NCF Nation: Josh Robinson

What we learned in the SEC: Week 9

October, 26, 2014
Oct 26
12:43
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Imagine that. Last week, there wasn't a single competitive game on the SEC slate. This Saturday, every game was must-see TV, even though Alabama-Tennessee lacked the fourth-quarter drama of the other games.

With three primetime games going bonkers, to the delight of three terrific crowds, you could have made a serious case for an SEC RedZone channel. Picture-in-picture just wasn't enough.

Hugh Freeze is kicking himself: No. 3 Ole Miss fell to No. 24 LSU 10-7 when the Tigers intercepted a Bo Wallace pass with two seconds left. Freeze has to live with a couple bad decisions that cost the Rebels a shot at overtime. First, a mind-numbing delay of game pushed their freshman kicker back from a 42- to a 47-yard field-goal attempt. Then Freeze chose to have Wallace sneak in a pass with nine seconds left in figuring they'd either get something underneath and out of bounds to set up an easier field goal or Wallace would take a shot at the end zone, where only his receiver could catch the ball. Technically, there was enough time to go for the win and, if it fell incomplete, kick the game-tying field goal. Neither scenario happened, and now Ole Miss has to live with a haunting first loss of the season. With more SEC West bloodletting to come, the possibility of getting two teams into the playoff took a serious hit.

[+] EnlargeTrey Quinn
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsNo. 24 LSU upset No. 3 Ole Miss by limiting the Rebels to just seven points and controlling the time of possession.
Here's to old-school football: As expected, the Rebels' Landshark defense shut down the airways and owned the takeaway advantage (four to LSU's one). What wasn't expected, however, was the Tigers' success running against a unit giving up an average of 97.1 yards a game. LSU piled up an astounding 264 yards on the ground and gradually wore down Ole Miss. The Tigers defense also played its best game of the season and thrived in an electric Death Valley atmosphere. The Rebels led for most of the game, until a 13-play, 95-yard, fourth-quarter drive by LSU that featured only one pass attempt -- the game-winning touchdown. It was Les Miles' 24th fourth-quarter win at LSU. The man is a warlock.

Mississippi State looks vulnerable: It would be so easy to devote this space to some well-deserved gushing over MSU's unstoppable dynamic duo -- running back Josh Robinson (198 yards, two touchdowns) and quarterback Dak Prescott (216 yards passing with one touchdown and 88 yards rushing with two scores). It's only fair to give Mark Stoops and his Wildcats all the credit in the world for Kentucky's improvement. But the story of this game with lasting implications concerned the Bulldogs' leaky defense. Mississippi State came into Saturday's game ranked 121st in passing yards allowed and gave up 401 yards to UK. Having your defense exposed in your first game as the No. 1 team in the land is not the best look for the playoff committee.

A desperate Spurrier is a dangerous Spurrier is an entertaining Spurrier: Steve Spurrier definitely put the fun back in the Fun n' Gun offense Saturday night on the Plains in a 42-35 loss to Auburn. The Gamecocks came in with a 2-3 record in the SEC, and Spurrier called plays like he had nothing to lose. And you know what? It worked. South Carolina's defense is still a disaster in cleats, but Riverboat Steve dialed up an epic shootout. Reverses, double reverses, quarterback throwbacks, wildcat bombs, onside kicks, fourth-down insanity ... it was all on glorious display. This was vintage Spurrier. The Gamecocks went for it on fourth down six times and converted five. For their part, the Tigers looked comfortable all night. They know a thing or two about winning with offense, so this one felt a lot like 2013. Auburn isn't in control in the West Division but has to like its chances to still get to Atlanta or slip into the playoff as a worthy one-loss team.

Lane Kiffin makes for great theater: Neyland Stadium was packed with Big Orange fans thirsting for some revenge against their former coach in his return. But on Alabama's first play, Kiffin dialed up a bootleg perfectly executed by Blake Sims and Amari Cooper, who ran 80 yards for a touchdown. Kiffin ran with Cooper down the Bama sideline for a bit before flashing a sly grin under his visor. On the Tide's next drive, Cooper continued to dominate and caught three more passes for 75 yards. After Cooper's second score, he shoulder-bumped Kiffin, who was smiling broadly this time. Vols fans probably doubled over with nausea. The Crimson Tide never lost the lead in the 34-20 win over Tennessee. What we really learned in this one was just how good Cooper is. His 185 yards in the first quarter were the most for any SEC receiver in a quarter in the past 10 seasons. When it was over, Cooper had 224 yards to break Julio Jones' single-game school record of 221 yards receiving (also against the Vols, in 2010).
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- It took Mississippi State 115 years to reach No. 1 in the polls. The Bulldogs then spent a bye week lapping up congratulatory back slaps at home in Starkville before taking that digit into an actual game.

So some might see the warts from Saturday’s 45-31 win at Kentucky, which wasn’t decided until the final couple of minutes, and question why they didn’t dominate like a top-ranked team. But the simple answer is they didn’t really know how to play that role.

Head coach Dan Mullen thought his team was so tightly wound in the first half -- dropping passes, missing blocks and tackles, trying not to make mistakes instead of being aggressive -- that his big halftime speech was more like a yoga session. Take a deep breath, he told his guys.

[+] EnlargeJosh Robinson
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesMississippi State running back Josh Robinson proved tough to tackle on Saturday.
“We felt a little pressure because now you have a target on your back,” defensive tackle Kaleb Eulls said. “It was like first-time jitters, playing as No. 1 for the first time.”

The Bulldogs’ final exhale didn’t arrive until much later. Three different times in the second half, they grabbed a 14-point lead only to see Kentucky score a touchdown to make it a one-score game again. The resilient Wildcats sliced the lead to 38-31 with 2:31 left and went for the onside kick.

But the ball zoomed straight to the 230-pound Christian Holmes, and the player nicknamed “Turtle” ran like a rabbit for the 61-yard, decisive score. Holmes said he scored on a similar play in practice last week, but he was so surprised to do so in an actual game that the referee had to ask him for the ball.

“I still had it high and tight,” Holmes said. “I was so excited, I didn’t know what to do.”

This wasn’t exactly how Mississippi State would have scripted its first game as No. 1, especially in giving up 504 yards of offense to an unranked opponent. But afterward, Mullen and his players seemed loose and relaxed while cracking jokes with reporters. The burden of that initial ranking had clearly been lifted.

“Hopefully, we get all that ranking stuff behind us now,” Mullen said. “You can drop us if you want, I don’t really care. It certainly will ease the pressure right now."

