Mississippi State gets first true test of 2012

Derek Dooley will have a birds-eye view of his high-flying Tennessee offense Saturday against No. 19 Mississippi State — prime real estate to view one of the nation’s top aerial attacks. 

He’s just hoping his bunch is not grounded while he’s away from the sidelines.

Dooley, the third-year coach of the Volunteers, will coach from the press box against the Bulldogs while recovering from Tuesday’s surgery to repair a fracture in his right hip. Tennessee’s coaching staff said it does not believe Dooley’s location will produce any problems or affect the team’s gameday routine.

“We talk all the time throughout the ballgame, so it’s really gonna be not a lot of difference for us,” said offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who subbed in for Dooley on the weekly SEC coaches’ teleconference on Wednesday. “He’ll be sitting beside me as opposed to down there with the headset on. … The only difference will just be his location.”

But whether the undefeated Bulldogs (5-0) present problems for the Volunteers, only time will tell. Mississippi State has jumped all over mediocre competition en route to its best start since 1999 — winning by an average of 21 points over Jackson State, Troy and South Alabama — while also adding two conference wins over Auburn and Kentucky. But those two teams have a combined 2-9 record in 2012.

Given its unblemished record, coach Dan Mullen’s squad has risen slowly in the national polls, but Tennessee (3-2) will provide the first true test. The Volunteers have won six-consecutive games in the series.

Tennessee’s primary weapon, as is well-documented, will be the passing attack. With quarterback Tyler Bray, who has thrown for 1,582 yards and 14 touchdowns, spreading the wealth, NFL-caliber receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson have formed one of the most explosive duos in the country. The two wideouts have combined for 903 yards of offense and eight total touchdowns.

“They have an experienced offensive line, solid running backs. They can turn and hand the ball off and they can just pound away at you and control the tempo of the game,” said Mullen, who is 11-15 in SEC play as a head coach. “So they’re gonna force into some one-on-one situations and that’s where those guys are special because they have size, they have speed, they have talent and they have a very accurate quarterback who can get them the ball.”

Luckily for Mullen and his staff — and, conversely, unluckily for Dooley’s — Mississippi State’s strength as a team has derived from its secondary, notably led by All-America candidate Johnthan Banks. The senior has staked his claim as one of the top cornerbacks in the country this season, and one-on-one matchups with the likes of Hunter and Patterson will provide a solid litmus test for his NFL Draft prospects.

Banks and teammate Darius Slay both rank in the top-10 nationally in interceptions this season. Slay, a senior corner out of Brunswick, Ga., trails only Phillip Thomas of Fresno State for the FBS lead — he has nabbed four interceptions to date. As a unit, Mississippi State’s 15 forced turnovers are tied for the fourth-best mark nationally.

And with a quarterback as talented, but mistake-prone as Bray, the Bulldog corners are likely to be anxious and giddy in equal measures heading into their biggest home game of the season.

“I think the key is just patience and taking what a defense gives you and don’t force the ball. We’ve had some issues late in plays, trying to make too many plays and we’re just trying to get him to calm down and realize sometimes there’s not a play to be made,” Chaney said of Bray, who has thrown five interceptions in two SEC contests this season. “And what Tyler believes, he believes in his own skill so much that he’ll try to force some things once in a while. And we’re just trying to get that out of him.

“But all in all, this Mississippi State secondary is good, they’re very opportunistic, they’ve got great ball skills and we’ve gotta watch ourselves. We throw it up to them, they’re gonna make the play.”

Dooley and Chaney, from their adjoining perch in the press box, will have the best view in the house Saturday night in Starkville.

Depending on Tyler Bray’s success against one of the country’s most disruptive secondaries, they may not like what they see.