BATON ROUGE, La. -- No stat mattered more in Mississippi State's 34-29 upset against LSU last season than the massive yardage total the Bulldogs posted on runs between the tackles.
It was the Bulldogs' best performance of the season and one of the most dominant efforts on inside runs by any offense in the country in 2014. The Tigers won't win Saturday's rematch, either, unless they tighten up the center of their run defense.
That's the first thing we'll examine as we predict three stats that will matter in Saturday night's SEC opener at Davis Wade Stadium:
State's runs up the middle: The Bulldogs had all of the ingredients necessary to boast a powerful running game last season: a veteran offensive line, a tough running back in Josh Robinson and a 230-pound quarterback in Dak Prescott who wasn't afraid to put his head down and run over defenders.
Not surprisingly, State used that recipe to great effect, averaging 231.1 rushing yards per game -- 151 of which came on inside runs. Only seven FBS teams averaged more yardage per game on inside runs than the Bulldogs.
They were especially effective in the win at Tiger Stadium, however, posting 270 rushing yards and 7.94 yards per play on inside runs. According to ESPN Stats & Information, that yardage total tied for the 10th most by any FBS team in a game last season. State also ran for 270 yards between the tackles against Kentucky.
The silver lining for LSU's defense is that after rough early outings against Mississippi State and Auburn (172 rushing yards on inside runs), the Tigers tightened up as the season progressed. Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux began to jell at defensive tackle, Kendell Beckwith established himself as a star at middle linebacker, and suddenly opponents struggled to find running lanes up the gut.
The Tigers expect to defend those runs up the middle against a State offense that lost Robinson and three starting offensive linemen (All-SEC guard Ben Beckwith, center Dillon Day and left tackle Blaine Clausell), and Prescott will have to work much harder for his yardage if they do.
LSU's third-down efficiency: LSU quarterback Brandon Harris is preparing to make his second career start, both of which will have come on the road in rowdy SEC stadiums. The sophomore helmed an LSU offense that failed to convert a single third down in last season's 41-7 loss at Auburn, marking Harris' only significant dose of playing time away from Tiger Stadium.
Few stats are more telling about an offense's efficiency than its ability to move the chains on third down. That will especially be the case on Saturday, as a composed Harris finding ways to extend drives would be a big improvement over the freshman who struggled at Auburn.
Harris insists he is much better off today, and that makes sense after a year-and-a-half on campus. However, we have almost no visual evidence of that progress yet since LSU didn't play last Saturday.
Harris was masterful in his appearances at Tiger Stadium leading up to last season's Auburn implosion, never posting a raw Total Quarterback Rating less than 97.0 (on a 0-100 scale) in games against Sam Houston State, Louisiana-Monroe, Mississippi State and New Mexico State. His QBR at Auburn was 7.0 after going 3-for-14 for 58 yards. Anything resembling that performance on Saturday will almost certainly result in a loss.
Mississippi State's defense allowed Southern Miss to go 4-for-17 on third downs and 2-for-4 on fourth downs in last week's opener.
Does State's running game have the same punch?: Robinson's presence made the dual-threat Prescott doubly effective last season. It was difficult for opposing defenses to focus solely on corralling State's quarterback when Robinson was capable of busting huge runs at any time.
Robinson ranked third in the SEC with 1,203 rushing yards last season, including an enormous game against LSU where he ran 16 times for 197 yards and a touchdown. But when he jumped to the NFL, the Bulldogs didn't have an obvious pick to replace his considerable production.
Junior Ashton Shumpert might be the leading option, although he had a quiet debut against USM with eight carries for 46 yards and four catches for 26. Meanwhile, Brandon Holloway had a nice opener (7-51 rushing, plus a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown), but at 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds, he is hardly the between-the-tackles runner that Robinson was. Redshirt freshmen Dontavian Lee (1-6) and Aeris Williams (1-2) barely touched the ball against USM.
Prescott will get his yards on the ground and through the air, but State's offense will not be as effective as it was in 2014 if the Bulldogs don't identify a back who can effectively complement Prescott. If their top running back accumulates 50-something yards on the ground like last week, it's difficult to envision the Bulldogs beating LSU.