*This is only the second time in program history that Mississippi State has reached Halloween with seven victories.
*Dan Mullen has won six SEC games as Bulldog head coach. Five of these have been against Eastern Division opponents. The lone West win to date is over Ole Miss.
*Having broken into the polls for the first time since the 2001 season, the Bulldogs have remained ranked for three-straight weeks now. That is the longest stay in polls since the 2000 season.
*This is the first time since 1999 that both the Bulldogs and Alabama meet as ranked opponents.
*In the previous twenty seasons, Bulldog teams are 18-17 after an open date.
The Opponent: A repeat is out, at least for the biggest prize. But by kickoff time Alabama should know if opportunity remains to defend the conference crown, pending results down southeast. And there is always another New Year's date within reach. So Nick Saban's fourth Crimson Tide team still has much to play for in 2010, as well as much to say about lots of folks' postseason plans. They certainly have the personnel to match up with anyone anywhere, and a relentless physical approach on both sides of the ball which assures a long, hard Saturday's work…though youth on defense has caught them out a few times over the course of the campaign. Really the sole questions of the moment come down to a few particular players' health, and just how motivated everyone is at seeing the ultimate goal slip away.
Offense: OK, we'll get this out of the way immediately: only Saturday will show for sure just how healthy the splendid tag-touchdown-team of Heisman holder Mark Ingram and gotta be some other award for him Trent Richardson are. Until then, game-plan for both. Not that plans will stop either of course, and if they only have one healthy set of legs between them that's still more than sufficient to scare defenses. They've combined for 14 touchdown rushes and have dang near-identical yards (641, 634), and both notch over six yards per touch. Just in case, #3 man Eddie Lacy is not your typical redshirt frosh with a 6.8 yard average himself. Three of their '09 blockers are back in the same positions, with senior LT James Carpenter and RG Barrett Jones making the Outland watch list. Back in the 1990s a certain SEC observer (ahem) often commented that high-flying Florida could line up in an Ohio State I and still win because they had the people. Transpose that forward to today for the equal point: Alabama could go all-air if they wished and likely still succeed, because they have the people. Beginning with QB Greg McElroy, who got all the way to his senior season before suffering a loss. He's fifth on the school touchdown toss list and third in SEC efficiency, with 13 scores this year against just four picks. Passing-led clubs would love to have this list of receivers shredding coverages, and it's a reflection on the caliber of cohorts that Julio Jones is ‘only' getting six catches a game with 55 on the year for 748 yards and four scores. He's one big game away from breaking D.J. Hall's career yards mark, in fact, yet nobody dare double-cover as long as Marquis Maze (25 catches, 349 yards) and Darius Hanks (22, 339) are also out there. And of course flipping a throw to Ingram and Richardson is as efficient as a handoff with huge-play potential. If there has been any weakness here, it is the 25 sacks allowed seemingly by McElroy waiting too long to release more than protection issues. Penalties aren't often an issue, and nobody in the SEC has turned the ball over less.
Defense: Only the most ridiculously rabid fan could have imagined this defense could be as stout as the last with nine starters gone. But only the most ludicrously optimistic opponent would have expected a serious drop-off. Nor has such happened; Alabama leads the league in scoring defense at 13.8 points for the season, and is fourth in yardage. If not great, then still very darn good. Not to mention very darn big on the interior…though NG Josh Chapman is a whole 40 pounds lighter than his mountainous predecessor. He'll line up both over the ball or in an adjoining gap to keep the blocking guessing. Junior DE Marcell Dareus is having a huge (at 306 pounds) year with 2.5 sacks, 8.0 stops for losses, as well as four passes busted up. Calling 258-pound Don'ta Hightower the ‘weak' side linebacker is strictly nomenclatural of course as ain't nothing weak about his game with 52 tackles and eight hurries. If all the sophs and frosh were of his caliber—and think, he's coming off a ACL tear--there would have been no fall-off at all this year. Having a junior like SS Mark Barron does offset a lot though. No surprise he's the top tackler at 59 with two sacks, six breakups, and a fumble forced. Oh, and two interceptions in case any wondered if he spent all time in support. FS Robert Lester is the real thief back there with five picks and a 89-yard fumble return. CB Dre Kirkpatrick has made his plays as well with three picks, five deflections, and 44 tackles. It's not just that Alabama's offense doesn't turn the ball over; the defense forces foes to lose the handle regularly with 15 interceptions. So why sack when the pass is likely to end up caught by a teammate? More bad news: this is the SEC's best red zone group with only eight touchdowns allowed in 25 such chances. And opponents convert third downs less than 33% of the time. Yeah, just wait for this bunch to grow up…
Specialists: Youngsters have taken over the kicking with mixed results. Cade Foster is listed first at PK and is 6-of-7 with a 49-yarder to his credit; while Jeremy Shelley is 8-of-11. P Cody Mandell is averaging 40.4 yards with nine boots of 50 or more yards. Coverage, now, is consistently good on both punts and kickoffs. And there are no good choices to kick off to among Maze, Jones, Richardson, et.al., as all can bust coverage badly.
