STARKVILLE, Miss. – Mississippi State might have a really good football team.
The five straight games the Bulldogs have won to start the season would certainly indicate that's the case.
But delve a little deeper into Mississippi State's schedule and it quickly becomes apparent that the 19th-ranked Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) haven't had a particularly tough road so far this season. Their victories have come over teams with a combined 8-19 record, so Saturday's game against Tennessee (3-2, 0-2) represents the toughest challenge to date.
And another chance to prove the doubters wrong.
"It's a game you look forward to playing," Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks said. "It's some elite competition."
Tennessee comes to Davis Wade Stadium with an explosive offense, one that ranks second in the SEC and 17th nationally with more than 506 yards per game. The Volunteers are led by junior quarterback Tyler Bray, a 6-foot-6 rifle-armed junior, who has thrown for 1,582 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions this season.
But the Mississippi State defense — led by its veteran secondary — insists it's ready for the challenge.
One reason is because the Bulldogs' defensive backs have combined for 37 career interceptions. Another is that Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell provides a lot of the same challenges during practice.
"I think they're the same guy," Banks said. "(Bray) might have been playing a little longer, but it is football."
There are some differences in the two quarterbacks. Bray has a tendency to take more risks, which tend to yield either terrific results or crucial mistakes. Russell is much less likely to take chances, and consequently doesn't have the same type of gaudy passing numbers.
But he's also quite efficient, throwing 10 touchdowns to just one interception.
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said that discipline is indicative of Mississippi State's best quality.
"Their philosophy is sound, fundamental football," Dooley said. "They grind teams out. That's what they do. The important thing is you can't get frustrated. You've got to play every play. If you play that way, opportunities will come. And when the opportunities come, take advantage of them."
Despite the good numbers, Russell has stayed mostly out of the SEC spotlight. Others like Arkansas' Tyler Wilson, Georgia's Aaron Murray and Bray came into the season with more publicity, and Russell is just starting to get some notoriety.
A strong head-to-head performance against Bray would certainly turn heads. As usual, Russell is taking a low-key approach to the matchup and any fame it could bring.
"I feel like I really haven't done anything," Russell said. "A lot of people say 'He has 10 touchdowns to just one interception.' But I think there's a lot more I can do and that this offense can do. I'm excited that people are talking about our offense. We're doing some good things. But deep down, I know we've got a long way to go."
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen agrees. He points to last week's 27-14 win over Kentucky as proof. The Bulldogs gained 427 total yards in the game, but didn't take advantage of good opportunities that could have turned a solid win into a blowout.
"I would've liked to have had more points on the board," Mullen said. "I thought we moved the ball pretty well, but we missed some opportunities to score."
The pressure will be on Mississippi State's offense to score some points on Saturday because it's doubtful Tennessee's offense will be completely stopped.
Both of the Volunteers losses have come to ranked opponents, and even in those games they've scored at least 20 points.
Dooley will not be on the sidelines during Saturday's game, coaching from the press box after having surgery on Tuesday to repair a fractured right hip. Tennessee's coaches said the change wouldn't be a big deal since everyone communicates on the headsets anyway.
"Coach and I have got a great relationship," Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. "We talk throughout the game all the time. He'll be sitting right beside me. We'll see. We'll manage. We're both grownups. I'm sure he'll yell at me and I'll yell at him and we'll get right through it and keep right on with the game. That's kind of what happens."
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this story.
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