Josh Robinson helped make sure that the Bulldogs didn’t enjoy a short-lived time at the top.

The junior tailback ran for a career-high 198 yards on 23 carries, including a 73-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that gave his team some breathing room. Chugging his tree-trunk legs, the 5-foot-9 Robinson was virtually impossible for the Wildcats to bring down, never more so than on a 22-yard run in which it seemed like everybody in the stadium got a piece of him.

“They don’t call me ‘The Human Bowling Ball’ for nothing,” he said. “I try to live up to that name the best I can.”

Robinson, who had a 197-yard day earlier this year at LSU, joked that he begged Mullen for another carry when the team was in victory formation so he could get to 200. Mullen told him he had had 59 minutes to get those extra two yards.

If he keeps making highlight-reel plays like he did Saturday, Robinson will get to 200 some day. He didn’t think anything he did against Kentucky was too special.

“Go to YouTube and type in J-Rob,” he said. “You’ll see that a lot.”

Robinson was the offensive star on a day when Heisman Trophy candidate Dak Prescott put up his usual efficient numbers (18-for-33 for 216 yards passing, 18 carries for 88 yards, a touchdown pass and two rushing touchdowns). Prescott wore a walking boot on his left foot to the postgame news conference. But before Mississippi State fans could sound the alarm cowbells, he shrugged it off as merely precautionary.

Still, details like that get magnified beyond just the Magnolia State when you’re the No. 1 team in the country. The polls people care about will change on Tuesday night when the College Football Playoff selection committee releases its first Top 25. The Bulldogs may or may not be on top of that one, but they will surely check in safely in the top four.

Mullen said he probably won’t watch the reveal of the first committee poll.

“I imagine we’ll be in the mix, and that will be a great honor for us,” he said. “If the playoffs were next week, I’d definitely be watching. But since they don’t start for quite a long time, I don’t know. I might be having dinner.”

The Bulldogs got their first game as a No. 1 team out of the way. Now they relax before trying to finish there.

“You can just refocus on what you do,” Eulls said. “No worrying about the rankings at all, just what you’re doing.”
The Magnolia State is home to the No. 1- and No. 3-ranked teams in the country.

If you haven't found time to let that fact soak in, you should do so. It's been a crazy football season, but nothing better illustrates how upside down things have gotten than the transcendence of Mississippi State and Ole Miss.

Don't let the novelty of the rankings fool you, though. Neither program is a fluke. Their rise hasn't been due to smoke and mirrors. These are two solidly built football teams.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisBehind QB Dak Prescott, Mississippi State's offense is something to behold in the SEC and nationally.
Which brings us to today's Take Two debate: Would you rather have Ole Miss' defense or Mississippi State's offense?

Alex Scarborough: Five years ago, this would have been a simple answer. I would have taken Ole Miss' Landshark defense and been on my merry way.

But this isn't years past. This is a new SEC that thrives on offense.

For that reason, give me Mississippi State's offense. Give me Dak Prescott's mobility and arm strength. Give me Ben Beckwith at guard, Josh Robinson at tailback and De'Runnya Wilson at receiver. I don't care who you have, that's a hard bunch to stop. And I didn't even mention Jameon Lewis, Brandon Holloway and Malcolm Johnson.

The Bulldogs might not have the brand-name cache of others in the SEC, but those guys can put up points in a hurry. They lead the league in yards per game (529.7) and rank second in points per game (41.9). They're balanced, too, with 5.5 yards per rush and 9.1 yards per pass attempt. More than 23 percent of their plays go for 10 yards or more.

And they have the one thing no defense can account for: a star quarterback.

As long as they have Prescott under center, they have a chance. He wears No. 15 for a reason, and like Tim Tebow, he can will his team to victory. I won't even bother with Prescott's eye-popping statistics (you can find a Heisman Trophy tracker if you must know) because it's his leadership that's the most invaluable part of his game. Good luck stopping that.

Sam Khan: I hear you, Alex. I hear you loud and clear. And honestly, it's hard for me to pick against Prescott and Mississippi State because I, too, believe in the power of a star quarterback, and nobody has been better than Prescott this season.

But Ole Miss' defense has a nickname (the Landsharks) for a reason. It's that good.

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Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesThe Rebels' defense has held all seven opponents this season to 20 points or fewer.
The numbers speak for themselves. No. 1 in the nation in points allowed per game (10.6) and goal-to-go efficiency (25 percent). No. 3 nationally in yards per play (4.15) and red zone efficiency (33.3 percent). No. 5 in turnover margin (plus-10). No. 12 in third-down conversion rate (29.6 percent). I could go on, but you get the picture.

There's a reason for the old adage "defense wins championships." It's cliché and simplistic, but it's true. A team can't beat you if it can't score, and nobody's better at keeping opponents out of the end zone than the Rebels. And that scoring average should be lower, considering seven of those points are the result of an Alabama fumble return.

I'll take Robert Nkemdiche, C.J. Johnson, Marquis Haynes and that defensive front. I'll take the heart of a player like linebacker D.T. Shackelford. I'll take a secondary with players such as Tony Conner, Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt. Speed, tackling, a good mix of youth and experience. Give me the Landsharks. Fins up.

Scarborough: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But here's the question I'd pose to you: When the Egg Bowl does roll around on Nov. 29, do you think Ole Miss will be able to stop Mississippi State offensively? Would the Rebs keep the Bulldogs under, say, 28 points? Because I'm not sure they will.

Wilson, at 6-foot-5, is a matchup nightmare. Pair that size with the speedy Lewis underneath and you're talking about a headache for any secondary. And it's not like you can focus on just the passing game, either. Robinson's ability to pound between the tackles would negate Ole Miss' pass-rush and demand a safety play closer to the line of scrimmage. He and Prescott running the read-option is dangerous because neither is easy to bring down.

While I think it would be a close contest and a ton of fun to watch, I think Prescott & Co. would put up points on the Rebs. Prescott's dual-threat ability and State's balance offensively is the difference, to me.

Khan: I do think the Rebels have what it takes to keep the Bulldogs' offense in check come Egg Bowl time. This defense is versatile enough to stop just about anything. They shut down a traditional offense, like Alabama's, save for one drive when the Crimson Tide mostly ran behind Cam Robinson. But that was the only touchdown the Rebels' defense yielded that day.

Against a talented spread team, like Texas A&M, the Rebels had answers there, too. The Aggies tried to run it and couldn't (1.5 yards per carry). They tried to throw it and couldn't do that either. And they put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks to wreak havoc and force errant throws, which leads to turnovers. I think the Auburn game in a couple of weeks will be another good barometer for the Ole Miss defense.

