Mississippi State (5-0, 2-0 SEC) returns home this Saturday to host the Tennessee Volunteers (3-2, 0-2) in the biggest game in Starkville in many years.
Game time is slated for 8 p.m. CT on ESPN2. For the Bulldogs and head coach Dan Mullen, this is another statement game as the Bulldogs look to go 3-0 in the SEC for the first time since 1999 and stay unbeaten on the season.
The Bulldogs have not defeated the Volunteers since 1994, and Tennessee holds the series lead over the Bulldogs, 28-15-1.
For Mississippi State to stay in the hunt for the SEC West title, a win against the Volunteers is a must, and we will look at three keys that will help secure a Bulldogs win.
1. Run like the wind
Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell is off to a good start this year, and much of the Bulldogs' success on offense is dependent on his ability to complete passes at opportune times. But for the Bulldogs to be successful against the Volunteers, they need to continue being successful in the running game.
The Vols come into this game giving up 186.2 rushing yards per game. The Bulldogs are averaging right at 179 yards per game on the ground, so it is important for the Dawgs to hit the 150-yard mark or higher via the running game.
Look for Mississippi State to feed the Volunteers a good dose of LaDarius Perkins and a combination of Derek Milton and Josh Robinson. This will help open up the passing windows for Tyler Russell and help sustain drives and eat time. This will also help keep Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray on the sideline.
2. Get in Bray's face
Tyler Bray has only been sacked three times this year. That's right, only three times, which means Bray gets rid of the ball in a timely manner, and the Vols offensive line does a good job protecting the passer. If Bray has all day to throw on Saturday night, it could be a long night in Starkville, which is why it is important to get pressure on him. Sacks would be great, but the Bulldogs will at least need someone in Bray's face, and they'll need to put him on his backside a time or two.
Bray has thrown seven picks so far this season, and most of those came after he was rattled and got happy feet in the pocket. If the Bulldogs can at least pressure Bray, that may be all that the talented secondary of Mississippi State needs to create a few turnovers via the Vols' passing game.
3. Don't get cute coaching—just coach
Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley is 0-12 against ranked opponents during his time in Knoxville, and his teams have been outscored 270-73 in the second halves of those games. We have all watched Dooley crack at times. His record against ranked opponents leads you to believe that he is getting out-coached, and his staff is not making the right adjustments at halftimes of games against ranked opponents.
Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen is 7-3 against the SEC East during his time in Starkville, and the Bulldogs have only lost one game under Mullen when they were favored—last year's heartbreaking 41-34 loss at Auburn, where the Bulldogs were a seven-point favorite.
The Bulldogs are a three-point favorite for this weekend's contest. If Dan Mullen and his staff just play to win and don't get cute with the play-calling, Dooley and his staff are prone to making mistakes, and the Bulldogs should win the battle between the headsets.
Final Call and a Score
This is a game that the Bulldogs need for several reasons. They need to win this game to prove they are making strides in the SEC and belong in the conversation with the upper-tier teams in the conference. They also need this win to secure a third straight bowl bid. To do that at Mississippi State—and to do it in October—will say a lot about where this program is heading under Mullen.
Mississippi State will be able to run the ball and will run more than throw on Saturday, allowing the offense to eat the clock and churn out yards. The Bulldogs will also apply just enough pressure to help Johnthan Banks and that talented secondary create a few turnovers.
When you combine those two things with what has been solid coaching from the Bulldogs staff and a boisterous home crowd, that equals a tough, hard-fought Bulldogs victory, and dear old State will move to 6-0.
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