*This is the first of a home-and-home set with the Volunteers under the SEC's current inter-Division schedule rotation. The Bulldogs will travel to Knoxville in 2008, then the teams will not meet again until 2013 in Starkville.
*Tennessee is the only SEC opponent Coach Sylvester Croom has yet to play with Mississippi State.
About the Volunteers: Know that line about a team being neither so good nor bad as the scores show? Well, while some recall images of that Florida blowout, it makes more sense to prepare for the Tennessee team that hung four fast touchdowns on Georgia to even the SEC record and, with some modest aid from an event in Baton Rouge, step right back into the East championship picture. Not that the second half of their slate is as easy as in years-past, with Kentucky and South Carolina unexpected contenders in '07 and the annual Alabama bloodletting coming up. But the Vols have regained their footing behind a potent and better-balanced offense capable of simply out-scoring the other guys as needed. And with foes averaging almost 400 yards and 33 points, they need to.
Offense: Time might not heal all things, but it does wonders for public perceptions of a quarterback. Two years ago Erik Ainge was top target for all fan rage; halfway into his senior season he's the SEC's most productive passer. The 67.6% completion rate rates a few eye-blinks, his typical completion nets double-digit yards, and Ainge has ten touchdowns against two interceptions. He'll end up the third-leading quarterback in program history and that's first-class by any measure. This year's feats are coming despite replacing the top three receivers of '06, though their departures seem to have only opened the door for underclassmen to flourish. Junior Lucas Taylor (30 catches, 432 yards, 2 TDs) gets six catches and 84 yards per weekend, while Austin Rogers (25, 312, 1) and Josh Briscoe (26, 197, 1) keep coverage spread side-to-side and end-to-end. All three are in the SEC top-ten in catches. But there's more as Ainge makes full use of tight end Chris Brown (17, 141, and a team-best four TDs), and keeps defenses honest by flipping the ball to halfback Adrian Foster (10 catches) almost as often as he hands it off. Almost. Foster was #3 on the halfback yards list last year but he's emerged first as a junior, with 395 yards and six of the team's nine rushing touchdowns. He and LaMarcus Coker (134 yards, 1 TD) might not get the media attention of their passing game partners but the Vol ground game is improving weekly and rounding out this attack. Better runners certainly complement an offensive line that was already outstanding. Right-side blockers T Eric Young and G Anthony Parker have changed ends and protect the left side now, while soph Josh McNeil is already a second-year starter at center. And 325-pound junior Ramon Foster has stepped in at right tackle and made himself at home. Oh, and while the double tight ends do a lot of pass-catching, at 260 and 250 pounds they can throw their bulk around in protection or run-blocking too. No wonder the Vols have allowed Ainge to be sacked just twice in five games. And Tennessee is the least-penalized squad in the league.
Defense: The numbers don't look so good. 12th in scoring, and 11th in yardage, passing, and sacks. Be very careful reading where Tennessee stands in the week's SEC stats, though. Remember that A) the Vols have faced some excellent offenses to-date that nobody will stop; and B) that offense makes for a darn good ‘defense' in itself. Besides, the Vol D is another work-in-progress with over half the '06 lineup replaced. The starting ends are senior veterans, Xavier Mitchell (16 tackles, 3 for losses) on the left and Antonio Reynolds (12, 1) out right. But watch for junior Robert Ayers to get plenty work in rotation, as he's accounted for 6.5 of the team's 19 stops for losses and nearly half of UT's sacks. Between them the starting tackles form quite a bulwark at a combined 600 pounds, and there's depth here too. MLB Jerod Mayo was third in team tackles as a sophomore, he's now the unit leader with 37 stops in five weeks while WLB Rico McCoy is right behind at 33 tackles. They each had 11 hits in the win over Georgia, a game where a unit that had been run on by California and Florida suddenly stood up and held those Dogs to only 69 ground yards. And senior SLB Ryan Karl not only supports, he covers with a trio of pass deflections. For that matter Tennessee's air defense is rounding into form this month as the last two games, both wins, have seen the lowest passing output by opponents of the season. Senior FS Jonathan Heffney isn't going to match his 96 tackles of last season but doesn't have to. He's at 22 stops so far with a pick and three more break-ups in centerfield. Two freshman faces dot the secondary. Eric Berry has stepped in at SS and given 23 tackles with a 96-yard interception return. And former wideout Brent Vinson has made the move to cornerback and earned the starting job this month with one pick to his account already. So again, don't put a lot of stock in the overall defensive numbers here in mid-season. They're all trending for the better the rest of this campaign.