Wilson is pretty talented. So is this guy -- you might have heard of him -- named Amari Cooper. When the Crimson Tide came to Oxford, he had a nice day (nine catches, 91 yards) but no touchdowns. T.J. Yeldon had 123 yards rushing, but again no touchdowns, and the Rebels kept Derrick Henry in check.

The Rebels haven't allowed more than 20 points in a game this season (that came on the road, to Texas A&M and, mind you, the final six came as time expired when the game was out of hand). I'd like their chances at keeping Mississippi State under that 28-point benchmark. When the time comes, it'll be entertaining to watch those two units go head-to-head, that's for sure.
Dak Prescott, Bo Wallace, Nick ChubbUSA TODAY Sports, Icon Sportswire, USA TODAY SportsDak Prescott (MSU), Bo Wallace (Ole Miss) and Nick Chubb (Georgia) led impressive wins Saturday.
Like Hugh Freeze does with his Ole Miss team following any game, it's time to physically throw our concerns into the trash. Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Georgia are here to stay.

After all the questions heading into the weekend, we received all the validation we needed with both Mississippi schools topping ranked opponents with the pressure on -- again -- and Georgia going on the road without Todd Gurley and utterly embarrassing Missouri in a 34-0 win.

Following its 38-23 win against then-No. 2 Auburn, Mississippi State is now the No. 1 team in the country. Ole Miss' 35-20 spanking of then-No. 14 Texas A&M has the Rebels third. Georgia has risen to No. 10.

Let this settle in: The Egg Bowl could mean more than the Iron Bowl at season's end. At the moment, "Hotty Toddy" and clanging cowbells are drowning out "War Eagle" and "Roll Tide."

So much for the state of Alabama's unofficial motto of "At least we're not Mississippi."

Even after historic wins by the Mississippi schools, we weren't sure if they could get it done a second week in a row. (However, yours truly picked both to win.) And without Gurley, your Heisman favorite before his suspension, we had no clue what mental state the Dawgs would be in having to travel all the way to Columbia, Missouri, for a crucial conference game.

Well, all three told us to stay calm and carry on, proving they are still on track for special seasons. We can stop downplaying the success of the Magnolia State's best, and Georgia freshman Nick Chubb, who rushed for 143 yards and a touchdown against Mizzou, appears capable of carrying the load for as long as Gurley is out.

With Mizzou tanking, Florida giving LSU a victory in the Swamp, Vanderbilt long gone and South Carolina and Tennessee lagging behind, Kentucky shares the top spot with Georgia in the SEC East race. With all due respect to a much improved Wildcats team, I think we would all agree Georgia is the clear-cut favorite to win the East, with or without Gurley. The offense put trust in Chubb and quarterback Hutson Mason, and both delivered in the clutch. A defense that still had us on the fence played its most complete game of the season. Mizzou quarterback Maty Mauk was never comfortable, throwing four interceptions and getting sacked three times, and the running game mustered a paltry 50 yards.

Georgia allowed just 10 first downs and Mizzou never even made it into the red zone. It's clear the loss to Indiana wasn't an anomaly for the Tigers, and they aren't the contenders we once thought, but don't take anything away from Georgia. If you weren't impressed with Georgia, you just weren't watching. Without their best player, the Dawgs dominated, and the East is now theirs for the taking.

With the way things are going, it appears Georgia will be on a crash course to meet one of those Mississippi schools in Atlanta for the SEC championship. For the first time, Ole Miss and Mississippi State are both 3-0 in conference play.

Where do we even begin with these teams and why we can no longer take them lightly? Ole Miss became the first team to shut out Kevin Sumlin's Aggies at the half. Mississippi State became the fifth team in AP Poll history to defeat three straight top-10 teams. Ole Miss has allowed six offensive touchdowns this season, and its defense has scored four. Mississippi State has an SEC-high 47 tackles for loss and has held opponents to just six touchdowns in 19 red-zone appearances.

Mississippi State handled the No. 2 team in the country with a 15-point win, and the Rebels marched into College Station and beat an angry Aggies team in front of an SEC-record crowd of 110,633. Both teams won by 15, but let's not kid ourselves, the margins of victory could have been bigger for both teams.

You need more validation? How about the fact that Mississippi State now has the nation's second-longest winning streak at nine? How about both teams having 16 takeaways? You want clutch? Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace, who appears to have exorcised "Bad Bo," has seven total touchdowns to zero turnovers in SEC play, and Mississippi State wide receiver De'Runnya Wilson has a nation-leading five touchdown catches on third down.

Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, and running back Josh Robinson might be the SEC's toughest runner, outside of Gurley.

These teams have bite, and it's time to give them the respect they deserve. There is a ton of football left, especially with the Mississippi schools having to continue their runs through the gauntlet that is the SEC West, but this past weekend showed us these teams are for real.

The SEC is trudging through a cacophony of barks, cowbells and "Hotty Toddys," and there is just no getting around it. Deal with it.

Bulldogs' front seven best in SEC 

October, 10, 2014
Oct 10
8:36
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John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsBenardrick McKinney leads a front seven that has gained the attention of NFL scouts.
There isn’t a hotter team in the country right now than Mississippi State. After holding a combined record of 0-10 against teams that ended up ranked in the final AP top 25 the prior two seasons, coach Dan Mullen has his squad coming off of back-to-back wins over top-10 opponents for the first time in school history. This has vaulted them to No. 3 in the current AP poll, and after studying the coaches' tape, there are several reasons to believe the Bulldogs can sustain and make a serious run at the SEC West title -- potentially a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

On offense they are led by quarterback Dak Prescott (6-foot-2, 230) whose dual-threat capabilities have provided fits for opposing defenses and have him in the early conversation for Heisman. The Bulldogs have been efficient running the ball behind Prescott and running back Josh Robinson (5-9, 215) who both have above-average combinations of power, balance and lateral agility. On the perimeter they have a big and physical receiving corps, led by former basketball player De'Runnya Wilson (6-5, 225), who have shown the ability to win one-on-one downfield battles and keep defenses honest.

While they have improved on offense and are showing better balance, where the Bulldogs will undoubtedly hang their hat this season will come on the defensive front seven -- arguably the best in the SEC.
Texas A&M’s defense worked diligently throughout the early portion of its season to shed its 2013 reputation, one that lingered until the unit stepped on the field Aug. 28 at South Carolina and could prove it actually was a different group with a different attitude and a new outlook.

