AP Top 25 College Football
Mississippi State creates turnovers but rarely surrenders them, a potent combination for a Tennessee team that was undone by turnovers in the fourth quarter against Georgia.
After an off week focused on fundamentals, the Vols (3-2, 0-2 SEC) return to SEC play on Saturday at No. 19 MSU (5-0, 2-0). The game kicks off at 9 p.m. on ESPN2.
Over the weekend, Tennessee was resting — and, presumably watching — the Bulldogs beat Kentucky 27-14 in Lexington. The game was efficient but hardly spectacular. Mississippi State jumped out to 20-7 lead and looked to be on the verge of putting the game away, but the scoring slowed and Kentucky stuck around.
"We get a lead on people, get up and they take their foot off the gas a little bit," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said Sunday. "You can't do that."
But what the Bulldogs lacked in sizzle this season, they've made up for in aptitude.
Mississippi State's turnover margin is ranked second nationally, just behind No. 1 Alabama. The Bulldogs have created 11 more turnovers than they've allowed.
On offense, that starts with the reliable Tyler Russell, who in his 14 victories as Mississippi State's starting quarterback, has thrown for 12 touchdowns and only two interceptions. On defense, senior Darius Slay is the stalwart. His four interceptions are tied for second in the nation. (Tennessee's Byron Moore also has four).
The Vols will be the biggest test of the season for MSU's defense, and the most intriguing battle to watch is Tennessee's pass game versus Mississippi State's pass defense. The Vols are ranked 10th in the nation in passing offense, while MSU is ranked 12th in passing efficiency defense. Meaning opposing quarterbacks usually put up ugly numbers against MSU's defense.
"(Tennessee) is an extremely explosive offense,"
said Mullen, in quotes that were posted online by The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger. "Their two losses are to two very good football teams."
Mississippi State is off to the program's best start since 1999, but victories against Jackson State, Auburn, Troy, South Alabama and now Kentucky are hardly headline-grabbers. Still, the excitement level in Starkville for Saturday's late-night kickoff is expected to be off-the-charts.
Mississippi State tweeted a "public service announcement" on its official account after the Kentucky game, urging fans to be prepared: "We need Davis Wade Stadium as loud as its ever been next Saturday night vs. Tennessee."
Mullen said he won't have to emphasize the importance of the game.
"Our goals are still alive for us. and that's to compete in the SEC West," he said. "You have to win your home games, and we've stressed this all along."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.