Starkville, MS – Off to their best start since 1999, the 19th-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs will try to move to 6-0 when they host the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday night.
Despite sporting a 3-2 record, Tennessee has come up small when it has mattered most, starting 0-2 in the SEC with losses at home to Florida (51-13) and on the road versus Georgia (51-44). With a bye last week, the Volunteers had extra time to prepare for Mississippi State, and head coach Derek Dooley feels strongly about his team's chances heading into this game.
"I feel pretty good about how we handled the open date," Dooley said. "I feel like we got a lot accomplished. We worked them pretty hard early in the week and they came back, took advantage of the two days off and had a really energetic practice (Monday)."
Mississippi State has opened at 5-0 for only the fourth time in the program's 113-year history, and it is just one of 15 teams left unbeaten in the nation. The Bulldogs' 27-14 road victory over Kentucky last week extended their winning streak to seven games dating back to last season, which is the fifth- longest active streak in the country.
In terms of the all-time series between these two clubs, Tennessee holds a 28-15-1 advantage. The Vols have been especially dominant of late, winning six in a row and nine of the last 10 overall.
Offensive production has not been a problem for Tennessee this season as it ranks near the top of the SEC in both scoring (39.4 ppg) and total yards (506.6 ypg).
Tyler Bray has been solid under center, as his 1,582 passing yards ranks only behind Arkansas's Tyler Wilson for tops in the league. He has tossed 14 touchdown passes and six interceptions, although he'd like to get his completion percent up (.611).
With the departure of Da'Rick Rogers prior to the season, Justin Hunter has emerged as the team's top target and one of the best receiving options in the conference, hauling in 33 balls for 456 yards and four touchdowns. Cordarrelle Patterson (290 yards, two TDs), Mychal Rivera (255 yards, two TDs), and Zach Rogers (249 yards, two TDs) round out an impressive arsenal of weapons at Bray's disposal.
Rajion Neal has rushed for 100 yards in back-to-back games for the first time in his career. He has taken advantage of a full workload with 460 yards and four touchdowns on 103 carries on the season.
The Vols defense has been a step slow through the first half of the season, surrendering nearly 30 points per game while allowing opponents to score on 94 percent of their trips to the red zone.
Byron Moore has been one of the best safeties in the SEC with 36 tackles and four interceptions. A.J. Johnson leads the team with 42 tackles and although he is without a sack, he does have four QB hurries.
For the first time in school history, Mississippi State has scored 25 points or more in its first five games. The Bulldogs put up 27 against Kentucky last week, but head coach Dan Mullen feels like they left some big plays out on the field.
"Last week I would've liked to have had more points of the board," Mullen said. "I thought we moved the ball pretty well but we missed some opportunities to score. (When) you have the opportunity to make the big play -- when it is already hard to score in this league -- you have to take advantage of them."
Tyler Russell hasn't wowed with his completion percentage (.566) or his yardage output (218.2 ypg), but he has been incredibly efficient in throwing for 10 touchdowns against only one interception. He has also added a rushing score.
A large share of Russell's throws are aimed at Chad Bumphis, who has caught 21 balls for 375 yards and an SEC-high six touchdowns. Marcus Green is also a big red-zone target, with three of his seven catches going for scores.
LaDarius Perkins has steadily produced with just a shade under 100 rushing yards per game (499 yards), and he has scored at least one touchdown in every game.
The Bulldogs defensive effort is as much of a reason for the undefeated start as their strong offense. They allow just 13.4 ppg, 11th-best in the country, and have generated 15 turnovers (nine INTs, six fumble recoveries).
Darius Slay (four INTs, FR) and Johnthan Banks (19 tackles, three INTs) highlight one of the strongest secondaries in the nation. The unit would like to get more pressure on the quarterback as it has tallied just eight sacks (three from Preston Smith).