Until recently, the Aggies had performed admirably on that side of the ball, posting much more respectable numbers than they had a season ago. Things indeed looked different.

[+] EnlargeDe'Runnya Wilson
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsThe Texas A&M defense got pushed around Saturday against Mississippi State.
Then Saturday happened: Mississippi State ran over the Aggies to the tune of 48 points and 559 total yards, Texas A&M’s worst statistical defensive performance of the season.

"[We weren't] playing smart defense," linebacker Justin Bass said. "Just staying in your gap and having good eye control; it's as simple as that."

The question is, was Saturday and aberration or the beginning of a familiar trend?

Mississippi State is 5-0 for a reason. The Bulldogs, as Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin noted afterward, were efficient and had a solid game plan. Quarterback Dak Prescott’s ability to seamlessly run Dan Mullen’s spread-option offense -- with a dizzying array of read-option, designed quarterback draws and more -- is difficult for any defense to handle, and as much has been proven this season.

Add in running back Josh Robinson or the stable of other backs the Bulldogs have, as well as talented receivers and a big offensive line, and it becomes understandable why Mississippi State averages 541.8 offensive yards per game (12th in the nation).

However, the Aggies struggled in key areas Saturday that are points of emphasis for Sumlin and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, namely third downs. The Aggies allowed Mississippi State to convert five of its first six third-down attempts, and that doesn’t include the first third down of the game, which was a holding penalty on cornerback De'Vante Harris that extended a Mississippi State drive that could have ended in a three-and-out. On the next play, Robinson broke free for a 49-yard run that led to an eventual touchdown.

The third-down struggles appear to be a blip on the radar for Texas A&M, as the Aggies have otherwise been successful in that area. Going into Saturday’s game, the Aggies allowed third-down conversions at a 33.7 percent clip, good for 39th nationally. And the Aggies started the second half defensively getting back-to-back third-down stops, but Texas A&M’s offense wasn’t able to capitalize with points either time, leaving the Aggies trailing 28-10. They didn’t allow a third-down conversion in the second half.

The biggest area of concern Saturday was one that was an absolute headache in 2013: run defense. The Aggies allowed a whopping 280 rushing yards to the Bulldogs. The reasons varied from missed tackles to poor angles taken in pursuit, or simply a matter of Mississippi State’s offensive line winning the battle up front.

It was the second consecutive week the Aggies gave up a healthy dose of rushing yards. The previous week, Texas A&M allowed 285 rushing yards to Arkansas. Even if a 51-yard fake punt against A&M’s special teams is taken out of the equation, the Aggies have allowed an average of 257 rushing yards per game in the last two weeks against SEC opponents.

That’s a far cry from 124.75 rushing yards per game allowed in the first four games of the season before the Aggies faced the Razorbacks.

On Saturday, it didn’t help that the Aggies also struggled to cover the Bulldogs in the passing game. Prescott attacked the Texas A&M secondary, going 20-of-26 for 268 yards. The Aggies struggled to defend Prescott’s back-shoulder fade passes, which ate up chunks of yardage time after time.

Despite the poor performance Saturday and an up-and-down showing against Arkansas, the Aggies still have been better overall statistically than in 2013 (it’s hard not to be), when they were last in the SEC and in the bottom 30 nationally in most major defensive categories. Their ability to finish strong against the Razorbacks and get key stops in the second half and overtime appeared to be a sign of progress.

Saturday against Mississippi State was a different story. With two highly ranked opponents lined up for the next two weeks (No. 3 Ole Miss and No. 7 Alabama), the Aggies will have to bounce back from their showing in Starkville if they want to prove they are capable of being an effective SEC defense.

"We have to really correct some stuff that we've been letting slide so far," Bass said. "It is a wake-up call."

If the Aggies plan to be a real contender in the SEC West moving forward, they have to be much better defensively than they were Saturday.
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STARKVILLE, Miss. -- As the closing seconds dripped off Mississippi State’s two mammoth end zone scoreboards, a still packed Davis Wade Stadium erupted, and cowbells clanged.

And clanged.

Bulldogs players, still trying to grasp their dominating 48-31 win over No. 6 Texas A&M, rushed the student section and started what should be one heck of a party in Starkville.

Coach Dan Mullen carried his daughter.

“You never see this,” Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin said. “Usually, games like this, the students are gone.”

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Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesMississippi State QB Dak Prescott did damage with his legs against Texas A&M, rushing for three TDs.
By games like this, Stricklin meant blowouts. But this one, which at times felt like Mississippi State was playing an early-season gimmie game, was so different because of the school lined up opposite the Bulldogs. That team projected to have some sort of College Football Playoff run was trounced by the Bulldogs before halftime, when its quarterback, Heisman Trophy candidate Kenny Hill, had directed A&M’s high-powered offense to just 10 points.

Those fans stayed because they wanted to celebrate with a team that has now beaten Top-10 opponents in back-to-back games for the first time ever. They wanted to celebrate with a team that proved it deserves to be given SEC contender status.

It deserves some playoff talk, too.

“I’m proud of our guys, I’m proud of our team, I’m proud of the whole university,” said Mullen, who got choked up during his postgame news conference. “It is hard to win in the SEC.”

Mullen couldn’t help getting emotional. He just watched what most of the country watched: Utter dominance from a group of two- and three-star high school misfits.

With the college football universe descending on the state of Mississippi this weekend (No. 3 Alabama played at No. 11 Ole Miss), 12th-ranked Mississippi State proved to be a great opening act for the Magnolia State. It makes you wonder if the Bulldogs should have been the main event and if this team might be the best of a wild bunch in the SEC West.

“Pretty big statement -- Mississippi STATEment,” quarterback Dak Prescott said of the win.

It didn’t matter that starting center Dillon Day was out due to suspension and top wide receiver Jameon Lewis was down with a leg injury. You hardly noticed their absences. Outside of a beautiful opening drive, the Aggies didn’t look fit to be on the same field as the Bulldogs.

“It said that we can compete in the SEC West,” said running back Josh Robinson, who had a game-high 107 rushing yards and two touchdowns. “We can be one of the better teams.”

The Aggies certainly have their issues -- including catching the football -- but you can’t take anything away from Mississippi State’s performance. The offense was incredibly efficient, went 6-for-6 in the red zone and piled on 559 yards of offense.

Prescott was a surgeon with his passing and threw for 264 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 77 yards and three scores.

