Bulldog Football Scouting Report

The Game: #13-ranked Mississippi State (7-0, 3-0 SEC) and #1 Alabama (7-0, 4-0) battle for the Western Division lead at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Kickoff is 7:40 for ESPN telecast.

*Mississippi State holds its highest (AP) ranking of Dan Mullen's tenure in Starkville having improved two places this week. The previous peak was #15 following the 2010 season. This is also the highest regular-season ranking since the 1999 Bulldogs were #8 with a 8-0 record…also going to Alabama.

*This is the 14th game out of Mullen's 45 that State carries a ranking into a game.

*The Bulldogs are off to their best start since that 1999 team, and the second-best ever at State. Including a pair of victories to end 2011, the nine-win streak is third-best in program history; surpassed only by stretches of 13 wins (1942-44) and 10 (1940-41).

*Mullen has 28 victories in four seasons. His next win will match W.D. Chadwick for fourth-most among all MSU coaches.

*Per the MSU media guide year-by-year records, this is the fifth time a Bulldog team has played an opponent ranked #1 at the time. State is 1-4 in these matchups, the lone win coming over Alabama in 1980 at Jackson. Losses were in 1979 (Alabama), 1998 (Tennessee), 2008 (Alabama), and 2009 (Florida). Given the diversity of polls over the years though there have been other games against top-ranked teams.

The Opponent: In a season already full of unexpected shuffles there has been one constant. Not a comforting one exactly, at least not for anyone still standing between Alabama and a return to the national title game for the third time in four seasons. The fact remains, until somebody, anybody can line up and win a head-to-head (or facemask to facemask rather) collision this is the prohibitive favorite for the first BCS-era repeat performance. The only potential opening, not to say weakness, is the same injury threat all programs are subject to, and few programs are better-prepared to plug in another body. Nor is this a team likely to beat itself. Still all reigns must come to an end…right? Right?

Offense: With all the (justified) attention paid to the other side of the squad, this is an offense worthy of respect itself putting up 41 points and 440 yards each weekend. And that's just the overall season, in SEC games the Tide notches 43 points and 453 yards, bucking the normal stat-trends. Also going against the usual scouting-grain, on this unit focus falls first on the big boys up front. The best line in the league and likely the land makes everything else operate efficiently, centered—literally—around Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones, with all-American nominees at three other spots. They provide QB A.J. McCarron a marvelous sense of security with just five SEC-game sacks. No wonder he is the league's most efficient passer with 16 touchdowns tossed and none intercepted. (State LB Cam Lawrence was the last opponent to pick McCarron in fact.) The passer's task is eased greatly by a pair of backs who, combined, would lead the SEC in rushing as Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon net 81.4 and 80.7 yards apiece and have 13 touchdowns between them. Interchangeable, indeed. The pleasant, for Alabama at least, surprise of this season is the freshman prowess of wideout Amari Cooper; he has 28 catches, double anyone else on the squad, for a 15.2 yard average and five touchdowns. Still the ball gets spread around nicely five others have two or more touchdowns caught, and the yards-per catch rate is ridiculous in most cases. Oh, and check this for balance: 219 rushing yards each week, 220 passing.

Defense: We should be used to it by now, given how the Tide defense each year leads the land in most of the categories which matter. It's more of the same for 2012, though all we really need to note is how Alabama meets the two primary goals of any good defense. They stop the rush, and they force (and recover) turnovers. Only State has come away with more takeaways so far, and running defense isn't even close as Alabama allows a mere 59 yards each week. More tellingly, it's only a ludicrously low 1.9 yards per attempt. The frustration begins with butting into the 320-pound nose guard Jesse Williams, who ties up so much attention ends Ed Stinson and Damion Square have five sacks between them and nine total stops for losses. Strong-side LB Adrian Hubbard sets the sacking pace at 3.5 but that race has a ways to go and plenty partners chasing passers too. Such as Nico Johnson, working from either the middle or weak sides and alternating with tackles-leader C.J. Mosely (58, 2.5 sacks). There are no soft touches in the secondary either. Dee Milliner and Deion Belue have their corners locked down indeed with a pair of picks each and 17 other breakups, 13 by Milliner. Not to be left out of the interception fun are safeties Robert Lester and HaHa Clinton-Dix who also have two apiece. And yes, there is no lack of alternates who are too talented to label merely as ‘backups'. If getting to the 20-yard line weren't challenge enough, only five such red zone trips out of a dozen have produced touchdowns. And no, you do not want to know the third-down conversion rate.

