Starkville, MS – Following a fast start to the season, the 23rd-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs have found their way into the Top-25, and they try to keep their undefeated run going on Saturday afternoon when they host the South Alabama Jaguars.
South Alabama was expected to have a difficult time in its first season as a full-time member of the FBS, but so far it has been up for the challenge. After dropping a hard-fought game against fellow FBS newcomer Texas-San Antonio (33-31), the Jaguars beat Nicholls State at home, 9-3. Although they lost a difficult road matchup to NC State last week, 31-7, they were able to hold their own against a much more talented team.
"There were a lot of things on film that were so correctable, which is still on us," South Alabama head coach Joey Jones said of his team's latest performance. "Some of it had to do with how good they were, there is no doubt about that, but there were a lot of things we didn't do ourselves that we can correct."
Mississippi State has gotten off to 3-0 start behind three very different kinds of wins. First, there was the game the Bulldogs were supposed to win at home against FCS foe Jackson State (56-9), then came a tough home matchup against SEC rival Auburn (28-10), and finally they prevailed in a tricky road game at Troy (30-24). It marks the first time MSU has started 3-0 since 1999, and it has now won 13 straight games against non-conference opponents.
Saturday's matchup marks the first time these two programs will have met on the football field.
The offensive output for South Alabama has been underwhelming as it begins to transition to bigger and faster opponents, tallying just 15.7 points and barely more than 300 yards per game.
C.J. Bennett has been the starter under center and while he hasn't been terrible, his numbers don't do much in assuring his job security (36-of-59, 367 yards, two TDs, two INTs). Ross Metheny (20-of-32, 247 yards, TD, INT) has been eating into Bennett's reps in recent weeks.
Demetre Baker is the team's best offensive playmaker, pacing the Jaguars in rushing with 183 yards and a touchdown, while also adding 55 yards receiving.
Corey Besteda (seven catches, 117 yards) is the only player to amass more than 100 yards receiving, although Jereme Jones has two touchdown receptions.
The Jaguars defense has done a much better job adapting to the higher level of competition, allowing just 22.3 points per game in the early going. The unit permitted NC State to score just three touchdowns last week, holding the Wolfpack to fewer than 400 yards of total offense.
The unit is one of the best in the Sun Belt Conference at getting after the quarterback, having logged 10 sacks, led by Alex Page's three -- tied for most in the league. The team has also come up with three interceptions.
The Bulldogs offense has been clicking in the early going this season, putting up 38 points per game while displaying a good balance between rushing offense (193.7 ypg) and passing offense (219.7 ypg).
Under center, Tyler Russell has shown vast improvement in his junior campaign. He has completed 46-of-79 passes for 651 yards while putting together a perfect touchdown-to-interception ratio (eight-to-zero).
Chad Bumphis has been prone to big plays, recording 236 receiving yards on just 10 catches while leading the SEC in receiving touchdowns with five. He is now tied with Eric Moulds and Justin Jenkins for the most TD catches in school history with 17.
"You want your seniors to play their best football and I think he's playing the best football of his career," head coach Dan Mullen said of his receiver. "I don't believe (Bumphis) thinks he has to make the big play - he wants to make the big play. I think having that pressure off of him has allowed him to perform a little better."
LaDarius Perkins has been one of the busiest running backs in the conference, tallying 320 yards and four scores, both second in the league. He is coming off a career-best performance against Troy with 179 yards.
As good as the offense has been, MSU's stout defense is arguably the biggest reason for its undefeated start. The unit has already forced 12 turnovers, which is tied for most in the nation with Alabama and Kansas. The 43 points allowed through its first three games is also the lowest after three games during Mullen's tenure as head coach.
Darius Slay has four of the unit's seven interceptions, which ties him with Western Kentucky's Jonathan Dowling for most in the country. He also has a fumble recovery and a blocked kick. Johnthan Banks (two INTs) has also been active in the secondary.