By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
Week six’s Off the Radar Preview features the Mississippi State Bulldogs – quietly sitting at 5-0 and No. 19 in the country – and the Tennessee Volunteers. Kickoff is set for 9 p.m. Eastern from Starkville, where the Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0 SEC) will try to pick up their third Southeastern Conference win of the year in as many tries against a Tennessee (3-2, 0-2) squad still looking for its first conference victory of 2012.
Dan Mullen’s MSU team is off to its best start since 1999 and is one of only 15 teams nationwide that remains unbeaten. Derek Dooley, who will be coaching this one from the box after undergoing surgery on his hip earlier this week, will be going for his first win over a ranked opponent as head coach in Knoxville.
Saturday night’s showdown marks the first meeting between the two schools on the gridiron since 2008, when Tennessee ran away with a 34-3 win inside Neyland Stadium. The Bulldogs bring a seven-game winning streak into this weekend, which is the fifth-longest in the nation.
Mississippi State Offense vs. Tennessee Defense
Through their first five games, the Bulldogs offense has maintained remarkable balance. MSU has run the ball on 55 percent of their 336 plays while passing on 45 percent. In last week’s 13-point win on the road against Kentucky, Mississippi State ran 78 total plays – 39 runs and 39 passes.
Tyler Russell leads the MSU offense from the quarterback position, and he has been an impeccable game manager for the Bulldogs so far this year with a 10-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Russell has thrown for 1,091 yards through five contests and is one of only seven FBS signal-callers to throw 10 or more touchdown passes to go along with zero or one interceptions.
Russell has been aided by the play of one of MSU’s all-time greats at the receiver position, Chad Bumphis. Six of Russell’s 10 TD tosses have been to Bumphis, whose 18 career receiving scores are the most in Mississippi State history. Bumphis has been a big-play wide-out for the Bulldogs, averaging almost 18 yards per reception for the season as the clear No. 1 option on the outside for Russell.
LaDarius Perkins has been the go-to running back for MSU, currently No. 2 in the SEC in terms of yards per game on the ground. Perkins has made the best of his 82 carries thus far, picking up six yards per tote to go along with six touchdowns. His 99.8 yards per game trail only Mike Gillislee of Florida in the conference.
The balanced production of the MSU offense has been made possible by stellar play from the offensive line. The big fellas up front have produced holes for Perkins and Co. to run through and allowed the Bulldogs to eclipse the 150-yard mark on the ground in all five games this season. They’ve been equally as strong in pass protection for Russell, allowing only three sacks on the year, the fifth-lowest total in the nation.
The Volunteers have struggled as a unit on defense in 2012, coming in at No. 13 in the SEC in total D. The Vols have had trouble stopping opponents on the ground (186 yards per game allowed) and through the air (239 ypg allowed), and will face a Mississippi State team that, as mentioned above, is dangerous in both facets.
Perkins will have his chances to make plays against this Tennessee defense, as the Vols have allowed 115 rushing yards or more in four of their five outings (Georgia State was the only team not to reach that mark), and they’ve been gashed in each of their first two conference games to the tune of 336 yards against Florida and 274 at Georgia.
Tennessee Offense vs. Mississippi State Defense
For all their struggles on the defensive side of the ball, the Vols have been just as explosive on offense.
Tyler Bray is the SEC’s most prolific quarterback so far this year, averaging 316 yards per game through the air to go along with 14 touchdown passes. Tennessee has been a pass-happy offense in 2012, with Bray averaging 38 attempts per contest so far.
Overall, the Volunteers are second in the SEC in total offense and first overall in passing. Bray’s favorite target thus far has been wide receiver Justin Hunter, who is one of only three pass-catchers to average over 90 receiving yards per game. Hunter has registered 33 catches through five games for 456 yards and four scores. Cordarrelle Patterson has been effective as well for the Vols, hauling in four passes per game and chipping in two scores.
Raijion Neal has been among the SEC’s best runners so far, averaging 4.5 yards on 103 carries this season. Neal has been dependable for Tennessee, going for a solid 92 yards per game and also finding the end zone four times. Tennessee likes to get things going through the air, but the value of a runner like Neal cannot be understated for Dooley’s squad.
The Mississippi State defense has seen its share of pass-first attacks this season, but the Bulldogs have performed well. MSU is No. 12 in the country in pass efficiency defense, only giving up 199 yards per game in that department. The Bulldogs have limited opponents to just three passing touchdowns this season while recording nine interceptions, the eighth-most in college football.
Neal and Co. will have their work cut out for them, as the Bulldogs are surrendering just 3.8 yards per carry on the ground. The Vols will present a tough task on the ground for MSU, though, as they have been churning out 177 yards per game on the ground to this point.
Derrick Brodus has been dependable for Tennessee in the kicking game, hitting on six of his seven field goal attempts this season. Brodus’ 85.7 percent conversion rate trails only Jeremy Shelley (100) and Cody Parkey (87.5) in the conference. Brodus and fellow UT kicker Michael Palardy have struggled collectively on PATs, missing on four of their 25 total attempts.
Devon Bell missed his first three FG attempts this year for MSU, but has nailed six straight since for a 66.7 percent success rate.
Neither team has been exceptionally explosive in the punt return game, with Tennessee’s Devrin Young (10.9 per return) and MSU’s Johnthan Banks (9.1) are leading their respective teams in that regard.
Patterson has been one of the SEC’s best kick returners thus far, racking up 27 yards per return.