Middle Tennessee-Mississippi St. Preview
Midway through the college football season, No. 15 Mississippi State is doing something it hasn't done in more than a decade: contending for the Southeastern Conference Western Division title and a spot in a BCS bowl game.
Those are realities not often seen in Starkville, though the Bulldogs are getting used to the attention.
''This is a lot of what they expected coming into the season,'' Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. ''To be in this situation as a program, this is what we drill in our guys to expect.
''And you know - it's fantastic.''
- The Bulldogs haven't been ranked this high since 2000.
- Mississippi State's No. 12 spot in the current BCS standings is the third-highest in school history.
- The Bulldogs haven't been undefeated this late in a season since 1999.
Not that Mississippi State has a lot of time to bask in its early success. The Bulldogs (6-0) host Middle Tennessee State (4-2) on Saturday before a brutal stretch that includes showdowns at Alabama, against Texas A&M and at LSU.
Mullen isn't complaining about the schedule, he's just excited about the opportunity.
''In late October and in November you want to be playing big games,'' Mullen said. ''We've put ourselves in position to do that.''
Mississippi State's rise into the SEC's top tier isn't necessarily a huge surprise since the Bulldogs have been hanging around the national scene for nearly three years.
One reason is an improved offense that is much more balanced than in the recent past. Mullen was forced to go with a run-heavy approach his first three seasons because it suited his personnel, but first-year starting quarterback Tyler Russell has proven to be a much more potent big-play passing threat.
Russell threw for a career-high 23 completions and 291 yards in Saturday's 41-31 victory over Tennessee. The Bulldogs have scored at least 25 points in their first six games for the first time in the 113-year history of the football program.
Russell's favorite targets have been Chad Bumphis (468 yards, six touchdowns) and tight end Marcus Green (five touchdowns), but the Bulldogs have five players with at least 10 receptions. Mississippi State offensive coordinator Les Koenning said Russell's ability to consistently complete long passes has made his job easier.
''There's no doubt,'' Koenning said. ''Anytime you can get the big plays to happen, it's really good.''
It's certainly helped LaDarius Perkins find plenty of running room. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound junior is third in the SEC with 599 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.
Koenning said the Tennessee victory was important because it proved the Bulldogs could win a true shootout.
''I was proud of the way our team reacted,'' Koenning said. ''It was like a heavyweight fight. You get hit and what are you going to do? You're going to hit back. I saw that. Our team responded in every way. That's the sign of a good football team.''
Now there's conversation about whether the Bulldogs can become a great team.
There are reasons to be skeptical. After all, Mississippi State's three SEC wins have come against teams that are a combined 0-11 in conference play.
Mullen has two national championship rings from his days as the offensive coordinator at Florida. He said he doesn't talk to his team about goals on a national scale, instead focusing on an SEC championship.
''If we do that, I imagine great things will happen for us, and we'll be rewarded accordingly,'' Mullen said.
But the path to an SEC championship is never easy. Before the Bulldogs jump back into conference play, they're worried about a Middle Tennessee team that beat Georgia Tech by three touchdowns earlier this season.
However, the Blue Raiders will be without a key component from that surprising Sept. 29 road victory. Running back Benny Cunningham, who leads the Sun Belt Conference with 600 yards and 11 touchdowns, was lost for the season with a knee injury suffered in a 34-30 win last Saturday at Florida International.
"It's very unfortunate on a personal level because Benny is one of the hardest working and competitive players I have ever coached," Rick Stockstill said of the senior, who rushed for 217 yards versus the Yellow Jackets. "I feel like he has been short-changed the last couple of years because of injuries."
Jordan Parker and Drayton Calhoun will try to pick up the slack in Cunningham's absence in the backfield. The two have combined for 412 yards, and quarterback Logan Kilgore has thrown for at least 238 yards in each of the last four games.
Middle Tennessee State, which has lost all four of its games to the Bulldogs, is 0-13 against ranked opponents since becoming an FBS school in 1999.