The Series: These nearest SEC neighbors first played in 1896 and this is MSU's oldest ongoing series. It is also the most frustrating as Alabama owns a 73-18-3 lead. But six of those wins have come since 1996 including consecutive successes in 2006-07. Still, State is only 9-39-1 in Tuscaloosa with just the '06 win in the last seven trips. Alabama won 31-3 last year in Coach Dan Mullen's first appearance in the series, while Nick Saban is 2-1 against MSU with the Tide and was 5-0 with LSU from 2000-04.
Bulldog Notebook: Mississippi State's defense has been the SEC's stingiest as far as allowing league opponents across the goal line. Through five conference games, the Dogs have given up a touchdown just once every 44 snaps (8 TDs in 346 defensive plays). Second best? Alabama, at one TD each 34 snaps.
*LSU is actually first in SEC-game scoring defense at 16.3 points, since foes have kicked just two field goals against them in six SEC games. State is second there at 16.4 points, and Alabama third at 17.5.
*The MSU offense has taken a definite lean towards rushing during the six-win streak. The play-calling has seen 274 rushes against 114 passes, or 71% running plays.
*In touchdowns the trend is more pronounced; 14 scores on rushes, six on passes. And a couple of those ‘passes' were option-sweep forward flips, thus rushes in all but official statistics.
*For the overall season, State runs for 218.7 yards per game. That isn't far off the 227-yard rate for the whole 2009 season when MSU led the league in ground-pounding.
*State has rushed for 200 or more yards in the last five games; all wins by no coincidence.
*State has scored a rushing touchdown every game this season, and in 19 of Dan Mullen's 21 games.
*The Dogs were converting over 50% of third downs in one three-win stretch. But in the last two victories they are just 12-of-32 moving the chains on third down. Though, State is 5-of-7 on the year going for it on fourth down.
*State's last ten offensive touchdowns have come on drives of 61 yards or more.
*After beginning the year in the bottom SEC half for turnover ratio, the Bulldogs have turned their act entirely around. They went three games with no turnovers, then had a fumble against Kentucky…by a defender who had just intercepted a Wildcat pass!
*The result is State is now +7 for the season, which is tied for first in the SEC this week…with Alabama. For SEC-only games the Dogs are fourth-best, though five of their nine league-game turnovers came in a single night at Baton Rouge.
*The Bulldogs are only the third-most penalized league team through five SEC games.
*He did not score at Florida, and missed the UAB game with a sore ankle. But TB Vick Ballard remains at or near the top of the SEC in scoring with a 9.8 point average. That's tied with South Carolina back Marcus Lattimore this week, who has also missed a game. Each has 13 total touchdowns this year.
*That is behind Auburn's Cam Newton with 16 touchdowns, in ten games for a 9.6 average.
*Ballard is 8th in overall SEC rushing this week at 77.4 yards. But over his last four games he has garnered 119, 134, 98, and 103 yards, a 114 average.
*And Ballard has scored 12 rushing touchdowns in just 92 carries, a 7.7 per-tote tally.
*With 13 total scores Ballard has four games (counting the bowl trip) to catch and break the program record of 16 set in 1952 by Jackie Parker and tied in 2007 by Anthony Dixon. Parker's season scoring record of 120 points though is likely beyond reach, as the MSU all-time greatest player kicked PATs, too.
*Ballard's 20 carries at Florida were a season-most for MSU tailbacks. In his absence, TB LaDarius Perkins rushed 18 times against UAB. But the most carries this season have been by QB Chris Relf with 22 rushes at Florida.
*Relf and Perkins each have a 100-yard game on the season, giving State five this year.
*Ballard nets 6.7 yards per rush, Perkins 5.5.
*Relf's rushing started slowly this year, but in the last four games he's netted 4.6 per carry with three touchdowns.
*Relf threw for 283 yards all last year; he has 926 this junior season. And his ratio is up to 7 touchdowns vs. 3 interceptions.
*But his accuracy was sliding going into the open date. Counting the last two games of 2009 he had a seven-game streak of 61% accuracy; in the last four games he is 26-of-59 or 44%.
*Redshirt freshman QB Tyler Russell has seen limited action since the Alcorn State game as State has become a ground-bound offense. In the last three games he has thrown two passes total.
*WR Chad Bumphis has done more rushing than receiving of late. In the last three games he has eight carries and 62 yards; compared to three catches for 71 yards.
*Bumphis is netting 7.4 yards per rush whether on direct snaps or handoffs.
