BATON ROUGE, La. – No. 9 LSU and No. 23 Mississippi State meet at a time when both are trying to get over losses that have essentially dropped them out of the race for a Southeastern Conference championship and squashed any national title aspirations.
Still, plenty is at stake when they meet Saturday night in Tiger Stadium. A victory could set either team back on the path to a major bowl invitation.
"We have to realize the season is not over," LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger said this week. "A 10-2 season would be a pretty dang good season; 10 wins are hard to come by in this league.
"To get 10 wins and play in a good bowl game would be a pretty good season. There will be no BCS championship game for us, but we still have a lot to play for."
Both teams can reach the 10-victory plateau in the regular season only by winning their final three games.
After this weekend, LSU (7-2, 3-2 SEC) finishes with a home game against Mississippi and its traditional Thanksgiving weekend season finale with Arkansas, which this year will be played at Fayetteville. The Bulldogs (7-2, 3-2) will close their schedule with Arkansas at home and then at Ole Miss for the annual Egg Bowl.
While both teams are coming off a loss, their performances last weekend were vastly different.
LSU came within a minute of upsetting No. 1 Alabama, with Mettenberger putting together his best performance as an LSU starter, throwing for nearly 300 yards and a score with no interceptions.
Mississippi State was crushed on its own field, 38-13, by Texas A&M — a team LSU beat on the road. Two weeks earlier, the Bulldogs were run out of Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium, 38-7. Those two losses caused Mississippi State to plummet out of the Top 10. Odds makers this week are listing the Bulldogs as two-touchdown underdogs in Death Valley, where LSU will look to win its 13th straight in the series.
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen spoke with no illusions about the challenges LSU would present.
"One of the top defenses in the country. And one of the top teams, that was obvious watching the game last week that they just played," Mullen said of LSU's close loss to the Crimson Tide. "We'll have our hands full offensively. Everybody knows they've got just a stable of running backs and a big, giant offensive line that pounds you and continues to pound you play after play after play after play.
"And last week they did a great job throwing the ball on top of that and balancing their offense out a little bit more, which makes them even more dangerous on that side of the ball."
Mullen's players have been analyzing why after a 7-0 start there are problems now. Recently, they've played two of the toughest teams in the SEC. For all their enthusiasm for those big games, some players think they've lost sight of the details.
"It's just stuff like false starts, not converting on third downs," Bulldogs quarterback Tyler Russell said. "Staying on the field — we haven't done a very good job of that the last two games. You stay on the field, you keep the defense off the field, you keep their offense off the field. It's about converting, taking what they give you and moving the chains."
Russell got off to a remarkable start and remains on pace to break several school passing records. He has passed for 1,954 yards and 16 TDs against only three interceptions. During the first seven games, Russell got plenty of help in the running game from LaDarius Perkins, who has 804 yards and eight TDs on the ground. But Perkins has been shut down the past two weeks, gaining only 38 yards against Alabama and 42 against A&M.
Meanwhile, LSU can hurt teams with any of four running backs: Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Kenny Hilliard and Jeremy Hill. Lately, freshman Hill has stood out, and he'll seek a fourth-straight SEC game with 100 yards on the ground.
Defensively, the Tigers have the ability to frustrate quarterbacks with a talented secondary and pressuring front four that has combined to make LSU No. 1 in the SEC against the pass.
The only question is whether they're mentally focused enough this weekend after wilting during Alabama's game-winning drive.
"Everybody is obviously down," LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo said. "You hate not wining every game, but especially the ones that are so important that a loss can ruin your postseason. Our goal is to finish the season with W's and not let anything step up in our way."