Sure, beating LSU would have been nice, and defeating Alabama on Sept. 30 also would be a major success for first-year coach Zach Arnett. Wins against those programs could change the trajectory of a season, but those are tall tasks. Going 0-2 against LSU and Alabama would be fine for Mississippi State (2-1, 0-1 SEC), but that needs to be met by winning what has clearly been MSU's more important game in September since the schedule was released.
A victory against South Carolina (1-2, 0-1 SEC) on Saturday (6:30 p.m., SEC Network) secures a winning record through a gruesome first five games, while a loss likely sends the Bulldogs into October with a losing record.
“We’ve got to ensure one loss doesn’t bleed into the next weekend and create a second,” said Arnett, alluding to Saturday’s 41-14 loss vs. LSU. “That’s the challenge in front of us. We have a challenge going on the road for the first time this season playing at what is known to be one of the most energetic atmospheres, particularly in a night game, in all of college football. Hopefully our players are excited for that opportunity and that challenge because your attitude is your best friend or your worst enemy.”
What makes the task tougher is that the matchup is of a similar magnitude for coach Shane Beamer and the Gamecocks.
South Carolina is off to a rough start as a result of perhaps the nation’s toughest September schedule. It opened with a loss to rival North Carolina, beat Furman in Week 2 and lost to reigning national champion Georgia this past weekend.
The Gamecocks have matchups against Tennessee, Florida, Missouri and Texas A&M after the Bulldogs. If they walk out of their home stadium with a 1-3 record on Saturday, they could be headed down a scary path.
“We get to play in front of an electric environment with a great crowd versus a football team very similar to us,” Arnett said. “We get to learn something about ourselves with our first road trip. Coach Beamer has done a tremendous job in his short time there. They’re physical and fast on defense and very athletic on offense.”
The matchup also provides an intriguing battle between MSU quarterback Will Rogers and South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler. The latter is second in the SEC with 318 passing yards per game, while Rogers, who began his senior season with a chance to become the conference’s all-time leading passer, is coming off two of the worst outings of his career.
Containing Rattler will be a test for a Mississippi State defense that has struggled with dual threat quarterbacks. Arnett, who served as MSU’s defensive coordinator for three seasons before being promoted to head coach after Mike Leach’s death, is familiar with what his staff is preparing for.
When Rattler was a prospect out of Pinnacle High School in Phoenix, Arizona, Arnett was an assistant at San Diego State, which hosted tournaments attended by players from Arizona schools.
Arnett estimates he saw Rattler participate three years in a row, and his high school team was in the championship each time. Rattler has since developed into a quarterback who, when at his best, is among the nation’s elite. The Bulldogs need to shore up their play against him, otherwise the rest of 2023 could be an uphill battle.
“The offense goes through him,” Arnett said. “Our No. 1 job this week is to affect the quarterback.”
This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Why Mississippi State football vs. South Carolina is big for Zach Arnett