*After a no-catch day against UAB, Bumphis had two grabs and 41 yards against Kentucky. His 35 catches this year are more than the next two receivers combined, and surpass his freshman total of 32.
*But Bumphis is still looking for his first SEC touchdown of the season.
*As a rookie Bumphis netted 11.7 yards a catch; this year the rate is 14.3 yards a reception.
*WR Brandon Heavens had a six-game receiving streak snapped at Florida. But he's come back with three grabs the last two games for 77 yards. His 17.6 average gain is tops among the regular rotation receivers.
*But it is WR Arceto Clark coming on even faster, with five catches and 59 yards the last three weeks. He is now second on the squad with 16 catches, and tied with Heavens at two touchdowns.
*Injuries almost crippled the tight end corps for a three-game stretch with no catches. But TE Brandon Henderson has returned with a vengeance and has four catches in the last three games.
*Henderson has seven catches this senior season; he had six grabs in his previous three years.
*WR Michael Carr has not caught a pass this freshman season. He has had three rushes in the last two games though, with an average 13-yard gain.
*OC J.C. Brignone had his string of 30-straight starts snapped by a knee sprain at Houston. After reserve use against UAB, the senior returned to the starting squad for Kentucky.
*OT Derek Sherrod has been named SEC Lineman of the Week twice this season.
*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 five sacks in the last six games; and ten for the season, second-best in the SEC behind only Ole Miss' seven.
*The Bulldog defense has been frustrated about lack of sacks much of this season. But in the last three games they have gotten to passers nine times and doubled the season total to 19.0.
*None of those have been credited to DE Pernell McPhee, the team sack-leader last year with 5.0. The senior still leads the defense in hurries at nine, and has broken up four passes directly without laying a hand on a quarterback. It surely must come soon…
*Though not a sack, a hard rush by McPhee produced a holding call in the end zone at Houston and thus State's sole safety of the season so far.
*MLB Chris White has staked his claim for All-SEC status with a brilliant October. He has four-straight games of double-digit tackles, and in the last two games has set and re-set career highs with 14 and then 15 tackles.
*White is now second in overall SEC tackles average at 9.6, behind only Kentucky's Danny Trevathan at 11.0. White is third in tackles-for-losses as well.
*His 13.0 tackles for losses include a team-best 5.0 sacks. All those came in two games, though; 2.5 against Alcorn State and 2.5 at Florida.
*White has moved far ahead in the team tackles race with 86, leaving WLB K.J. Wright farther back in second at 65. Senior Wright is being pushed by S Charles Mitchell at 62 for that matter.
*Wright does have 226 career tackles in four seasons.
*And Wright leads this defense in passes deflected with eight. But he has yet to intercept a pass at State! White did pick a pass against Kentucky, only to fumble it back though.
*The nine team interceptions are shared by five Dogs with two each.
*CB Corey Broomfield has a pair of picks, giving him eight in his two State seasons. That puts him half-way to the career record of 16. Broomfield also has three pick-sixes in two years, tying the career mark of Derek Pegues (2005-08).
*It took seven games before CB Johnthan Banks got his first 2010 interception, at Florida. He came back last week to pick a Kentucky pass for six career interceptions. Half of those have come on Gator throws.
*DT Fletcher Cox has blocked one field goal (Auburn) this year, to go with his rejection against Houston as a true 2009 freshman. Classmate and DT partner Josh Boyd has joined the block party, rejecting a field goal by Alcorn State.
*Eight different Dogs have forced a fumble this year. Starting S Nickoe Whitley has two of those, and so does someone who only participates on kicking plays. DS Aaron Feld has rattled two fumbles loose, on punt coverage.
*State leads the SEC in defending punt returns, with a net of only 0.4 yards on the 40 times Heath Hutchins has kicked the ball away.
*Hutchins has had almost half, 19, of his punts end up inside the other team's 20-yard line. He's also had 14 fair-caught kicks and three touchbacks.
*But the Bulldogs are back to dead-last in SEC kickoff coverage.
*Placekicking was just as bad through seven games, at 3-of-8. Then PK Derek DePasquale connected on 5-of-5 kicks against UAB, and his only attempt against Kentucky. That has moved MSU up to 10th in the SEC percentages.
*DePasquale tied the program record with those five three-pointers, matching Brian Hazelwood (1998 Arkansas). DePasquale is 16-of-21 for his two State seasons now.
*DePasquale and PK Sean Brauchle are a combined 66-of-66 on PATs over two years.
*Three true freshmen have played this season: DE/LB Corvell Harrison-Gay, ST/LB Chris Hughes, and 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, the longest starting streak (not counting special teams) belongs alone to OG/C Quentin Saulsberry at 33. OT Derek Sherrod has the most career starts, 39.