Understandably, some Vandy fans may be tempted to blow this one off, perhaps in favor of the ESPN-televised Auburn-Tennessee game which will kick off 45 minutes later. Still, several angles will make the Vandy-MSU game compelling, not the least of which is the fact that it provides the Commodores an excellent chance of earning their first win of the season. Oddsmakers have made Vandy as much as a 13-point favorite.
It will be the first trip to Nashville for State head coach Sylvester Croom, whose hiring last winter was met with much pomp and celebration. The era of the SEC's first African-American coach started out on the right foot Sept. 4 with a home win over Tulane. But after successive losses to Auburn (43-14), Division I-AA Maine (9-7), and LSU (51-0), Bulldog fans have come to realize that Croom may be in for a long first year.
Croom has earned the respect of many, however, for changing the attitude of the players and instilling a hard-nosed, old-fashioned, disciplined approach in Starkville. It's a 180-degree turnabout from the days of Jackie Sherrill, a players' coach whose teams were known for their swagger and were often penalized for illegal hits and unsportsmanlike conduct. Croom is a no-nonsense, throwback kind of coach, and it's unlikely Vandy fans will see any of that kind of thing Saturday.
Compounding the problems for Mississippi State is the fact that starting quarterback Omarr Conner went down with a knee injury in the loss to LSU. The replacement is junior Kyle York (6-0, 207, No. 17), who was 4-of-16 passing in relief against the Tigers. Coach Croom also said this week that promising true freshman Mike Henig (6-0, 175, No. 16) will also see his first action.
Junior Jerious Norwood (6-0, 192, No. 12) is the marquee running back for the Maroons, but slippery senior Fred Reid (5-9, 184, No. 9) comes in to spell Norwood and has been almost as effective at times. Reid also fields punts and is averaging a healthy 11 yards per return. The Bulldog running game was almost completely shut down by two of the SEC's top defenses-- Auburn allowed MSU just 81 rushing yards, while LSU allowed a paltry 40 yards.
Mississippi State's receiving corps could be bolstered this week by the return of fifth-year senior Ray Ray Bivines (5-11, 176, No. 10), who when healthy is one of the SEC's most explosive receivers. Bivines has been hobbled by a hamstring injury suffered in the Tennessee game last year and has not seen action to date. The leading receiver to date is sophomore Will Prosser (6-3, 205, No. 81) with 175 yards in four games.
The right side of the offensive line is the most powerful, with seniors David Stewart (6-6, 317, No. 60) and Will Rogers (6-4, 339, No. 69) leading the way. Chris McNeil, Johnny Wadley and Richard Burch are the other starters.
Croom's defensive coordinator is Ellis Johnson, who coached at Alabama during the Mike DuBose era, and the State defensive alignment thusly resembles the Tide defense of the mid- to late-1990's. But the Bulldog defense struggled mightily thus far against SEC foes, giving up 43 points to Auburn and 51 to LSU.
The Bulldogs' no-name defense is anchored by Ronald Fields (6-2, 321) and Willie Evans (6-2, 255) on the front wall, along with leading tackler Marvin Bydsong (6-2, 240) at middle linebacker. The secondary is young, but most of the starters played last year. Strong safety Jeramie Johnson (6-0, 197, No. 34) already has two interceptions on the year.
When Vanderbilt has the ball:
Vanderbilt, which came out throwing vs. South Carolina, has stayed more with a ground attack the last two games. Though the offensive plan is largely dictated by what the defense decides to do, it's a good bet that that trend will continue this week. After being stuffed for only 36 rushing yards in the opener, the Commodores are starting to regain confidence in their running game. Croom said earlier in the week his team has been working hard preparing for defending the option play.
But Vanderbilt has concerns on the line, with Justin Geisinger likely out and Mac Pyle definitely out. A makeshift offensive line may hinder Vanderbilt's ability to play pass-protect, and could lead to more sacks. The Commodores are also short on wide receivers until Erik Davis returns, and could take the redshirt off another true freshman (Sean Walker or Bryant Anderson) as a fifth receiver in the rotation.
When Mississippi State has the ball
With State using an inexperienced quarterback, it's almost a sure thing that Vanderbilt will start out keeping its safeties up close to the line and daring the Bulldogs to throw. It was a strategy that worked to shut down Navy's rushing attack, but Mid quarterback Aaron Polanco was skilled enough to occasionally locate a receiver in one-on-one coverage. Does Mississippi State have a quarterback that can do that?
Vanderbilt sorely missed Kelechi Ohanaja last week, and he is doubtful again for Saturday. His absence forced Andrew Pace to play out of position and Marcus Buggs to play at strong safety. The Commodores are also looking for their first interception of the year, and the guess here is that they will get at least one on Saturday.
Keep an eye on the always-dangerous Bivines if he gets into the game. The Bulldogs would love to see him draw one-on-one coverage.
Just like last year, this game on paper looks like an excellent chance for Vanderbilt to notch a conference win. Mississippi State is a floundering team, dazed by the beating it took last week in Baton Rouge and stung by an earlier unexpected home loss to Division I-AA Maine.
Just like last year again, however, don't expect Mississippi State to make things easy. The Bulldogs earned a 30-21 win in last year's game at Starkville, but haven't won an SEC game since. In the back of every Commodore fan's mind is the fact that VU has traditionally been notorious for playing down to its competition. Vanderbilt desperately needs a win to restore confidence; a loss to Croom would only bring more gloom and doom.
But I close with this quote from Steve Robertson, who writes a weekly column from the Mississippi State Insiders site: "Vandy has been competitive in their last two contests, they are playing at home, and MSU's having some QB issues. The Dogs may have never been so ripe for Vandy's picking."
Photos by Neil Brake, Vanderbilt Athletics; photo of Sylvester Croom by Rogelio Solis, Associated Press.