*The SEC's pair of Dog teams are not permanent opponents, and meet for the first time since 2006. Georgia ties with Vanderbilt as the least-played conference opponent for Mississippi State, with only 21 meetings apiece.
*Four Georgia natives are in MSU uniforms this week: TE Brandon Henderson, WR Leon Berry, WR Allen Tolbert, and OC Sam Watts. OT Josh Davis, a senior from Jayess, is the lone Mississippian playing for Georgia.
The Opponent: Hard for an envious outsider to believe that Georgia fans could really be that upset with the state of their program, and a boss who is after all fourth in active I-A victories. Then again, it's also hard to believe that thirty falls have passed since the (other) Dogs won a national title, because a whole lot ‘o talent has run through Athens over these years. This season is no exception, albeit the 2010 talent is a bit younger than usual in some key spots. And the top offensive playmaker has to wait until October to see the field. And the defense is still trying to settle into a different set. And…and while both September league losses are legit to anyone beyond the bounds of Sanford Stadium the natives aren't entirely comfortable where things are generally headed. The good news is the SEC East is still volatile enough to still make a run, and ease some frustrations with Florida; Alabama isn't on the schedule for two more years; and by then this will be a grown-up club again. The bad news? Re: that thirty years. Which now are still counting…
Offense: In this day when ‘spread' systems seem to be taking control of the college game it's refreshing to see somebody still operating out of an ‘I'. Even, wonder of wonders, having the quarterback crouch under-center and take the exchange. Not that Aaron Murray (no kin this side of Scotland as far as we know) won't drop into a direct-snap set and deliver; he will. Nor that he doesn't run for key yards of his own; he does. But kiddies, feast your eyes on what was once the standard in this play-action, drop-back passer. A redshirt frosh, too. He is 46-of-74 throwing so far with four touchdowns and a pair of picks. His average completion nets over 13 yards, too. And all this without his…scratch that, without the SEC's top target available. Yet while A.J. Green (53 catches, 6 TDs last season) awaits activation next weekend others are filling the statistical gap. Senior FL Kris Durham missed last season with injury; he's back and is coming off a 101-yard game against Arkansas. FL Rantavious Wooten runs routes, but also will rush the ball. Soph SE Tavarres King also returned to the lineup last week and had 91 yards and a touchdown. The rest of the wideouts are underclassmen, too, boding well for the future. And that doesn't include a pair of pass-catching tight ends as Orson Charles and Aron White alternate; the one was a freshman All-American, the other is a Mackey Award nominee. In the backfield every runner of '09 note is back. Washaun Ealey has been the workhorse the last two weeks, but junior Caleb King returns for this game. He had seven touchdowns last fall and a 5.2 average gain, compared to 5.7 and three scores for Ealey. The runners, and passer, gets to work behind a line that boasts 141 combined starts for their careers; most in the SEC it seems. And in '09 they allowed just a dozen sacks in 13 games. They haven't started off quite so well this year with nine baggings in three games but experience should show over the long haul. Oh, and the quintet averages a mere 312 pounds.
Defense: They've changed the alignment. Now the Bulldogs want to establish an identity, which ought not be that complex a challenge given the personnel. Bringing Todd Grantham from the NFL to coordinate this switch to a odd-man front is interesting since most college programs are currently relying on four-man lines. So maybe Georgia is ahead of the trend here. Besides, they graduated the top three linemen of '09 to the pros so an adjustment seems timely anyway. Junior DeAngelo Tyson has drawn the nose assignment, clogging the middle with his 290 pounds; and he's flanked by ends Brandon Wood and Demarcus Dobbs who are just a few pounds-shy of that same size. Dobbs by the way was a sack specialist last year working as at d-end in the old system. Now though the pass rushing opportunities are opened up for linebackers and safeties. Especially OLB Justin Houston, a 258-pound former end who has gotten to three quarterbacks already. Safe to say the changed scheme is good for his stat sheet, after he had 7.5 sacks as a soph. But ILB Akeem Dent has two sacks himself and 20 tackles on the early season. Not only are there four play-making starters for these slots, but junior ILB Marcus Dowtin—who is only the top returning tackler—is coming back from a shoulder problem that kept him out against Arkansas. Scheme, shmeme, talent like this can make any system work. And that is not including SS Bacarri Rambo who has led the squad in tackles every game so far with 25 total stops. Only one full-'09 starter, CB Brandon Boykin, technically returns, but the ‘new' starters are a senior and junior so experience is not an issue here. And then there is soph Branden Smith, who started the first two games before missing last week with a concussion. He will rush out of the backfield, run pass routes, return kicks, and of course play coverage. Georgia has produced three interceptions already, but only come up with a single fumble, so look for increased emphasis on forcing turnovers as the unit gets more comfortable with what they are playing. And, with who they are.