Specialists: Bulldog coverage is getting lots of work this week as Christion Jones nets over 30 yards on kickoffs and a maybe more impressive 11.7 on punts. Cody Mandell usually punts from positive field position so his 41.6 average needs perspective; he's got 50-yard range. So does long PK Cade Foster who's hit three from that distance or better already and is 4-of-8 overall. Jeremy Shelley is the shorter kicker and 8-of-8 inside 40 yards.

Bulldog Notebook: Mississippi State leads the NCAA again in turnover ratio, at +17 this week per official statistics. They are tied for fourth in total turnovers gained, with 21 (nine fumbles, 12 interceptions).

*Only eight teams have more than MSU's dozen interceptions.

*The Bulldogs are tied for second in turnovers lost with four total (three fumbles, one interception).

*Bulldog punt coverage is best in the country this weekend. Only State has stuck opponents with negative-return yardage (-4 yards on 27 kicks) of all 124 D-I programs.

*State comes in just 81st in sacks this season; but are 14th-best in sacks allowed.

*State has trailed a total of just over 16 minutes through seven games, the fourth-fewest in current NCAA statistics.

*The Bulldog offense has notched 49 plays of ten or more yards in the three SEC games. Of that total, 20 came against Tennessee.

*Just how fast a passing pace is QB Tyler Russell setting? He is one big yardage game away from having a top-ten Mississippi State season after just eight contests. And his 122 completions in seven games is not far off the tenth-best year ever by a Bulldog passer (140).

*But most worth noting; Russell has thrown 15 touchdowns already this year. The all-time MSU season mark is just 16, by Derrick Taite in 1995 in eleven games. Right now Russell is tied with Don Smith for second place.

*Against SEC competition Russell is 66-of-105 passing (63%) with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. In non-conference games the junior is 56-of-98 or 57%. But his average SEC-game completion goes for 10.9 yards, while the non-league rate is 14.1 yards.

*Russell's one interception this season snapped a 137-pass streak without a turnover, which tied Wes Carroll's 2007 season school record.

*For his career Russell has 28 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, and combined with his yardage gives him a 143.54 quarterback rating; best in MSU history at this point.

*He is tied with former teammate Chris Relf for 5th in career touchdowns tossed.

*Meanwhile WR Chad Bumphis already holds one program record. His 18 touchdown catches are best ever by a Bulldog.

*The senior has four SEC touchdown catches. One of these came two years ago at Alabama, thrown by Russell.

*The State season TD-catch record is nine, and Bumphis has six already this year.

*His 130 career catches are 4th best in MSU history, and he is fifth in yardage with half-a-season left.

*A one-catch night against Middle Tennessee last week did keep Bumphis' catch-streak going, now at 24 games (he missed the 2010 Gator Bowl with injury). He has caught a pass in all but one of his college games, the exception in '10 against UAB.

*What matters is how Bumphis has upgraded his SEC production, 19 of his 29 catches in league play.

*Bumphis has five 100-yard receiving games out of his 44 career contests.

*RB LaDarius Perkins has found his mid-season stride with three-straight 100-yard games. That gives him five for his career.

*He now leads the SEC in overall rushing at 103 yard per-game; though for league-only play he is third best.

*Perkins already has 724 rushing yards and eight touchdowns this season. By comparison, in his first seven games last year Vick Ballard had 598 yards and five scores, though he did face some tougher defenses in the process. A better comparison would be Ballard's 2010 first seven games, of 516 yards with 11 touchdowns. And in 2009, Anthony Dixon had 751 yards with seven scores in the first seven games he played; he was suspended for the opener that year.

