*Florida is ranked #22 this week. State's last win over a ranked team came at the end of the 2009 season with a homefield victory over #25 Ole Miss. Their last road win over a ranked foe was in 2007 at Kentucky.
*Three of Coach Dan Mullen's four SEC victories to date have come against Eastern Division teams.
*But MSU has not won in Gainesville since 1965.
*Mullen spent four seasons as offensive assistant on the Florida staff, 2005-08, working with SEC championship and national championship teams in 2006 and 2008.
The Opponent: It's a theorem of football physics: the level of current frustration is proportional to the degree of previous success. And since no program of the latter ‘00s enjoyed the sort of triumphs scored by Florida football, well, no wonder Gator faithful are a bit grumpy these days. The horror, the horror of consecutive SEC losses has caused a disproportionate reaction among those who figured great days would last forever. (RE: another law, that of gridiron gravity.) The fact remains Florida is still a very good team with top-notch talent, if not of national title degree at the moment; and a SEC East title is still a worthy goal save to all but the most spoiled. By the same token though this could shape up as an interesting winter in Gainesville given legit concerns about Urban Meyer's physical health and emotional commitment to a tough job, and if they should stumble down the stretch and, horrors, have their streak over Florida State snapped, well…as Albert told Mrs. Einstein, it's all relative.
Offense: Well yeah, anyone with a pulse knew Florida would struggle to replace arguably the greatest college player of the last quarter-century (post-Herschel from my elder perspective). Ironically his alma mater's current issues only magnify the memory of T.Tebow as the Gators have fallen shockingly in the SEC stats. Take total offense: the '09 team led the league at 457.9 yards-per, while this team is only 11th this week at 323.7. Scoring? From #2 to #7 this week. Rushing is off 80 yards from a year ago, passing over 50 yards. Realistically this goes beyond losing even one incredible performer, because the rebuilding extends into most skill spots. No wonder Florida has used more true 2010 freshmen than any program in the land so far. QB John Brantley is not one of ‘em though. The fourth-year junior has waited his time and not done so badly under the circumstances, as a 62% passer with six TDs against four picks. He's not just tough-minded to assume the Sainted One's spot but tough of body taking hits but scrambling for ground under pressure. Pocket passing isn't enough this year though so one of the SEC's most versatile athletes, WR/TE/FB Trey Burton, is the alternate triggerman. A good one too, keeping defenses off-balance with fast footwork and a nose for the end zone as Kentucky found out the hard way. He's only tossed two SEC game passes to date. But when he flips the ball to Jeff Demps everyone holds their breath. The junior back can go any distance at any time, netting 6.5 per carry with shocking speed. Southern Cal transfer Emmanuel Moody is the pounder and soph Mike Gillislee the designated scorer with four TDs. The top three targets of '09 are gone leaving junior Deonte Thompson (23 catches, 14.3 yards per) as the elder lizard. But it's Carl Moore coming on fast now, having missed last year with back problems. He not only has 17 catches and a 15.4 gain rate but when he gets the ball the chains move. Burton and Demps have 26 grabs between them, too. The blocking has had some unexpected issues considering four starters returned, albeit with some position shifts. Such as moving guard Mike Pouncey to the center spot left open by his older brother. This has produced some rather interesting snaps through the first half of the season. Tackles Xavier Nixon and Marcus Gilbert have swapped ends so the beef is on the left side with 320-pound LT Gilbert and 355-pound LG Carl Johnson, both seniors. All considered, for every positive point there is a qualifying negative; such as turnover margin. Florida may rank #2 in the SEC this week, but have still lost the ball a dozen times.
Defense: Of course that net-positive means the Gator defense is taking the ball away a lot, a SEC-best 16 times in fact. And of that, 13 are direct interceptions which is why Florida is still among the nation's best preventing passing. They aren't a lot less adept against the run either, holding three foes under 100 rushing yards already and making a specialty of stuffing league leading runners. Thus we see a unit capable of holding its own all over the field. There may not be a more active secondary in the land because SS Ahmad Black is pacing the entire team with 50 tackles, not to mention three interceptions and a forced fumble. CB Jeremy Brown has three picks of his own; and fellow CB Janoris Jenkins are 2nd and 4th this week in SEC passes-defended. Why, FS Will Hill (22 tackles) is practically starving for work in this excellent unit. Naturally not a few of the interceptions are initiated by a brutal defensive line that despite quality graduation losses hasn't lost a step. Senior DE Justin Trattou has a tackle for loss in the last four games and a 65-yard interception return of his own. The other three slots are re-filled by new or newish starters, yet DE Duke Lemmens is still a senior and thriving as a pass-rusher with two sacks and four hurries. DT Jaye Howard did get four big-time starts as a soph and is full-time this season with 5.5 TFLs, while soph Omar Hunter and DL/LB Brandon Hicks are interchangeable. A freshman, Jelani Jenkins leads the linebackers with 35 tackles from the weak side while soph Jonathan Bostic (28 tackles) can surely cover from the middle slot with three interceptions already. And all SLB A.J. Jones has done is start 35 of his 44 varsity games, with 133 total tackles; he's coming off a fine game against LSU. So few can find fault in how the Gator defense has functioned for the first six games while the offense tries to find its footing. Oh, and about all those turnovers again; when Florida takes the ball away either it produces points two-thirds of the times.
