*Not so long ago Mississippi State was accustomed to Thursday ESPN action, though usually on Thanksgiving Night when the network televised the ‘Battle for the Golden Egg' on the holiday from 1998-2003. Bulldog teams are 6-5 on this weeknight, though they have lost the last three such games.
*This is the first season since 1998 that Mississippi State has opened up with a conference game. That year the Bulldogs beat Vanderbilt at Scott Field to begin their run to the Western Division title.
About the Gamecocks: It's taken for football-granted that the second time around is easier and more productive. Certainly there are higher expectations of Steve Spurrier's second season in Columbia, given how his first squad rallied from a slow SEC start to knock off East foes such as Florida and Tennessee and finish 7-5 with an Independence Bowl bid. In the process Spurrier further embellished a career resume that includes the best career SEC winning percentage, 84.4%. Still, there are reasons to give his second team a second and closer look. The defense is rebuilding and the offense, even with a year in the system, might be hard-pressed to carry the club. Besides, some of his '05 victims should be much stronger and definitely more motivated. Another second-consecutive second-place SEC East finish? Now that would be a first-class miracle.
Offense: It's gotta be equal parts pleasure and torture playing quarterback for a coach who, at heart, still wishes he were on the field throwing that ball around. So give Blake Mitchell credit for adapting to a demanding boss last year, completing 59% of his tosses for almost 2,400 yards. But the junior can't be too comfy after a 17/12 ratio of touchdowns to intercepts, and rumors—repeat, rumors—out of Gamecock camp were that freshman Chris Smelley was in the coach's favor. Putting a rookie (even a 20-year-old like Smelley) on the field against a veteran defense in the opener is taboo in most coaching manuals but then old SEC hands know Spurrier only plays by his own book. Regardless, the top target is obvious. Sidney Rice was good enough to turn pro after a freshman year of 1,143 yards and 13 of the 21 total touchdown catches by S.C. He's back for a sophomore season that should produce all-America honors…unless defense are able to focus on him. Former QB Syvelle Newton had 27 grabs in '05 but is coming off a torn Achilles; another former passer-turned-catcher, soph Kenny McKinley, takes advantage of gaps opened by doubling-up Rice. And redshirt O.J. Murdock was well-regarded out of high school. Just for good measure defensive back Mike West has also been moved to offense, clearly showing where this offense's emphasis lies. Soph Mike Davis took over at tailback the last two games of '05 and broke 100 yards in each losing cause. Now he gets to begin a year as the starter, though junior Cory Boyd is now back in good graces after a year-off for bad behavior. Fullbacks are blockers in this system, and that is what is most needed now with an unproven line. Oh, the center is very well known as senior Chris White is a Rimington Award candidate with 28-straight starts to his credit. Less certain are four other designated first-teammers with just four starts amongst them. There's good size in the middle but the Gamecocks are a bit lighter on the ends of the line, so this is where defenses will try to take advantage. They'd best do it quickly though because in Spurrier's offense the ball rarely stays in the quarterback's hand more than a trio of ticks. Much more than that, and he's joining the coach on the sideline watching his replacement shuttle in.
Defense: It was inevitable that most attention given the 2005 Gamecocks would be on the offense, thanks to their coach. Yet it was a gutsy, energetic defense that provided the margin of big-game victories in the second half of the season. Now seven of those starters are gone and the rebuilding is even tougher as another starter has been moved to offense, and two more surpassed on the depth chart. If only one veteran is still projected in the lineup, it might as well be a good ‘un in senior cornerback Fred Bennett, a preseason All-SEC with seven career interceptions. After that? Well, at least scouting this defense should be difficult. Take the other CB, Carlos Thomas, who played more receiver last year than coverage. FS Chris Hampton is coming off an ankle injury, while rover Emanuel Cook is a true frosh who starred as a prep running back. As to the projected front-seven, there isn't a senior in the bunch and a total of seven varsity letters. Junior LB Cody Wells has two of them, though just two starts to-date. That's one better than the other outside ‘backer Marvin Sapp, and S.C. is counting on juco Jasper Brinkley to fill the middle. The four-front has decent size with 250-pound juniors Capser Brinkley (brother of Jasper) and Ryan Brown on the ends and 295-pound Marque Hall at tackle. He was the spring most-improved lineman. The nose is filled by converted end Nathan Pepper. It's hard to see this group quickly picking up where the '05 defense left off, and even that group wasn't dominating by allowing 23.2 points and 361 yards per game. What mattered is that defense made plays when they had to; this defense will get plenty of chances to do the same. And again, if the Gamecocks aren't certain what they have, what is a first-game opponent to plan for?
