*Mississippi State bring a four-win streak into this weekend, the longest success string since the 1999 season. In fact the Bulldogs did not win consecutive games in either 2008 or '09.
*And the Bulldogs arrive on the home field this week with a national ranking, listed #24 in both major polls. It is State's first ranking since September 2001 when they were #21.
*With a victory this weekend, State will earn bowl eligibility with four remaining games on the regular schedule.
*These Bulldogs are also trying to score the first sweep of non-conference competition in a season since the 1999 club went 3-0 outside league play. The last time MSU won four non-SEC games in a regular season was in 1990.
*State is already 2-0 against Conference USA clubs this year, and is 17-8-1 in games against CUSA teams on Homecoming.
*Coach Dan Mullen is now 10-9 as State's coach, going over break-even for the first time since his debut game of 2009.
The Opponent: After a quarter-century assisting other coaches, including stints with Georgia, Alabama, and Auburn, Neil Calloway finally got his top job four seasons ago. It has definitely been an uphill slog in Birmingham with a 13-29 mark to date, but the Blazers have shown progress the previous three years going from two wins to four, then five last fall. Breaking through to a break-even mark is proving frustrating with a couple of last-snap losses, though that also points to a squad just one play away from making some real noise. These Blazers won't win their league's eastern title but they will surely have a say in who does with remaining games against the two leaders upcoming. And of course a few souls would gladly be sold for the chance to knock off a SEC squad this week.
Offense: And they have the offensive tools to get that job done, too. It begins with the kind of two quarterback approach defensive coordinators loathe, though there is some question as to how healthy the triggermen are right now. Particularly fleet-footed soph David Isabelle, who exploded on the 2010 scene with 214 rushing yards in the opener. He's netted just 180 in the five games since but when healthy Isabelle keeps defenses honest. Yet it is passer Bryan Ellis who has come to the fore now, starting the last three games and throwing for almost 1,200 yards on the half-season with eight TDs. He has taken a licking in the pocket and kept ticking off completions at a 57% rate, and twice chunked for over 350 yards to set a program record. Five of his touchdown tosses covered more than 20 yards. The favored target is ‘X' receiver Frantrell Forrest with 25 catches, 364 yards and four scores. ‘H' man Patrick Hearn has come on strong lately and is up to 16 receptions; and four other Blazers have double-digit catches already. That includes impressive RB Pat Shed, the East Mississippi JC transfer with 18 grabs and 145 yards. He's more productive out of the backfield with 317 yards and a 6.5 average gain, though Shed has yet to get into an end zone. 255-pound Jeffrey Anderson is a two-time All-CUSA tight end. There have been several shuffles on the offensive line over the last three weeks, but two constants are 295-pound LT Matt McCants and C Darion Smith, both juniors. After five starts at right tackle Terance Edge opened against UTEP at guard, but he's listed back at the prior job for this week. UAB has allowed just eight true sacks in six games, but turnovers are still a net-negative and third downs are converted at just 40%. And as much ground as the Blazers gain they have struggled in the red zone with 10 touchdowns in 23 chances.
Defense: It is a rather telling point that the UAB media package has scarcely a mention of the defensive unit. Because too often what the offense taketh the defense giveth back. In fact the net gain for UAB and opponents is equal, 5.9 yards-per. This is not from a lack of quality players here, as well as some seniority up front. In fact all the usual senior starters are on the line, three out of the four-front. There is some size in the middle and DT Elliott Henigan (22 tackles) has five stops behind the line. The unit is led though by fast DE Bryant Turner, a 260-pounder off the edge with five sacks among his 14 total tackles. As usual in a 4-3 set middle ‘backer Marvin Burdette has the most total tackles, 41 with 2.0 sacks. But it is a pair of very active safeties that provide the combined punch, with juniors Jamie Bender (35) and Chase Daniel (32) chasing down the ball all over the field. And three games this season UAB has opened with a nickel scheme replacing the strong-side linebacker with a defensive back type such as CB/S Andre Hicks. Regular CB T.J. Ballou has two interceptions, half the team's total, while other corner Marquis Coleman has a pick of his own. Still the Blazers have given up 58% completions and 11 passing touchdowns; and overall have prevented red zone touchdowns just six times.
Specialists: His average has tailed a bit lately but P Trey Ragland still hits it for almost 45 yards, and that's impressive given how his offense produces field position. But placekicking has been a nightmare, as Josh Zahn is only 3-of-12 on the year with a long make of 35 yards. He's missed his last three chances, too. His kickoffs net just 54 yards and coverage is not too strong as a result. Shed is a brighter spot on special units returning both punts (6.1 yards) and kickoffs (21.6).
The Series: These nearby schools have played just three times given UAB's relative youth. The Blazers scored success in the debut meeting at Starkville, a 27-13 win in Starkville. The Dogs evened it up two years later in overtime, 16-10 at Legion Field, and took a 2-1 lead in '07 with a 30-13 result.
Bulldog Notebook: Mississippi State's offense has taken a definite lean towards rushing during the four-win streak. The play-calling has seen 182 rushes against 76 passes, or 70% running plays. And almost 64% of the yardage accumulated in the four victories has been via rushing.
*In touchdowns it is more lopsided; 11 scores on rushes, four on passes.
*Ten of State's last dozen touchdowns have come on rushes.
*In their last two games, the Bulldog offense has opened 17 of 20 series (not counting two kneel-downs) with a rushing play.
*State has scored a rushing touchdown every game this season, and in 17 of Dan Mullen's 19 games.
*In their last three games State has converted 21 of 40 third downs, and is second-best in the SEC for the full season.
*The Dogs have six touchdown drives in SEC play; four of those took 10 or more snaps.
*State has not committed a turnover of any sort the last two games.