*Perkins has averaged 22 carries in the last three games.

*He has scored at least one rushing touchdown every game this season; but has yet to catch a touchdown pass after getting five his first two years.

*RB Derrick Milton averages 6.8 yards per rush. So does RB Nick Griffin now, thanks to a 44-yard gain on his only carry last week.

*QB Dak Prescott has rushed for three touchdowns himself. Not only that but the redshirt threw his first college score with a 13-yard strike against Tennessee, and on only his eighth pass of the season.

*Though he plays maybe one-sixth as many snaps as Russell, Prescott has 20 rushes already to 21 for the starter.

*In his last three seasons, WR Chris Smith has caught two or more passes in 24 out of 32 games.

*After making three grabs in all previous four games, Smith had a career night last week with a seven-catch game against Middle Tennessee. He also got his first touchdown, two of them actually, of the senior season. Smith had last scored in the 2011 Alabama game.

*WR Arceto Clark has ten catches in the last three games.

*Russell has thrown to a fullback in the last four games now.

*TE Marcus Green either has big games, or is not much of a factor. After a career six-catch night against Tennessee with two touchdowns, he settled for one grab and eight yards last week.

*Green has 14 receptions so far with an 11.9 yard average. And his five touchdowns are more than the four in his first four college seasons combined. Four of his five scores this year are in SEC games.

*Green is looking to finally snap his ‘cap' on gains. In 2008, '09, and '11 he had one catch each year that went for 50 yards. His longest this season is a 30-yarder against Auburn.

*After a big return to action following his summer injury, with two catches and a touchdown against Tennessee, TE Malcolm Johnson didn't get a ball last week. But TE Brandon Hill did.

*WR Robert Johnson had, hopefully, his breakout last week with two catches, 26 yards including a 23-yard touchdown. He had four catches all of 2011.

*OG Gabe Jackson will make his 34th consecutive start.

*He's finally tied the record. Now CB Johnthan Banks bids to become Mississippi State's all-time interceptions leader after picking off #16 last week. He's even for now with Walt Harris' record.

*Banks was banged-up on his 47-yard return, but with no real damage to the left knee when a Raider fell into him after the tackle. Banks was stopped from getting his fourth touchdown return which would be another MSU record. For now he shares it with SS Corey Broomfield at three each.

*Banks has 124 yards' worth of returns on his four interceptions this season.

*Banks has three two-interception games in his career, one this season (Auburn).

*Banks is closing in on 200 career tackles; he has 191 through 45 games.

*Broomfield is tied for 7th himself in the career-picks list, with ten. His interception against Tennessee snapped a 19-game streak without a pick.

*His teammates' recent interceptions ought to give CB Darius Slay more chances at passes now. The senior has gone four games without a pick, after notching four in the first three contests. Slay has five career picks, two returned for touchdowns (Georgia 2011, Jackson State 2012).

*Slay has averaged 31.6 yards returns on his picks.

*FS Nickoe Whitley has eight career interceptions of his own. So the current starting State secondary quartet has 39 picks between them.

*LB Cameron Lawrence now has 220 career tackles in 43 games. And while his per-game rate has dropped from the 2011 pace, in games that count most Lawrence is there. He had double-digit tackles in wins over Auburn, at Troy, and Tennessee.

*In four seasons, Mullen teams have scored 15 non-offense-sourced touchdowns on turnovers or blocks.

*P Baker Swedenburg is averaging 40.6 yard this season, mostly due to good offensive field position. But 11 of his 27 punts have gone inside the 20-yard line and a dozen have been fair-caught.

*PK Devon Bell is 9-of-14 on field goals. He did have a seven-make streak going, but is one for the last three and all those on the home field. He is 3-of-3 in road games.

*State kicking produced seven touchbacks in all 2011. With a more generous starting point Bell and KO Brian Egan have combined for ten this year.

*Five Bulldogs have played in all 45 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 38.

*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.

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