Specialists: Maybe it's a rule that a Colquitt has to punt for Tennessee…but it's a good one as junior Britton hits ‘em for a 43.6 average. A newcomer, freshman Daniel Lincoln, has earned his scholarship already by hitting everything he's tried to-date; all eight field goals and 21 PATs. It's the best start to a career ever by a Vol specialist. Coker returns kickoffs where UT is about SEC-average, but they're league-last in running back punts so far. It doesn't hurt much as coverage is steady.
The Series: Tennessee owns a 26-15-1 record in a series dating back to 1907, but which has seldom been an ‘annual' rivalry. The longest stretches of consecutive games were in 1948-55 and 1957-64. Since 1978 the teams have only met in two-year deals per various SEC rotations. There have been eight meetings in Starkville with a 4-4 split, though UT won their last trip to campus in 2002. And 14 of the games have been played in Memphis, the last in 1979. The only other neutral-site meeting of course was in the 1998 SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, won by the Vols 24-14.
The Last Time (November 15, 2003): Host Tennessee stayed in the SEC East race by handing Mississippi State a 59-21 thumping at Neyland Stadium. The Bulldogs tried to make a game of it early, answering Tennessee's first touchdown with a 19-yard scoring pass from Kevin Fant to Justin Jenkins at 5:48 of the opening quarter. But the Vols regained the lead in three minutes as Casey Clausen threw his second touchdown pass of the quarter. He would have a (right) hand in three more TD throws before the day was done, including a 38-yarder at 1:49 of the half for a 28-7 margin. Clausen made it 35-7 at 12:30 of the third period with a thirty-yarder, and got #5 midway of the period on a five-yard flip. By then the margin was 49-7, but Tennessee added ten more points to their scoreboard before coasting to the easy win. Mississippi State made it look more respectable in the books with one-yard touchdown dives by Fred Reid and Kyle York in the last four minutes. York had 68 passing yards after replacing Fant who was 13-of-24 for 125 yards with two interceptions. Jerious Norwood (47 yards) and Nick Turner (41) paced State on the ground. Clausen had 342 yards passing on 21-of-34 completions and no turnovers. By returning a lot of kickoffs Turner set a MSU record for all-purpose yards with 344.
Bulldog Player Notes: DE Titus Brown did not score a sack—neither did the entire team—in the UAB game. So the senior still holds at 16.5 baggings for his career. He's 7th on the MSU list and is trailing Greg Favor (19.0, 1994-97) for 6th. Brown has notched a tackle-for-loss in 12 of his last 14 games and owns 143 career tackles of all sorts. He has 8.0 TFLs this year, tops on the team again.
*Through six games the Dog defense is credited with 39 tackles for losses of 154 yards and 11 sacks. Brown has six of those sacks. He and fellow DE Avery Hannibal have 17 quarterback ‘hurries' between them, of the team's 30 total. In fact, Brown and Hannibal have as more hurries between them as all MSU's opponents managed in six games, 14.
*Now it's four-for-four. In all four of Mississippi State's wins, the defense has turned an interception into a touchdown. The latest on the list is CB Anthony Johnson with a 30-yard ‘pick six' against UAB. It was the first of his career. He joined LB Gabe O'Neal (Tulane), S Derek Pegues (Auburn) and S De'Mon Glanton (Gardner-Webb) with interceptions-for-touchdowns this season. As best can be judged, the three-straight games with a INT/TD is a program record.
*The Dog defense has intercepted seven passes through six games; last year's group had 12 picks in a dozen games.
*Johnson has six pass break-ups, or one-third the team's total of 18. The rest of the secondary has eight among them.
*Pegues has two interceptions for the year and seven on his career. He is still two-shy of breaking into the MSU top-ten, but his three touchdown-returns off interceptions are a career record. He also holds the season record with two pick-six plays in 2006.
*Pegues averages 19 yards in returns every time he picks off a pass.
*Pegues is now tied for 2nd in career kickoff returns at 68, matching John Moore (1985-89). That's ten returns behind the record 78 of Tony James (1989-92). And Pegues' 1,474 yards on those returns ranks third behind Young (1,538) and James (1,862).
*The team's tackle-lead changed again. Now MLB Jamar Chaney is back on top with 42 total stops (21 solos and assists apiece). He and WLB Dominic Douglas (40) both passed SLB Gabe O'Neal (36) in the UAB game. But Douglas, who leads the linebackers in tackles for losses at 4.5, injured an ankle and is doubtful for this week.
*Junior P Blake McAdams is enjoying a strong October. He averaged 45.7 yards on six punts in the South Carolina game, with two downed inside the red zone. He hit four balls for a 42.0 average last weekend with one downed inside the 20-yard line. Had he booted the ball into the end zone his season average would be even better; as it is he's getting 40.8 on the year as a whole.
*And good downfield coverage means that while McAdams has had nine punts in-all downed inside the 20-yard line, only one of his kicks has bounced into the end zone for a touch-back.