*The Bulldogs are drawing more flags here at mid-season with 23 penalties and 180 lost yards in the last three contests. Back in September, State was the SEC's least-penalized team.
*MSU and Vanderbilt are the only SEC squads to recover an onsides kickoff this season.
*MSU is third in SEC scoring defense for the season.
*QB Chris Relf slipped under 50% for only the second game this season, 4-of-9 at Florida. The previous case was 12-of-26 at Auburn. Take away those two SEC outings and Relf is 39-of-60 for the year, 65%.
*Though his chances to chunk have been limited lately, Relf has equaled his previous year's touchdown pass total, five.
*And he has more than doubled his passing yardage of 2009. After 283 yards last year he has thrown for 708 through seven '10 games.
*Relf has done his damage on the ground of late, with 96 and 82 rushing yards in the last two wins and a touchdown in each…including State's only TD at Gainesville. He leads this team in total rushes, including sacks of course.
*Relf rushed for 500 yards as a sophomore; he's up to 377 through seven games this year.
*After taking care of the second half at Houston, QB Chris Relf played one snap at Gainesville after Relf took a helmet to the facemask. Russell had 199 passing yards the previous two weekends.
*Relf's completions average 12.8 yards; Russell nets 15.8.
*In non-SEC games, the two Bulldog passers are a combined 51-of-77 or 66%. In their four league games though the percentage drops to 54%, at 41-of-76.
*TB Vick Ballard was one more carry from scoring his third straight 100-yard rushing game. He ended his evening in Gainesville with 98 yards, after getting 119 and 134 the previous two weeks. He now ranks #8 in SEC rushing per game.
*Ballard had a season-most 20 rushes against Florida. But, he failed to score a rushing touchdown for the first game all year.
*This allowed two SEC rivals to catch Ballard for first in SEC scoring at 72 points. He is even with Marcus Lattimore of South Carolina and Cam Newton of Auburn.
*Ballard's rate of rushing touchdown per carry has slipped to 7.1.
*Ballard has five games to catch, and break, the program record for touchdowns. He has a dozen at this point, and needs four to match the 1952 record of Jackie Parker (12 rushing) tied in 2007 by Anthony Dixon (14 rushing, 2 receiving).
*Ballard's heavy duty the last two weekends has unbalanced the running back rotation. He has 78 carries as of now, 30 more than TB LaDarius Perkins.
*Perkins had rushed for 48 and 78 yards in the previous two games, with a touchdown each night. His average gain is 4.9 yards compared to 6.6 for Ballard.
*WR Chad Bumphis got to rush the ball three times at Florida, for 21 yards. He's netting 7.3 yards each touch in either a reverse or direct ‘wild' snap.
*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 just topped his freshman year 32 catches. His one grab at Florida gives Bumphis 33 receptions and 461 yards.
*As a rookie Bumphis netted 11.7 yards a catch; this year the rate is just under 14 yards a reception. His one catch at Florida was good for 30 yards.
*Bumphis is tied for 4th in the SEC in catches per game, but is still looking for his first SEC touchdown play of this season, running or receiving.
*WR Brandon Heavens had his streak of a catch every game snapped at Florida.
*Injuries have cost the tight end corps greatly, lately. But at Florida, TE Brandon Henderson got the corps' first catch since the LSU game.
*OC J.C. Brignone had his string of 30-straight starts snapped by a knee sprain at Houston.
*OT Derek Sherrod has been named SEC Lineman of the Week twice this season. 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 three sacks in the last four games.
*The Bulldog defense has been frustrated about lack of sacks this season. But they got to Gator passers three times to open the second half of the schedule.
*Of those baggings, 2.5 were credited to MLB Chris White. That matched the total sacks of the previous six games, though actually the other 2.5 had been all against Alcorn State. His total 5.0 sacks is tied for second-best in the SEC, and he is sole-second in total tackles for losses.
*White was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his 11-tackle performance at Florida. That gives him a team-best 57 tackles for the year and moved him up to #8 in SEC tackle-average this week.
*With his comrade pushing out farther in front in the team tackles race, WLB K.J. Wright is trying to hold on to second place for now with 50 stops; just two in front of S Charles Mitchell. Wright does have 211 career tackles in four seasons.
*And Wright leads this defense in passes deflected with eight, more than double the next-best Dog. Yet Wright has yet to intercept a pass at State.
*It took seven games but CB Johnthan Banks now has a 2010 interception, catching a deflected (by the Gator receiver) pass at Florida. Banks now has five career picks and three of these are against Gator teams.
*Meanwhile CB Corey Broomfield is on a record picks-pace with eight in his two seasons. The career record is 16. Soph Broomfield also has three interception-touchdown returns in two years, tying the career record of Derek Pegues (2005-08).
*State went three games without interceptions, and now has three in the last two games.
*Senior DE Pernell McPhee has yet to get a sack in 2010, after leading State with 5.0 as a junior. McPhee does have 5.0 stops for losses and six credited hurries, half of those at Houston.
*And McPhee's pressure drew a Houston offensive holding call in the end zone, resulting in a safety.
*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.
*Five different Dogs have forced a fumble this year, and two came at Gainesville as Cox and LB Cameron Lawrence each rattled a ball free.
*State is allowing a net of just two yards on punt returns.
*And at Florida, kickoff coverage finally made some gains so that MSU is now ‘up' to 10th in the SEC stats.
*But placekicking, at least on field goals, is worst in the league at 3-of-8. Yet between them PKs Sean Brauchle and Derek DePasquale are a combined 61-of-61 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.
*With Brignone sidelined last week, the longest starting streak (not counting special teams) belongs alone to OG/C Quentin Saulsberry at 31. OT Derek Sherrod has the most career starts, 37.