The Bulldogs' defense frustrated Hill all day. It was aggressive; the Bulldogs dialed up the pressure to take the deep pass away and registered four sacks. The Aggies piled up 526 yards and 31 points, but this game was never in doubt after the Bulldogs went up three scores in the second quarter.

We wondered if Mississippi State, which has historically flamed out on the big stage, could win the big game when the spotlight was on. The Bulldogs have now won two of those games and should head into next week’s showdown with Auburn as a Top-10 opponent.

“We’re moving up the charts, so people know our names, but we’re not worried about them knowing it,” running back Brandon Holloway.

Oh, they’ll know it now.

The praise will be coming, but do the Bulldogs care?

“Recognition is awesome, but you kind of like being under the radar, honestly,” said offensive lineman Ben Beckwith, who filled in for Day at center. “I like going [into games] thinking the other teams are looking over us. You would think they wouldn’t be.”

People will be talking about the Bulldogs a little more now, and they should. When the defense is in sync with the offense like it was Saturday, this is as complete a team as there is in the SEC, and it looks like it’s only getting better.

“We don’t care what kind of attention we get," Robinson said. "Because at the end of the year, we should have a No. 1 next to our name."

We're in for quite the clash when No. 12 Mississippi State (4-0, 1-0 SEC) hosts No. 6 Texas A&M (5-0, 2-0) Saturday afternoon. We have two great quarterbacks, two entertaining and productive running games and two defenses that we really don't know what to expect from.

Sounds fun to me! Let's break it down:

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertMississippi State QB Dak Prescott has the attention of Texas A&M's defense.
 Texas A&M's key to victory: First and foremost, the Aggies have to get a handle on Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott and limit the Bulldogs' big plays. Prescott is a good decision-maker and runs the Bulldogs' offense -- which is full of read-option, play-action, misdirection and more -- flawlessly. Staying disciplined defensively is critical for A&M. Offensively, this Mississippi State secondary seems ripe for the picking so the Aggies simply need to do what they do -- have Kenny Hill sling the ball around to their big, fast receivers and keep the tempo high. One thing to keep an eye on is offensive line play. The Aggies had some hiccups, especially on the right side of the offensive line, against Arkansas. Mississippi State is big on the defensive front. -- Sam Khan

Mississippi State's key to victory: Like the Aggies, the Bulldogs have to control that guy slinging the ball around for Texas A&M. Hill leads the SEC with 1,745 passing yards and 17 touchdowns. He's coming off a strong comeback performance against Arkansas, and he's challenging Prescott for the title of the SEC's best quarterback. That isn't a good mixture for a Bulldogs' defense that hasn't been great against the pass this year. Mississippi State is last in the SEC in pass defense, allowing teams to throw for 319 yards per game and get 7.6 yards per attempt. Things have to tighten up in the secondary. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Texas A&M leads the SEC in 20-plus-yard receptions, while Mississippi State's defense is tied for 11th in the SEC defending those passes. What's more is that Texas A&M averages an FBS-high 3.9 points per drive this season, and the Aggies have 340 more yards after the catch than any other SEC team. They are averaging 8.0 yards after the catch per reception (fourth in SEC), according to ESPN Stats & Information. -- Edward Aschoff

Texas A&M's X-factor: Linebacker play. Facing an offense like this means making the right decision, whether it's chasing the quarterback, running back or filling the proper gap. This could be a big game for weakside linebacker Shaan Washington, who has been an impact player since returning from a collarbone injury. Middle linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni will need to have a big game, and communication is key for this group as they decipher what the Bulldogs throw at them.- - Sam Khan

Mississippi State's X-factor: While I think the defense has to be able to shut down Hill, if this game gets into a shootout, the Bulldogs have to be able to run the ball and try to get A&M's defense tired. That's where wrecking ball running back Josh Robinson comes into play. Robinson has 485 rushing yards on the season and is averaging 7.8 yards per carry. He gashed LSU"s defense for a career-high 197 yards and then got two weeks to recoup for the Aggies, who surrendered 285 yards to Arkansas' running game last week. -- Edward Aschoff

Playoff impact: The winner will be in a good spot (especially if it's Texas A&M, given its No. 6 ranking). However, there is still a lot of season left. Both of these squads have challenging games left against Alabama, Auburn and Ole Miss, but a win here strengthens the case for either team. On the flip side, this isn't an "elimination game" per se for either team since it's beginning to look like the SEC will have a solid shot at getting two teams in. But considering what's on the schedule, it's best to take care of business, especially the Bulldogs, who are currently outside the top 10. -- Sam Khan

Keys to Texas A&M-Mississippi State 

October, 2, 2014
Oct 2
11:23
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Kenny Hill and Dak Prescott USA TODAY SportsQuarterbacks Kenny Hill and Dak Prescott will duke it out at Davis Wade Stadium this weekend.
While there are a multitude of stellar Week 6 matchups, for me one clearly stands out as being the most intriguing: Texas A&M at Mississippi State.

Simply put, these two programs could not be more different.

The Aggies, often characterized as flashy, are the hottest program in the state of Texas (if not the country). Kevin Sumlin is known as "Coach Swag," arguably the coolest coach in college football (he's known to attend rap concerts and make dramatic entrances via helicopter on the recruiting trail). The roster is filled with some of the country's top recruits, and quarterback Kenny "Trill" Hill's family trademarked his nickname just as Johnny Football's did last year. Most consider the Aggies a finesse team with elite athleticism.

On the other hand, Mississippi State is the self-proclaimed "band of misfits" who see themselves as blue-collar -- tough players who were under-recruited and are looking for respect. They're led by coach Dan Mullen, who calls himself a "Yankee" in the South. Most consider the Bulldogs a tough, physical team.

Which one of these contrasting styles will come out on top and continue its quest for the SEC West crown? After studying both clubs, here's a look at three keys that will determine whether the Aggies or Bulldogs win on Saturday.







1. Can the Aggies contain QB Dak Prescott?

The Aggies have to limit Prescott to less than 100 yards rushing in order to win.

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Week 6 roundtable: Breakout player

October, 2, 2014
Oct 2
11:00
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Derrick HenryKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDerrick Henry has 320 yards and two scores on 53 carries this season.

Saturday should be fun -- a full-scale clash of the SEC West titans. We're focused on three games from the nation's toughest division featuring six top-15 teams -- Alabama-Ole Miss, Auburn-LSU and Mississippi State-Texas A&M. So far, our roundtables have discussed the game we'd pay to see, the team with the most to prove and the best clutch quarterback.

The West crown, a trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, a berth in the College Football Playoff … it all hangs in the balance on Saturday. With that in mind, here are our SEC writers' picks for the breakout players whose performances will carry the day.