*McAdams has punted 165 times as a Bulldog, sixth-most in program history. He passed both Bobby Collins (1951-54) and Andy Russ (1993-96) on the same day, and is six punts away from top-five status. His 6,630 career yards are 7th-most at State, though he's one average kick from catching Russ for the sixth spot this weekend.
*Senior WR Tony Burks ran his consecutive-games with at least one catch to 14. And he did get just one catch against UAB, for five yards. That chipped into his season average gain, now at 17.2 yards. Last year he led the SEC in this unofficial category at 24.3 yards. Burks is still looking for his first 100-yard receiving game this year; he had five as a junior, tying the MSU season record.
*Jamayel Smith has caught up with Burks for total catches this year. Both have 11 grabs, though Burks has 189 yards to Smith's 136.
*Eric Hoskins got his first college catch in the UAB game with a 15-yard pickup in the second half. That's the same number of yards Jeremy Jones (3 for 11) and Brandon Hart (1 for 4) have together on their four catches this year.
*Through six games, the tight ends and fullbacks have 15 receptions. Senior TE Eric Butler has six catches for 50 yards. Jones still has the only score by either a FB or TE, on his eight-yard touchdown at Tulane.
*Sitting some early series and a pointed halftime reminder did HB Anthony Dixon good in the UAB game. After getting 19 yards in the first half, 18 on one carry, the sophomore pounded out 133 in the second period. The 152 total was his career-high, as were the 32 carries (most by a MSU back in two years) and three touchdowns. He is now averaging almost 98 ground yards per-game.
*Dixon now has nine of Mississippi State's 11 rushing touchdowns this year. That's as many scores as he had all last season when he set the school freshman touchdown record. Now with 18 career ground-scores he is tied for 10th on the career list with Dennis Johnson (1974-77). The record is 27 by Michael Davis (1991-94).
*After setting a freshman record for rushing yards at 668, Dixon has 586 this year in just six games. In 18 career games he now has 1,254, with five 100-yard games.
*QB Wesley Carroll is 2-0 as a starter, though he has yet to open a SEC game. He has the best passing rate on the staff at 53.7% (22 of 41), and while he hasn't thrown a college touchdown he also has not been intercepted. Carroll's completions are netting a modest 8.1 yards.
*Junior QB Mike Henig returned to action over the weekend after missing most of three games with a broken hand. The rust showed in a 2-of-8 outing with as many interceptions as completions. Yet before the injury at Auburn, and despite six interceptions in the Auburn game, Henig was completing 51.6% percent to his own team in two-plus games.
*Henig has one of the two rushing touchdowns not scored by Dixon this year; it came on a 18-yard dash at Tulane for his first running TD as a collegian.
*HB Christian Ducre accounts for the other running score. His per-carry rate of 4.7 yards is actually better than Dixon's 4.2. And both have three pass receptions.
*After hitting 47 consecutive point-after attempts with State, and 13 this year, PK Adam Carlson missed his first try in the UAB game. He did come back to make good on three more PAT tries. And he was good on a 39-yard field goal in the second quarter, after a 44-yard miss was negated on a UAB penalty.
*Carlson is now 5-of-8 on field goals for the season, 13-of-24 for his career.
*Two Bulldog seniors hold the team lead in career games played. Both TE Dezmond Sherrod and DE Avery Hannibal have gotten on the field in 40 contests through four seasons. The consecutive-start lead belongs to P Blake McAdams at 29. C Royce Blackledge is first among the non-specialists in starts with 24-straight.
*A total of 37 Bulldogs, not counting specialists, have started at least one game this season.
*LB K.J. Wright became the latest true freshman activated this season when he played on special teams against G-Webb. That brings the total to six first-year frosh playing in 2007, joining QB Wesley Carroll, ST Karlin Brown, S Zach Smith, DT Lamarcus Williams, and OT Derek Sherrod.
*True freshmen who have dressed without playing are QB Chris Relf, S Wade Bonner, HB Robert Elliott, HB Marcus Green, LB Jamie Jones, and CB Damein Anderson. True frosh who have not dressed out in the first five games and thus are presumably redshirting are: LB Terrell Johnson, OL Addison Lawrence, OL/SN D.J. Looney, OL Dakota Merritt, PK Eric Richards (injured), DL Quentin Saulsberry, and FB Ethan Stockett.
*Redshirted 2006 freshmen who have played so far are: OG J. C. Brignone, SN Aaron Feld, OT Mark Melichar, DE Rodney Prince, TE Brandon Henderson, and DE Brandon Cooper who was activated in the UAB game. Classmates who have yet to see action are WR Alex Carpenter, TE Chris Herrera, DT Reggie Odom.