Most schools are in the heart of conference play, jockeying for position to earn a chance to play for a conference title or hoping to get a bowl invitation.
Even in the mighty Southeastern Conference where No. 1 Alabama resides, teams are entering a crucial stretch — there’s always something to play for, if only pride.
Texas A&M and Mississippi State find themselves in exactly those types of spots as they prepare for Saturday’s clash at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Miss.
Both play in the SEC West and are chasing the Crimson Tide. The No. 16 Aggies (5-2, 3-1 SEC) are on a three-game win streak and coming off a bye. The Bulldogs (4-3, 1-3) are coming off a 19-3 loss to LSU.
Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald came into this season as a solid Heisman Trophy candidate, but the LSU defense and questionable decisions snuffed out any chance there was of the senior signal-caller being a legitimate candidate.
Against the Tigers, Fitzgerald was 8-for-24 for just 57 yards and four interceptions.
His performance has first-year head coach Joe Moorehead searching for answers. One of those answers involves the future of the program — sophomore quarterback Keytaon Thompson, who might get the start against the Aggies.
“His struggles in the passing game are apparent, and it doesn’t just go for him,” Moorehead said. “We have discussed in the offensive staff room giving (Thompson) the opportunity to start a drive as a change of pace, but also to take some of the physical wear and tear off of Nick.”
Fitzgerald has struggled in the SEC, completing 44 of 99 passes for 371 yards, six interceptions and not a single touchdown. Meanwhile, Thompson started against Stephen F. Austin when Fitzgerald was suspended and threw for five touchdowns and ran for two others.
“I was brought in here to elevate this program to a championship level and build on the excellent foundation laid by (former) coach (Dan) Mullen and his staff,” Moorhead said. “We can talk about the urgency and the necessity for this staff to get it right now and make sure this season ends the way it needs to end with a bunch of wins down the line.”
Oddly enough, Fitzgerald has enjoyed success against Texas A&M having rushed for more than 100 yards in guiding the Bulldogs to two straight wins over the Aggies. And this season, Fitzgerald is the fifth-leading rusher in the conference with 644 yards.
But the Texas A&M rush defense is ranked in the top five in the nation and the Aggies appear poised to be on a mission. There only two losses this season are to Alabama and Clemson.
They’ve outgained every opponent except the Crimson Tide and while Fitzgerald’s starting status is tenuous, the Aggies are more than happy with the strides made by sophomore quarterback Kellen Mond.
Against the Aggies’ top competition, Mond has thrown for 1,406 yards compared to 874 yards during his freshman season. He’s completing 61.7 percent of his passes — he has a better understanding of the game, said his head coach, Jimbo Fisher.
“And now, I think the game is beginning to slow down and he’s understanding what he’s seeing on the other side,” Fisher told the Dallas Morning News.
Mond has been helped immensely by Trayveon Williams, who is second in the SEC in rushing with 798 yards. Tight end Jace Sternberger has emerged as his favorite target with 29 receptions for six touchdowns.
Mond’s improvement gives the Aggies high hopes as they enter the challenging stretch of their season. The Aggies travel to Auburn next week to take on the Tigers, marking three straight road games before returning home.
“This is pretty much where the real season begins,” defensive end Landis Durham said. “You’ll be able to tell what teams can finish strong and teams that just fall off. In the past we’ve had a reputation of falling off at this point in the season so we’re really looking to finish strong.”
The Aggies enter play with the fourth-ranked passing attack in the conference at 282.4 yards per game while the Bulldogs at 171.3 yards per game is next to last in the SEC.
The Bulldogs’ rushing attack leads the league with 235 yards per game, while the Aggies aren’t that far behind at 204.3 yards per game.