Alex Scarborough: Call him Megaquon. Laquon Treadwell is the star no one is talking about, and against Alabama, that's going to change. Ole Miss' sophomore receiver is the complete package: big, physical and explosive. Just look at his stat line last week: Five receptions, 123 yards, two touchdowns. Alabama's cornerbacks can't handle that. Cyrus Jones gives up four inches and 30 pounds to Treadwell. Eddie Jackson is a better matchup physically, but we don’t know how his body will hold up. Tony Brown is on a level playing field as far as talent goes, but the true freshman lacks experience. All that adds up to a matchup nightmare for Alabama.

Greg Ostendorf: If Alabama wants to beat Ole Miss on Saturday, it has to run the football. There, I said it. I don't care how good Blake Sims looked against Florida, this Ole Miss secondary is no joke. AJ McCarron struggled against the Rebels last year, and I can see Sims having a rough day on the road. That means it's up to T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry to carry the load. Take your pick for breakout player -- they're all good -- but I'm going with Henry. He's averaging 6.0 yards per carry, had a big game against Florida and has a knack for ripping off long runs. The only question is do the coaches trust him? I say yes.

David Ching: Auburn's Cameron Artis-Payne, Mississippi State's Josh Robinson and Treadwell all came to mind as I considered this question, but I'm going with LSU quarterback Brandon Harris. He'll get his first career start on Saturday at Auburn, which is a tall order for anybody. But this kid possesses special talent. Even if he makes some mistakes or if LSU fails to pull the upset, he's going to become a star eventually. My bet is he will validate Les Miles' decision to allow him to guide the Tigers offense by keeping Saturday's game competitive.

Jeff Barlis: I knew I wouldn't be alone in choosing Harris. He just oozes athleticism, has an efficient delivery and poise beyond his years. Despite being a true freshman, Harris has looked worlds better than LSU's previous starter, sophomore Anthony Jennings. When Harris has been in the game, the LSU offense has come alive, as evidenced by his touchdown on all seven of his possessions after relieving Jennings last week. The Tigers have plenty of skilled athletes in Cam Cameron's offense. With Harris at the reins, LSU flat out has a better chance to go into Auburn and pull off the upset.

Sam Khan: Keep an eye on Mississippi State sophomore wide receiver De'Runnya Wilson. He's coming off a good game at LSU (four catches, 91 yards and a touchdown) and he looks like a budding star for the Bulldogs. He had success against Texas A&M last season, catching seven passes for 75 yards and two touchdowns in the Bulldogs' 51-41 loss at Kyle Field. He's big (6-foot-5), athletic and has a large catch radius, which is perfect when Mississippi State needs to move the chains on third down or get in the end zone. He leads the team in catches of 20-plus yards this year (four), and this game looks to be a shootout, so he should have plenty of opportunities to make an impression.

Edward Aschoff: My breakout player is Mississippi State defensive tackle Chris Jones. He was supposed to be an All-American this year, but he's yet to really get things going for the Bulldogs. He does have two sacks on the season, but those came against cupcakes. Texas A&M’s offensive line presents a great test for the sophomore, who I think will put some nice pressure on A&M quarterback Kenny Hill and force him into some tough situations. It's time for him to impress us. His bulky, 6-5, 308-pound frame will clog the middle against the run, but where I see him standing out is against the pass, which is the key to stopping the Aggies' offense.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 4

September, 21, 2014
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Can you feel the drama building? We're just starting to get into the meat of the SEC schedule and already the league is spinning off its axis with excitement. Here are this week's best performances:

Blake Sims and Amari Cooper, Alabama: Everyone suspected Cooper might be the nation's best receiver, but who saw this coming from Sims? The Crimson Tide dismantled Florida 42-21 and Sims' 445 yards passing -- second best in the school's storied history -- was the biggest reason why. Equally unstoppable was Cooper, who caught 10 passes for 201 yards and three TDs. Much of Cooper's production came against the defense of UF cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, thought to be one of the nation's finest.

Dak Prescott and Josh Robinson, Mississippi State: Time after time this dynamic duo sliced through the heart of the LSU defense en route to the Bulldogs' first win in Baton Rouge in nearly 23 years. LSU's late rally made the final score 34-29, which diminished State's dominance for most of the game. Prescott passed for 268 yards and two TDs. He ran 22 times for 105 yards and another score in building MSU's 34-10 lead. Meanwhile, Robinson was a deadly efficient complement, running for a career-high 197 yards and a TD on 16 carries (12.3 yards per carry). The Bulldogs' offense was firing on all cylinders and racked up 570 yards with standouts all around. The empty seats in Death Valley were a testament to just how demoralizing Mississippi State's performance was for the No. 8 Tigers and their fans.

Auburn's run defense: Holding a run-heavy team like Kansas State to 40 yards on the ground is exactly how you win huge nonconference road games. The Tigers did that in Thursday's 20-14 win in Manhattan, Kansas. The Wildcats came in averaging 236 yards a game on the ground, but Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson had his front seven ready. When called upon, safeties Joshua Holsey (11 tackles) and Rudy Ford (eight tackles) cleaned up the leftovers.

Arkansas' run game: We might want to reserve a weekly spot for this unit, as it seems there is absolutely no slowing down Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and their under-appreciated blockers. The Razorbacks were rolling once again in their 52-14 rout of Northern Illinois on Saturday. Collins, Williams and Korliss Marshall combined to rush for 188 yards on 36 carries. Right guard Denver Kirkland (6-foot-5, 330 pounds), left tackle Dan Skipper (6-10, 316) -- both sophomores -- and senior tight end AJ Derby (6-5, 255) had great success opening some gaping holes.

Sony Michel, Georgia: We knew the heralded true freshman was good, but in garbage time against Troy he laid any doubt to rest. Michel needed just 10 carries to pile up 155 yards (15.5 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. Occasionally running out of the Wildcat, he's already proven to be more than a backup. The future is looking bright for a Bulldogs team that suffocated Troy in a 66-0 romp.

Bulldogs overcome Tiger Stadium mojo

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
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video 

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Five of the most intimidating words in college football are “Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.” Unless you’re Dak Prescott.

You chalk up a loss when your team is playing against LSU under such circumstances. Always, always, always.

Only twice in Les Miles’ nine-plus seasons at LSU -- at least before Prescott and Mississippi State dominated most of Saturday’s 34-29 win before the No. 8 Tigers' frantic comeback -- had a visitor come to Death Valley on a Saturday night and walked away a winner: Florida in 2009 and Alabama in 2012. Two teams that came in ranked No. 1 in the nation. One that eventually won a BCS title and one that easily could have.

