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Bulldogs Stake Claim to Tide’s Biggest Threat

By Matt Smith
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After easy victories over Charleston Southern and Louisiana Tech, a visit from No. 12 LSU was going to be Todd Grantham’s first significant exam at Mississippi State. He passed it with flying maroon and white colors.

Trades are non-existent in college sports.

Or so we thought.

Louisville and Mississippi State indirectly swapped defensive coordinators in January, with Todd Grantham moving on from the Derby City after three good but not great seasons. His replacement was Peter Sirmon, who coordinated a shaky Bulldogs defense in 2016.

Sirmon’s biggest test took place Saturday night against Clemson, but early indications are that Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen fleeced counterpart Bobby Petrino with the addition of Grantham.

The Bulldogs allowed 40-plus points in four of its final seven games last season, and Mullen had to pull the plug on Sirmon after a single season. Grantham’s Louisville defenses were consistent, a big improvement from the inconsistent units that drove Georgia fans crazy from 2010 to 2013 during the nomadic coordinator’s tenure in Athens.

After easy victories over Charleston Southern and Louisiana Tech, a visit from No. 12 LSU was going to be Grantham’s first significant exam at Mississippi State. He passed it with flying maroon and white colors.

A Tigers offense under another new coordinator, Matt Canada, that was expected to be much more potent than the units that struggled in big games under Les Miles, struggled mightily against Grantham’s bullpups on Saturday night in Starkville. Mississippi State raced to a 37-7 win, with the outcome long in doubt when the fourth quarter began.

Ill-timed penalties and mental mistakes aided to the downfall of LSU, but the dominance at the line of scrimmage wrote the story for Saturday night’s conference opener for both teams. Danny Etling was pressured consistently, completing just five passes for 40 yards in the first three quarters before some garbage-time yards in the final minutes. Despite facing a prevent defense in the fourth quarter, LSU finished with a mere 264 yards of offense - its second-worst non-Alabama output since the start of the 2015 season.

The offense was both explosive and efficient, but that was somewhat expected with a quarterback as dangerous as Nick Fitzgerald is. The performance from the defense, whose star linebacker Leo Lewis spent parts of the week in greater Cincinnati at Ole Miss’ NCAA Committee on Infractions, came as a stunner to most.

LSU’s offense isn’t Oklahoma State, but it rarely looks as incompetent against teams other than Alabama as it did on Saturday night in Starkville. It wasn’t for a lack of talent – Derrius Guice is one of the best running backs in the nation – but because Grantham embarrassed well-respected first-year LSU offensive coordinator Matt Canada on the chalkboard.

Changing defensive coordinators is nothing new to Mullen. Grantham is his fourth in as many seasons. Geoff Collins left for Florida after the 2014 season, Manny Diaz left for Miami (FL) a year later, and Sirmon didn’t work out. Grantham’s SEC tenure at Georgia was spotty, but credit Mullen for recognizing his growth while at Louisville and identifying a match with the aggressive defensive approach Mullen has always preferred.

With the rest of the SEC outside of Alabama looking highly flawed, the Bulldogs appear to have found themselves in a battle with Grantham’s former Bulldogs next Saturday night in Athens for the right to be called the SEC’s second-best team. After a 6-7 2016 season, nobody thought that honor would belong to Mississippi State before the end of September. But it just might.

That’s why Mullen – despite sporting just a 30-35 record in SEC play – is consistently lauded as the second-best coach in the league. He accepts change and adapts to it as well as any head coach in the country. While serving as the de facto offensive coordinator, he maintains his core principles on defense while welcoming a fresh approach to the nuances.

Grantham brought that, and the duo appears to be a perfect match. This might not be a quintessential LSU team, but it’s still one of the most talented rosters in the country. Dismantling a team with that much skill requires pinpoint preparation and execution, and Mullen and Grantham conjoined for a masterpiece on Saturday night.

It’s not Babe Ruth to the Yankees or Kobe Bryant to the Lakers, but Mullen completely changed the direction of his program with the pilfering of Grantham. If Mullen ever becomes an NFL general manager, I wouldn’t advise any of his counterparts to pick up the phone if he calls.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.