Specialists: Veteran fans, stop if you've heard this before, but guess what SEC school has the top pair of kickers? Yeah, we've seen this before. Junior P Drew Butler averaged only 48.1 (!) yards last year and if his current rate is 44.6 he's had four fair-catches and four dropped inside the twenties. None blocked, of course. PK Blair Walsh is perfect so far on five field goal tries including a 52-yarder to open the season. The aforementioned Smith returns punts at a 11.0 clip, and Boykin handles most kickoffs. Bad news for a MSU team struggling to return kicks: Georgia is allowing only 6.2 yards on punts, 17.6 on kickoffs.
The Series: As noted before this ties for State's least-played SEC series, with Georgia leading 16-5. Most of that margin has come on the nine-straight victories scattered over the past four decades, with State's last win dating back to 1974 in Jackson. There have been only five meetings in Starkville, and the home team has won just one of those…the first time, back in 1951. Georgia has succeeded in trips to Starkville in 1982 (featuring some guy named Herschel), 1988, 1996, and most recently 2005. MSU has not won in Athens since 1956.
The Last Time: October 21, 2006 Mississippi State saw a bid for a SEC upset fumbled, literally, away as Georgia's Charles Johnson separated Bulldog quarterback Mike Henig from the ball with three seconds left to preserve a 27-24 victory. State had gone from its own 20-yard line to the UG 22 on a pair of big Henig passes, and was in field goal range with 18 seconds showing. But on second down the Georgia defensive end came around for the strip and recovery, which held up on review. It was an ironic end as five UG turnovers contributed to State's unexpected showing. Georgia scored first, after MSU inexplicably punted from the UG 30-yard line, on a drive capped by Kregg Lumpkin's two-yard touchdown dive. The visiting Dogs responded though and Anthony Dixon evened the first-quarter score with a five-yard TD run. Matthew Stafford dominated the second quarter with touchdown passes of 21 and 11 yards; but the third period saw State get another five-yard TD run from Dixon and a 36-yard field goal from Adam Carlson. Matched fourth-quarter touchdowns, including Dixon's third on a three-yard blast, meant it was a three-point margin the final ten-plus minutes. State first failed to take advantage of a Keith Fitzhugh interception at the UG 48 with 7:38 left on the clock; then after Henig threw clutch 23- and 34-yard receptions came the real heartbreak. Henig was 14-of-31 for 234 yard and two interceptions, while Dixon ran for just 37 yards but three scores. Stafford was 20-of-32 for 267 yards passing.
Bulldog Notebook: For the first time ever, Mississippi State has sold all available season tickets. About 43,600 (pending specific final count) ducats for the 2010 home slate were purchased for Davis Wade Stadium. This was after the season ticket record was set in Coach Dan Mullen's debut season.
*Both Bulldog home games so far this year have been official sellouts with single-game ducats snapped up as well. The 56,032 that watched the home debut with Memphis was the fourth-largest crowd ever at DWS, and the largest for a non-conference game. State now has a streak of six-straight home sellouts.
*After scoring seven touchdowns, all by the offense, in an opening night rout of Memphis, the Bulldogs have managed just three touchdowns in two SEC contests.
*And after putting up 569 yards against Memphis, the MSU offense has mustered just 514 total yards in SEC play; 246 against Auburn, 268 at LSU> *Mississippi State has scored on the first series of the third quarter each game this season.
*In the opening game with Memphis, the Bulldog offense began 13 series with a rush and two with a pass. In their two SEC games combined the breakdown is 13 rushes to open, nine passes. And one of those rushes was a sack, showing a more necessarily balanced approach in league play.
*After just missing 50% passing against Auburn (12 of 25) QB Chris Relf was 5-of-8 at LSU before being knocked out early in the third quarter. Counting the last two games of 2009, Relf is 31-of-55 (56%) in the past five outings.
*Relf threw just 41 passes all his soph season, for 283 yards; he has tossed 43 attempts in three games as a starter with 261 yards.
*But so far Relf has three interceptions and a single touchdown toss as a starter.