Specialists: Pick your poison on kickoffs as either Demps (27.2) or Andre Debose (28.4) can burn coverage fast. Janoris Jenkins takes care of punt returns, and opponents would love to have him working against his own punter. Because P Chas Henry is leading the SEC with a 49.8 average, 3.7 yards better than number-two. He's had to take over placekicking lately too with veteran Caleb Sturgis sidelined the last two games by back problems. The pair are just 4-of-7 on three-pointers so far though with a couple of missed PATs.
The Series: The Gators hold a healthy 33-18-2 lead in a series that dates back to the 1920s. Mississippi State and Florida were once annual opponents, prior to the SEC split into Divisions, and played every season from 1962-93. State actually has the longest streak in the series with seven-straight wins from 1936-42. But the Gators have had more strings along the way to build that margin, and have taken the last 16 games played in Gainesville with a 19-7-1 overall record at home. The last two visits to Florida Field have produced a combined 87-9 score. State's last success was in 2004 at Scott Field.
Bulldog Notebook: Mississippi State has scored a rushing touchdown in every game this season, and in 16 of Dan Mullen's 18 games.
*State has scored a touchdown on the initial possession of a first half twice; and the opening turn of a second half four times.
*MSU leads the SEC in time of possession mid-way of the season.
*A week ago State was third in SEC third-down converting; now they are 2nd-best at 50.6%. In the last two non-SEC games the Dog offense has converted 15 of 26 third downs.
*At one time MSU was the SEC's least-penalized team, but in the past two games the Dogs have drawn nine and eight flags worth 135 yards.
*State has made a league-low two field goals, out of six attempts.
*At Houston, the MSU offense began 11 series with a rush, just one with a pass, and one take-a-knee before halftime.
*State did not have to throw a TD pass at Houston with five rushing scores, but it did snap a short two-game stretch with two touchdown passes per week. That hadn't happened at MSU since 2006.
*QB Chris Relf equaled his previous year's touchdown pass total, five, in just half of this season.
*And he has more than doubled his passing yardage of 2009. After 283 yards last year he has thrown for 675 through six '10 games.
*Relf extended his string of 50% passing or better to four games. In fact only once in his last eight total games has he been under break-even, this year against Auburn (12-of-26).
*After minimizing his carries for the Alcorn State romp, Relf was on the move again last week with 96 rushing yards. And, he scored his first running TD of the whole season, before being sidelined most of the second half. Otherwise a record game was in store for him.
*He got off to a slow start ground-gaining this year but now is up to 4.5 per carry, and 6.0 yards in the Georgia and Houston contests combined.
*QB Tyler Russell took care of most of the second half at Houston with 5-of-9 passing and 72 yards. That gives the freshman 199 passing yards in the last two weekends.
*Relf's completions average 13.2 yards; Russell nets 15.8.
*In non-SEC games, the two Bulldog passers are a combined 51-of-77 or 66.2%. In their three league games though the percentage drops to 55.2%, at 37-of-67.
*After practicing the passing attack against ASU, the Bulldogs went back to the ground at Houston for 409 yards. State is third in SEC rushing half-way through the season at 211.8 per game, after leading the league in 2009 for the first time ever.
*Nine of State's last 11 touchdowns have come on rushes.
*Rotating tailbacks has kept individual Dogs out of the league rankings…until now. TB Vick Ballard is now 9th in the SEC at 69.7 yards, coming off consecutive games of 119 and 134 yards.
*And, three touchdowns in both those contests. Which accounts for half of Ballard's 12 total TDs (11 rushing) for the season.
*All those points have pushed Ballard atop the SEC scoring chart with 72 points, or 18 more than #2 Marcus Lattimore of South Carolina. Ballard has scored in every State game this season, and at least once on the ground each week.
*This means in just half a season Ballard is 3/4s of the way to the program touchdowns scored record of 16, set by Jackie Parker (all rushing) in 1952 and tied by Anthony Dixon (14 rushing, 2 receiving) in 2007.
*Ballard has produced a rushing touchdown once every 5.3 carries.
*Yet despite his huge production of the last two weeks, Ballard's 22 carries are matched by alternate TB LaDarius Perkins (10 vs. ASU, 14 vs. Houston). Perkins has produced 48 and 78 yards the last two weeks.
