*Mississippi State is off to a 3-0 start for the first time since 1999, and trying to open with four wins for the first time since that same year began 8-0. The Bulldogs already own a SEC win, beginning league play successfully for the first time since you guessed it.
*Counting last season, the Bulldogs are on a five-game win streak, longest since the 2010 team won six-straight.
*Coach Dan Mullen has won 13-straight games against non-conference opponents including a pair of bowl victories. His teams also have not lost to a team either unranked or not receiving poll votes in four seasons.
*Meanwhile the Bulldogs broke into the rankings after 52 weeks' absence. This will be the tenth game, out of 41, that a Mullen team has played with a ranking.
*This is South Alabama's first-ever game against a ranked team.
*State plays a second Sun Belt team in as many weekends, after winning at Troy 30-24. The Jaguars are not eligible for the league title yet.
The Opponent: Most fourth-year programs started from scratch merit minimal respect. Not this one. Young it may be but Jaguar football is ahead of growth schedule. It shouldn't be a surprise though, with a solid staff featuring SEC experience including the head coach himself. Joey Jones' energy is complemented by the school's open ambition to make a name and a niche for itself in the region. And with the ongoing vagaries of conference shuffling who knows where they can climb in a few more years, aided by a rich recruiting area. This week they get a measuring stick with a first-ever visit to a SEC campus…though, they are probably not pleased that conference cousin Troy gave the Bulldogs a wake-up call last week.
Offense: South Alabama joined the college game just in time to ride the ‘spread' offense wave. They've done well by the system too. The play calling itself is balanced through three games, 105 rushes and 92 passes…though the latter seems most effective so far with the air game accounting for two-thirds of the yardage. Two quarterbacks get regular snaps and throws with soph C.J. Bennett the listed starter. He's a 61% thrower with 367 yards and two touchdowns, while junior Ross Metheny completes almost 63% with 247 yards and a score. Bennett will run a little more often it appears but neither is a big-gain threat that way. And they certainly spread the ball around as seven Jags have five-to-eight receptions. Split end T.J. Glover leads the list but nets 9.8 yards each reception, while on the other side of the offense Corey Besteda is good for 16.7 yards on his seven grabs. And keep an eye on the well-matched tight ends as Greg Hollinger and juco transfer Wes Saxton 13 catches between them and are separated by a single yard. Even their sizes are nigh-identical and both net double-digit gains when they get a ball. USA will run a pair of backs at defenders, either Demetre Baker (39, 183 yards, 1 TD) or Kendall Houston (24, 70, 1). Obviously the toughest area to build from-scratch is an offensive line, but they're already into a second generation here in year-four with four sophomores listed as starting. The old hand here is senior center Trey Clark, undersized at 6-1, 270 but in the middle of some other beef. Such as 320-pound guard Drew Dearman, or 310-pound right tackle Melvin Meggs. Yep, they really are growing up fast down there by the bay. Oh, and lest anyone expect an easy afternoon for the Bulldog defense? South Alabama has yet to be shut out.
Defense: Most start-up programs put all their best athletes on offense to generate fast excitement. Not this one, they have legitimate talent on the defensive side of the ball. Take middle LB Jake Johnson, who showed North Carolina State he is as good as any ACC ‘backer with a 14-tackle performance. That is nearly half his season's total of 30 stops. SLB Clifton Crews had six of his own, more than in the first two games combined. WLB Enrique Williams is second in stops at 22. This is a scheme set up for linebackers to get most of the numbers behind an odd-man front. The center is sizable with 285 pounders NT Andy Dalgleish and DT Montavious Williams. The big guys don't have a big tackles total but are active with 3.5 combined stops for losses. They allow 245-pound end Alex Page to go after quarterbacks, as he did with two sacks at NC State last week to take the conference lead. And USA will put four on the front when ‘jack' linebacker Anthony Taylor lines up at the other end. He's got a pair of sacks himself. Tyrell Pearson might get an odd look taking the field at 5-8, 150 pounds; but he has made plays as the boundary cornerback with 14 tackles, an interception and two more breakups. There is a little more muscle at safeties led by SS Terrell Brigham with 13 stops and a pick of his own. The Jags have intercepted three balls to date, as many as their offense has thrown, with a dozen others deflected. And they've done a good job getting off the field holding foes to 26% conversions of third downs.
Specialists: Receiver Glover is even more dangerous in the return game, averaging 13.2 yards on punts and 34.5 on kickoffs. State can envy the 4-of-5 field goal kicking by Michel Chapuseaux (nah, he's from Florida) with a 43-yard make. Scott Garber punts at a 40.3 yard clip with four red-zone drops, though he has had one blocked too.
Bulldog Notebook: Mississippi State has collected a dozen turnovers through three games; seven intercepted passes and five recovered fumbles. This ties MSU for first in this week's NCAA rankings.
*And the Bulldog offense has turned the ball over just once. State has not thrown an interception in 83 passes.
*Mississippi State has a block this season as well, as CB Darius Slay got a hand on an Auburn kick. No Bulldog kick has been rejected, save by an upright that is.