In other words, this simply doesn’t happen. Especially in the fashion that the Bulldogs made it happen on Saturday night. They controlled the line of scrimmage on defense, limiting LSU to 89 rushing yards. They ran around and through an LSU defense that had not allowed a single point in 31 possessions and nine quarters, rolling up 570 yards of total offense -- the most ever allowed by a Miles-coached LSU team.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertDak Prescott likely entered the early Heisman discussion with his performance against No. 8 LSU.
And they expected it all along.

“Our guys were very, very confident coming in here and really expected to win. I don’t know, to the guys in the locker room, that this is a big upset for us,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “I think it obviously is on more of a national stage, but I think our guys really believed that we could come in and if we did our job, took care of plays and made plays, we could win the game, and we were able to do that.”

Louisiana native Prescott was the leading figure in the upset, using his running and passing skills to embarrass LSU’s previously dominant defense. The Bulldogs’ quarterback was a Heisman Trophy dark horse prior to Saturday night, but he’s sure to get more serious attention after carving up the Tigers’ defense for 268 passing yards, 105 rushing yards and three total touchdowns.

“I think this game was really big for him, coming here,” Mullen said. “He wanted to have a big game.”

Prescott had plenty of help.

Josh Robinson rushed for 197 yards and a score and Jameon Lewis had 116 receiving yards, including a 74-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter that gave the Bulldogs a shocking 31-10 lead. Mississippi State’s defense overwhelmed an LSU offensive front that came in as a question mark and a quarterback -- Anthony Jennings -- who has yet to prove himself as a consistent passer.

As a result, the Tigers’ offense was often stagnant and unable to counter punch until freshman Brandon Harris provided a late spark and actually had a chance to toss a game-winning touchdown on the game’s final play before Will Redmond intercepted it at the Bulldogs 1-yard line.

So where does this leave us now? One of these teams exits Tiger Stadium as a legitimate contender in the SEC West, and it’s not the team that came in as a Top-10 club. Mullen was 2-23 against ranked opponents and had never beaten a Top-10 team as State’s coach before Saturday, but as Miles indicated earlier this week, this might be Mullen’s best team since he arrived in Starkville in 2009.

The Bulldogs certainly played like it on Saturday.

“They’ve definitely gotten better every year -- every year I’ve played them,” LSU senior linebacker D.J. Welter said. “They always come in here and give a tough fight and compete well against us. They definitely had the upper hand tonight. They did a great job of executing and we didn’t do so well.”

Mississippi State gets a week off and then will host Texas A&M and Auburn in its next two games. Winning in Baton Rouge for the first time since 1991 was a major hurdle to clear, but we might know by mid-October whether the Bulldogs have staying power in the Western Division race.

“We’re 1-0 in the SEC West this year with a lot of football [to go],” Mullen said. “I think the next two games we play are against teams ranked higher than LSU was, which is hard when you have that much depth and talent in our side of the league, and then Alabama’s I think even higher than those two. So there’s so much to play for in this league. You’re going to have to bring your A-game every week.”

The Tigers, meanwhile, look like a young team that will experience the growing pains that most of us expected prior to the season. Their season-opening comeback win against Wisconsin and ensuing blowout wins against Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Monroe provided LSU fans with hope that maybe they were ahead of schedule while breaking in a host of new players in key roles. State provided a wake-up call on Saturday night that the SEC West is the wrong division in which to rely on a host of youngsters.

There are bright days ahead for Miles’ team, but Prescott’s Bulldogs are perhaps the team of right now. Can they play with the A&Ms and Auburns and Alabamas that remain on the schedule? We’ll find out soon enough.

But the team that dominated LSU in Tiger Stadium for most of Saturday night looked like it can play with just about anybody -- even the heavyweights in the toughest division in college football.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 4

September, 20, 2014
Sep 20
11:47
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Well, that was an interesting day in the SEC. Here's what we learned:

1. The SEC West is clearly the best ... again: It's the same story in the SEC: The West is the best. None of these teams are perfect, but they are the best of the bunch in the SEC. Alabama throttled Florida at home, Auburn went on the road and gutted out a tough win over No. 20 Kansas State, Texas A&M just continues to roll over everyone, Arkansas can run on anyone, Ole Miss is a top-10 team, and Mississippi State walked into Death Valley at night and beat No. 8 LSU team in what turned into a late thriller. We know this LSU team has issues with its passing game and young defense, but give Mississippi State a lot of credit for that performance. There's a reason the West entered the weekend with five ranked teams -- all in the top 10. On the other side of the conference, everyone in the East has issues. The thing about the West is no team is really sticking out as the dominant team in the division, and every one of them is a work in progress, but they've all had really good moments. This is easily the toughest division in all of college football. Whoever comes out of this division might have an automatic ticket to the playoff on principle alone.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertDak Prescott had 373 yards of offense and three touchdowns in a return to his home state.
2. Florida's offense and defense have issues: Where do you even start with Florida's performance in that 42-21 loss to third-ranked Alabama? Despite plenty of opportunities afforded to the offense, the Gators continuously stalled with the ball. Quarterback Jeff Driskel struggled with the same issues that have plagued him his entire career. He was off with his deep throws and had trouble with his reads and threw for just 93 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions on 9-of-28 passing. Even with decent protection for most of the day, Driskel never got into a rhythm and couldn't take advantage of an Alabama secondary trying to find its identity. The defense gave up some big plays in the passing game, especially when the ball went to Amari Cooper (10 catches, 201 yards and three touchdowns). Blake Sims torched Florida's secondary, which struggled with coverage issues all day, for 445 passing yards and four touchdowns, including one of 87 and 79 yards. Yes, Florida's defense was on the field for a very long team, but the Gators allowed 645 total yards ... the most allowed in school history.

3. Mississippi State will challenge for the West title: I wondered why this team wasn't ranked in the Top 25 to begin the season, and then the defense fell asleep in Week 2 and I started to wonder if Mississippi State was for real. Now, after a 34-29 win over LSU in Baton Rouge, you can't sleep on Dan Mullen and his Bulldogs. Sure, this was a rout that got pretty tight late in the fourth quarter, but this is a win the Bulldogs should be ecstatic about. And how about quarterback Dak Prescott? He had his best performance to date in his home state with 373 yards of offense and three touchdowns. Fellow Louisiana native Josh Robinson wasn't too shabby either, as he rushed for 197 yards and a score. Take the Bulldogs lightly at your own risk.