*And Perkins has notched a rushing touchdown in each of the past two games as well.
*WR Chad Bumphis only got to rush the ball once at Houston, after four ‘wild' runs against ASU the week before. His 7.4 average gain is still a bit better than the 7.2 for Ballard.
*Bumphis' main job of course is catching passes and he's doing that very well. So well in fact that in six sophomore games he has equaled his freshman receptions, with 32. Last year Bumphis gained 375 yards with four scores on those grabs; this year he is up to 431 yards on the same total snares, though the four TDs are equal. So far.
*Bumphis has caught nine, nine, and seven balls the last three games. So he ranks 3rd in SEC per-game receptions this week.
*Bumphis is looking for his first SEC touchdown play of this season.
*WR Brandon Heavens has at least one catch every game this season.
*But WR Leon Berry was lost for the rest of his senior season with an ankle injury at Houston.
*Injuries have cost the tight end corps greatly, lately. The unit has not caught a pass since Kendrick Cook's single grab at LSU. And Marcus Green is lost for the season with knee ligament surgery.
*State passers are getting the ball to a variety of scorers as the top four receivers, including WR Arceto Clark, have at least one touchdown.
*A sprained knee threatens OC J.C. Brignone's run of 30-consecutive starts, 29 of these at center.
*OT Derek Sherrod has been named SEC Lineman of the Week twice in the last three weeks. He is a semifinalist for the National Football Foundation's Campbell Trophy, with the 15 finalists to win a $18,000 post-graduate scholarship.
*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 has allowed just two sacks in the last three games.
*The Dog defense is a bit frustrated about lack of sacks though, with just 10 in six games. And four of those were against Alcorn State.
*None belonged to DE Pernell McPhee who has yet to get his first senior-season sack after leading State with five baggings in 2009. McPhee does have 5.0 stops for losses and six credited hurries, half of those at Houston.
*But McPhee's pressure drew a Houston offensive holding call in the end zone, resulting in a safety.
*It is MLB Chris White who paces this posse in sacks with 2.5, as well as with 7.5 tackles behind the line. White had 11 stops at Houston, stretching his team lead just a bit to 46 total tackles.
*His closest challenger now is S Charles Mitchell (43) after the junior had a career-high 13 tackles at Houston. *WLB K.J. Wright had a ‘quiet' trip to Houston with only four tackles, dropping him one behind Mitchell in the close race.
*Of course Wright had just one tackle in the opener due to an ankle injury, and he has 29 stops in SEC action.
*Wright was still able to cross the 200 tackle threshold last week, with 203 now in four seasons.
*And Wright leads the team with seven passes deflected…but he hasn't intercepted any. In fact he has yet to pick a pass in his MSU career.
*He could ask CB Corey Broomfield for tips. The sophomore turned an interception at Houston into six points before halftime, then got another pick in the second half. Those were his first picks of 2010, after getting six as a freshman.
*With that pick-six though Broomfield moved into a tie for career interception-touchdowns, matching the three by Derek Pegues (2005-08).
*And with eight interceptions in 1-1/2 seasons, Broomfield is already half-way to the MSU career record of 16.
*State had gone three games without an interception before Broomfield got a pair at Houston.
*DT Fletcher Cox has blocked one field goal (Auburn) this year, to go with his rejection against Houston as a true 2009 freshman. Now his classmate and DT partner Josh Boyd has joined the block party, rejecting a field goal by Alcorn State.
*Backup DE Sean Ferguson got his first career sack last week and the only bagging in the Houston game.
*S Marvin Bure forced maybe the crucial turnover of the weekend though when he rattled the ball loose from the Houston punt receiver, setting up State's first touchdown.
*State is allowing a net of less than one yard on punt returns.
*But net kickoff coverage is next-to-last in the SEC, which measures average gains against what the other team produces.
*And now Berry won't have a chance to break the career touchdown return record. He had two, one each his two State seasons.
*Though their field-goaling is woeful this year, PKs Sean Brauchle and Derek DePasquale are a combined 60-of-60 on PATs these two seasons.
*Three true freshmen have played this season: DE/LB Corvell Harrison-Gay, ST/LB Chris Hughes, and WR Michael Carr.
*Scholarship freshmen yet to play this year are: QB Dylan Favre, TE Brandon Hill, DB Matthew Wells, WR Jamerson Love, RB Nick Griffin, LB Jay Hughes, K Baker Swedenburg, LB Christian Holmes, LB Ferlando Bohanna, OL Archie Muniz, OL Dillon Day, OL Eric Lawson, OL Blaine Clausell, OL Damien Robinson, WR Malcolm Johnson, WR Robert Johnson, DL Kaleb Eulls, and DL Curtis Virges.
*Brignone and OG Quentin Saulsberry both have 30-game starting streaks. Sherrod has 36 total starts.