*In his regular job, Slay has stormed to the front of the NCAA interceptions chart. He snagged a pair of Troy passes, giving the senior four this year and at least one pick each game. That includes a touchdown return of 52 yards against Jackson State.
*Slay had one pick as a junior but took it back for six, too, a 72-yard return against his home state Georgia team.
*So the pressure is on his secondary cohorts to match this hot early pace. CB Johnthan Banks picked a pair of Auburn passes with 31 yards worth of returns. Those two interceptions mean senior Banks now ranks alone in second place on the MSU career list with 14 in four seasons. He needs two more to tie Walt Harris for the program record of 16.
*Banks has had three two-interception games in his career, two of those coming in consecutive games as a freshman in 2009. He also has three touchdown returns, and if not for putting a foot out of bounds on an Auburn pick he would have made it four.
*He's still tied with CB Corey Broomfield at three touchdowns, one ahead of Slay now. Broomfield has nine career interceptions but hasn't gotten hands on one since 2010.
*S Nickoe Whitley has four interceptions as well. So this starting secondary has between them 32 picks. Add in starting linebackers and the total is 36 interceptions for this defense.
*In four seasons, Mullen teams have scored 15 non-offense sourced touchdowns on turnovers or blocks.
*A short opening-night shift kept OLB Cameron Lawrence from piling up a lot of easy tackles. But he's back on pace the last two games and is up to 26 on the season. Since November 2011 Lawrence has averaged double-digit tackles.
*Lawrence should surpass the 200 career tackles total early Saturday. He goes into the game with 197 stops in 39 games.
*The Troy game stung Dog defensive pride with 570 yards and three touchdowns allowed. Still this group hasn't given up a touchdown to a SEC opponent in their last two games, counting the '11 Egg Bowl.
*The defensive line has just two sacks so far, by ends Denico Autry and Preston Smith.
*QB Tyler Russell has now thrown 119 passes without an interception, going back to the third quarter of the Tennessee-Martin game last November. For his career Russell has 21 touchdowns against ten turnovers.
*Russell's eight touchdown throws in three games this year matches his entire 2011 total in eight games.
*Russell already ranks 9th in career TD passes, through just 20 games. He needs two more scores to tie Rockey Felker for 8th place.
*And he already ranks #1 among all State passers, with over 150 attempts, in efficiency rating. Though in straightforward completions only, he is fourth for now behind Tyson Lee, Chris Relf, and Dave Marler.
*WR Chad Bumphis is a Dog on a senior-year mission. At Troy he posted a career game of 180 yards, on just six catches. Half of those went for touchdowns on grabs of 72, 58, and 25 yards. The last was the game-winner, on a fourth-down connection with Russell.
*And those three scores vaulted Bumphis into a tie for first place on the MSU career list with 17. He's even for now with Eric Moulds and Justin Jenkins. Bumphis has caught his touchdowns in 40 career games.
*Bumphis now has 111 career catches too, at least one in every game played with UAB 2010 the lone exception. He ranks 7th in career receptions, five behind Mardye McDole. He is 9th in receiving yardage at 1,584.
*All but three of his touchdowns have been in non-conference play.
*Bumphis now has 2,655 all-purpose yards and needs 2,911 to crack the top-ten.
*RB LaDarius Perkins is thriving in his first season at starter. He followed up a 84-yard day against Auburn with 179 more at Troy, easily his career high. He averaged 7.8 yards each carry last week.
*Perkins already has four rushing touchdowns this year. He has lost yards on only two carries.
*Perkins is up to 1,308 career rushing yards in 29 games with nine touchdowns. *Adding in receiving stats, Perkins now has 14 career touchdowns.
*WR Chris Smith is tied with Bumphis' 10 catches at the top of this season's list. He has caught at least one ball in 19 of the last 20 games.
*WR Brandon Heavens had his first catch of the season at Troy, a nine-yarder.
*TE Marcus Green did not have a catch at Troy, in fact just one ball came his way. He still has six grabs this season and half have gone for touchdowns including a pair of scores against Auburn.
*And half his grabs this year have gone for touchdowns. The three total matches his scores in 2009 when Green grabbed 27 balls.
*P Baker Swedenburg is averaging 40.7 yards so far, compared to 41.9 as a sophomore. But he's also been booting from better field positions which cuts into the average, and five of his 12 kicks have come down inside the 20-yard lines.
*PK Devon Bell made his first college field goal with a 37-yarder at Troy, after missing the first three attempts. But he also bounced two PATs off uprights and one came back no good making the freshman 11-of-12. State missed one PAT all of 2011 and none the previous two seasons.
*State kicking produced seven touchbacks in all 2011. With a more generous starting point Bell and KO Brian Egan have combined for four this year.
*Five Bulldogs have played in all 41 games under Mullen: Banks, DT Josh Boyd, Broomfield, FB Sylvester Hemphill, and WR Brandon Heavens. None have started every game. Banks has the most Mullen-era starts with 35.
*OG Gabe Jackson has the active consecutive start streak, 29 games and counting.
*Five true freshmen have played: PK Bell, DT Nick James, DT Quay Evans, DE Ryan Brown, and CB Cedric Jiles. Only three true freshmen played in both 2010 and '11.