi State beats LSU early and gains the accompanying confidence of such a win, the outlook of its season and the SEC West as a whole changes considerably. Lose that game and you start to question whether this really is the year for the Bulldogs to contend for the division title.