*And after netting 6.6 yards per rush off the bench, he is getting 3.3 this year. Sacks have cost him 43 yards, though, so on intentional runs he has netted 4.3 yards.
*In his first three college games QB Tyler Russell is a 63% passer, though a 13-of-16 night against Memphis does tilt the totals.
*But Russell is up to 356 passing yards already. The respective quarterbacks average 10.9 (Relf) and 10.2 (Russell) yards per catch.
*At LSU, Russell ran for gains of five and four yards in his first called-carries.
*WR Chad Bumphis has led or tied for first in receptions each game this season. With 12 catches so far he has 155 yards and a 12.9 average. He has yet to score his first SEC touchdown this year.
*Bumphis has opened both his varsity seasons with two-touchdown games, against Jackson State last year and Memphis in '10.
*WR Brandon Heavens began the year with 112 yards' of catches against Memphis. He has had six and 27 yards in two SEC contests.
*WR Leon Berry has the best per-catch rate of any Dog with more than a single grab, averaging 18.1 yards on his five grabs. Of course he had 51 yards on a single reception against Memphis.
*WR Arceto Clark has become a preferred target in SEC games with six catches, including a 25-yarder at LSU.
*Both regular tight ends, Marcus Green and Brandon Henderson, did not get a catch at LSU. But injuries to both opened the door for TE Kendrick Cook to make a 12-yard grab. State has spread ten balls around to tight ends and backs through three games.
*Balance is the best description of how backfield duties are handled. The trio of tailbacks have, respectively, 24, 23, and 21 carries.
*Junior TB Rob Elliott has gotten both starts and the most work. Junior TB Vick Ballard has a few more yards but over half his 101 total came on a single 51-yard burst against Memphis.
*Ballard does have four of the team's rushing touchdowns, though.
*Redshirt freshman OG Gabe Jackson has Mississippi State's other offensive touchdown for the season. He fell on a Relf goal-line fumble that rolled into the end zone. It was the first touchdown for a Bulldog blocker since guard Derrick Dean also recovered an offensive fumble in the end zone against Louisiana Tech in 1988.
*The offensive line allowed only one official sack (of Relf) at LSU, and five for the season. But State passers have felt the pressure in both SEC games and that has led to most of the seven interceptions thrown.
*State's defense did not pick a pass last week. But they did produce three interceptions in the first two games.
*All of the 17 interceptions by Bulldogs in Mullen's two seasons have been by players without a previous pick before he arrived.
*CB Maurice Langston had a pair of picks against Memphis, his first in college.
*LB K.J. Wright has come back strong after an ankle problem limited him to one tackle against Memphis. He has posted ten and 12 stops in his two SEC performances, including a deflected pass at LSU.
*Wright thus is back on top of the team tackles chart at 23, only one ahead of LB Chris White in what should be a fine race for the seniors.
*Wright now has 184 career tackles.
*White, though, is leading in tackles for losses at 4.5; none of them sacks.
*DE Pernell McPhee has yet to get a sack, after leading State with 5.0 last season. He's getting closer though with a pair of credited hurries.
*Junior S Charles Mitchell is up to 114 career tackles in three years.
*Senior S Zach Smith scored a sack at LSU, matching his career total for the previous three years.
*State had a unique two-turnover play at LSU. CB Damein Anderson recovered a Tiger fumble, then fumbled it away himself with Langston coming up with the second drop.
*DT Fletcher Cox has blocked one field goal (Auburn) this year, to go with his rejection against Houston as a true 2009 freshman.
*State has not made a field goal through three games, and only attempted one with PK Sean Brauchle missing a 38-yarder on opening night.
*Brauchle and PK Derek DePasquale are a combined 10-of-10 on PATs this year, and have hit all 45 attempts in Mullen's two seasons.
*P Heath Hutchins is up to 40.9 yards on average, with five fair-catches and five balls hit inside the 20-yard line.
*But State is struggling mightily in the return game, averaging 19.6 yards on kickoffs. After smashing the total return-yards record last fall, Berry is getting 20.3 yards on kickoffs this year.
*TE Henderson made his first career start, at LSU.
*The only 2009 freshman yet to play is FB William Shumpert, who had back surgery on September 1.
*Two true freshmen have played this year, LB Chris Hughes and WR Michael Carr.
*OC J.C. Brignone and OG Quentin Saulsberry both have 27-game starting streaks. The defensive leader in total starts is Wright with 25.