Specialists: Another questionable area. Soph Ryan Succop has some experience, just mostly as the kickoff man with a near-50% rate of touchbacks. Kicking off a tee is another matter as he was 0-for-2 in his only 2005 attempts, admittedly both long efforts for a rookie. Succop is also taking over punting, an area that can certainly stand improvement. Cornerback Carlos Thomas averaged 24 yards on his kickoff returns.
The Series: The Bulldogs and Gamecocks did not meet on a gridiron until the latter joined the SEC for 1992. The short series has been a tight one with State holding a 6-5 margin, though the Gamecocks won the most recent two meetings in 2001 and '02. That included the 16-14 win at Scott Field, where State has a 3-2 lead. There have been no neutral-site meetings. Sylvester Croom and Steve Spurrier have not coached against each other at their respective schools.
The Last Time -- October 5, 2002: South Carolina scored three first-half touchdowns and 24 unanswered points en route to a 34-10 victory over visiting Mississippi State. The Gamecocks settled the outcome in the second quarter as quarterback Corey Jenkins threw a 26-yard touchdown pass, then ran three yards for his own score. State did not get on the board until 8:05 of the third quarter when Fred Reid dove one yard for a touchdown, and Brent Smith added a 36-yard field goal. The Gamecocks padded their margin with a touchdown pass with only 94 seconds left on the clock. S.C. finished with 408 yards to State's 274 and had a nearly ten-minute edge in possession time. Justin Griffith led State's rushers with 30 yards on seven carries and Kevin Fant was 20-of-35 passing for 194 yards.
Did You Know? Of course you did, that Spurrier has lost in both his previous coaching trips to Scott Field. Both were with Florida, in 1992 (State's first Thursday night ESPN home game) and 2000. That latter loss did not keep Spurrier from winning the last of his six SEC Championshp, though.
Bulldog Career Count: Senior linebacker Quinton Culberson won the team title for tackles last season with 78 in eleven games, tenth-best in the SEC. He now has 176 for his three varsity seasons. Senior safety Jeramie Johnson is next on the team with 150 tackles for three seasons.
*Johnson is ahead of his classmate in picks, though, with seven interceptions, most on this squad.
*Punter Blake McAdams finished with a 41.9-yard average as a freshman, and ranked 33rd nationally. His 69 punts were fifth-most in school history, and the most since Mike Riley kicked it away 75 times in 1989. McAdams accounted for 2,891 yards.
*Tight end Eric Butler goes into his junior season with seven touchdown receptions, the most for his position in MSU records. With 29 career catches, Butler has scored on roughly one-quarter of his receptions.
*Senior Will Prosser begins his senior campaign with 53 receptions in 34 career games for 626 yards. But he is still looking for his first touchdown catch as a Bulldog.
*Placekicker Keith Andrews is the backup for this game, after hitting 11 of 18 field goal attempts his first two seasons before back problems the last month of 2005. Andrews is 32-of-32 on PATs, which is five shy of Kinney Jordan's school record 37-of-37.
*Only six Bulldogs who started every game at the same position in 2005 are back for this season: OT Brian Anderson, MLB Quinton Culberson, RCB David Heard, NG Andrew Powell, DT Deljuan Robinson, and LG Anthony Strauder.
*Four Bulldogs have played in 34 games going into this season: FB Bryson Davis, CB David Heard, S Jeramie Johnson, and WR Will Prosser. Heard and Johnson are tied with 19 starts and Prosser has 16. But the most starts by a current player is the 24 for MLB Quinton Culberson, in 30 games. NG Andrew Powell has 21 starts.