Mississippi State and Charleston Southern each possess two of the more dynamic quarterbacks in the nation.
Yet when the Bulldogs and Buccaneers meet at 3 p.m. CT on Saturday at Starkville’s Davis Wade Stadium, all eyes will be on the running game, as well.
That’s courtesy of a pair of sophomore signal callers who are out to prove something in the opening week of the 2017 campaign. For Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, the goal is to prove that last year was no fluke — and to avoid another Week 1 loss to a team they should probably beat. The stunning 21-20 loss to South Alabama in last year’s opener still hurts.
Charleston Southern and quarterback Shane Bucenell, still stinging from their loss to Wofford in last year’s playoffs, are determined to live up to their No. 14 FCS ranking while making a case to climb in the polls with a win over an SEC team.
Here are five things you should know:
1. The quarterbacks
Nick Fitzgerald burst onto the scene as a redshirt freshman in 2016, despite one of the more dubious tasks in college football as the man who replaced Dak Prescott under center for Mississippi State.
Now he’s looking to avoid the redshirt sophomore slump.
Fitzgerald threw for 2,423 yards and accounted for 43 touchdowns (21 via the air) en route to claiming nine program records. He was just as strong, if not stronger, with his legs, rushing for 1,375 yards — good enough to rank him third overall in the SEC ahead of every conference running back besides Kamryn Pettway of Auburn and LSU’s Derrius Guice.
As a result, Fitzgerald joined Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville and South Florida’s Quinton Flowers as the only two quarterbacks in the nation to throw for more than 2,000 yards and rush for an additional 1,000.
Since Oct. 29, his 24 touchdowns accounted for is the most by any player in nation.
Mark Tucker was one of just two assistant coaches to survive Charleston Southern’s staff shake-up after the 2016 season. Tucker, the Buccaneers’ new head coach, was formerly the team’s quarterbacks coach, and his new staff are so new to the job, that finding relevant game footage to study has proven problematic for Mississippi State.
One thing that should look familiar is the sight of Shane Bucenell operating Charleston Southern’s two-back, shotgun offense. Bucenell threw for 1,100 yards and 15 touchdowns, most in the Big South, as a freshman. The two-time conference Freshman of the Week honoree also led the Big South in total offensive yards per play with a 7.1 average, while rushing for 325 yards and 4 touchdowns.
2. Series history
Mississippi State’s matchup with Charleston Southern is the first meeting between the two schools and just the second contest between the Bulldogs and a Big South team. The first tilt came in 2007 when Mississippi State downed Gardner-Webb 31-15.
3. The opening line
Mississippi State opens up against a non-Power 5 opponent for the fourth straight year, and there presently is no betting line on the game in Las Vegas. The Bulldogs are 83-32-2 all-time in Week 1. That includes a 57-15-1 mark in Starkville and 6-2 record under head coach Dan Mullen.
4. Player to watch: RB Aeris Williams
With most of the focus on quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and the loss of star wide receiver Fred Ross, Mississippi State will need to rely on other playmakers to step up. That very well could be running back Aeris Williams. The junior tailback closed out the 2016 season strong, rushing for 102.8 yards per game in the final five games against Samford, Alabama, Texas A&M, Arkansas and Ole Miss. Williams finished with 720 yards and 4 touchdowns on the year.
5. What’s at stake
Only Alabama has more wins in the SEC West than Mississippi State since the beginning of the 2014 campaign. But another loss to a non-Power 5 team in the opening week could be damaging for the Bulldogs’ ego and reputation. Charleston Southern, however, shouldn’t be a pushover. The Buccaneers have the firepower and dangerous rushing attack to contend with Dan Mullen’s squad, especially given the lack of game film to study. Mississippi State should come away with the win, but Charleston Southern will certainly make them earn it.