4. The East race is a total crapshoot: Besides a dominating performance from Georgia over Troy, the SEC East didn't have a great day. Florida was blown out by Alabama, Missouri was stunned at home by unranked Big Ten representative Indiana 31-27, and South Carolina slogged through a 48-34 win at Vanderbilt. We saw that Florida's offense still has major issues and Missouri's interior defensive linemen need a lot of work, as Indiana ran for 241 yards on the Tigers. South Carolina still controls its own destiny when it comes to going to Atlanta for the SEC title game, but no one would be shocked to see the Gamecocks drop another one. Will Georgia's defense get better? Will Florida have an offense? Was this a fluke loss for Mizzou? Is Tennessee a real sleeper? A two-loss SEC East champ is not out of the question with so many uncertainties.

5. Will Muschamp's seat is hotter than ever: I have a feeling Bill from Gainesville won't be calling into many radio shows this week. With a loss in which the Gators faded quickly in the second half, Muschamp's seat is roasting in Gainesville. Last year's injury-riddled, 4-8 season was one thing, but Florida has regressed in the past two games this season, which means the Gators have to show vast improvement in two weeks at Tennessee in order to perk an already downtrodden and disheartened fan base. You have to let the season play out, but this was a bad loss for Muschamp's squad, even if Alabama was the No. 3 team in the country. Florida should be competitive in games such as this, and the Gators just weren't after Alabama cleaned up its mistakes in the second half. There were plenty of opportunities for Florida in this one, but the Gators just didn't execute. Florida fans are frustrated with their coach and their quarterback, who are both in their fourth years at UF.

LSU 'D' dominating as SEC play arrives

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
10:00
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles asked attendees at his postgame news conference Saturday whether anyone in the room was alive the last time LSU posted back-to-back shutouts at Tiger Stadium.

While some of those media members were firmly in middle age, nobody there had been alive since October 1941, a couple of months before the Pearl Harbor invasion pulled the United States into World War II, when the Tigers tied Mississippi State 0-0 and beat Rice 27-0 on consecutive weekends.

[+] EnlargeJalen Mills
Gerald Herbert/AP PhotoCan Jalen Mills and LSU's defense shut out their third straight opponent when the Tigers take on Mississippi State in Week 4?
Junior safety Jalen Mills is one of the veterans on the Tigers' roster, but joked that he "wasn't even thought of" yet by his parents in 1985, the last time LSU notched consecutive shutouts of any sort, when the Tigers won 10-0 against Kentucky at home and beat Ole Miss 14-0 in Jackson, Mississippi. In fact, that piece of history came a full nine years before Mills was born.

Both of those streaks are history thanks to what Mills and the other members of LSU's defense accomplished over the past two Saturdays at Tiger Stadium, first shutting out Sam Houston State 56-0 and then taking down Louisiana-Monroe 31-0.

"They were not getting yards," Miles said after Saturday's win against ULM. "They handed the ball off, they weren't getting yards, and [LSU's defensive backs] were covering. In short throws, they were covering. So I think the defense is playing dominant football."

Both shutouts were impressive. Even when it's an FCS squad such as Sam Houston State or a lower-division team such as ULM, preventing an opponent from scoring a single point is an accomplishment -- and in ULM's case, the Warhawks didn't even generate 100 yards of total offense (they had 93 yards, the fewest by an LSU opponent since 2007).

Now we'll see whether these achievements mean something or whether they'll become historical footnotes that in a few years will interest only those who dig stats out of old media guides.

We'll probably learn which option it's going to be over the next couple of weeks, beginning with Saturday's game against Mississippi State. LSU was supposed to dominate its past two opponents and it did. Neither of those offenses had a player like Dak Prescott at quarterback or weapons like De'Runnya Wilson, Jameon Lewis or Josh Robinson at his disposal.

Prescott (91 rushing yards per game, 232 ypg passing, 12 total touchdowns) is not a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender at this point, but that would change quickly if he runs wild next weekend and the Bulldogs improve to 4-0 in the SEC opener for both teams.

"He's a very mobile guy," Mills said. "He's at best when he is being mobile -- so [LSU's defense must] just try to contain the pocket, try to contain him, try to get the timing on him and his receivers' routes off a little bit."

Prescott and State were giving LSU fits last season until the Tigers got it together late in the third quarter and closed the game on a 31-0 run to earn a 59-26 victory. The defense ignited that win-clinching run by forcing two turnovers and a turnover on downs in State's final three possessions -- mirroring a trend in the Tigers' recent run of defensive success.

They have been finishers. Finishing drives with third-down stops to force punts (ULM had seven three-and-outs in 12 possessions Saturday). Finishing possessions by forcing turnovers (LSU has six takeaways and two turnovers on downs since the start of the fourth quarter in the opener against Wisconsin). Finishing plays with hard hits on quarterbacks and gang tackles on opposing ball carriers.

LSU's defense needs to keep playing that way or its SEC West chances might quickly be finished.

Like some of Les Miles' best Tiger teams, this is not a team built to win shootouts against prolific offenses such as Auburn's or Texas A&M's. Last season's LSU club was more comfortable playing that style of game because of its wealth of NFL-ready skill talent, but this team seems to be cut more from the traditional LSU cloth. Challenge the opponent's manhood with a physical brand of offense. Limit risks and mistakes. Then let John Chavis' defense put away wins by overwhelming opponents with aggression and athleticism.

We're about to discover whether the Tigers have the pieces to duplicate the massive success that previous Miles teams enjoyed while abiding by that basic philosophy.

Will the interior defensive line be good enough to slow down the power running games ahead on the schedule? Will the pass rush be effective enough to force some mistakes? Are the linebackers going to be effective against high-level skill talent? It's too early to respond with a definitive "yes" to any of those questions, but aside from a rocky first half against Wisconsin, things look good for Chavis' bunch so far.

If they stifle Mississippi State's offense on Saturday the way they suffocated two overmatched nonconference opponents the past two weekends, LSU fans will have good reason to ratchet up their excitement level another few notches.

Mississippi State season preview

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
10:30
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» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Mississippi State Bulldogs:

2013 record: 7-6 (3-5 SEC). Beat Rice 44-7 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

Final grade for 2013 season: The Bulldogs had a very subpar start to the season and looked out of bowl contention after beginning November 0-3, getting outscored 105-64 in the process. But after finishing the regular season 2-0, including an overtime win over archrival Ole Miss, the Bulldogs trounced Rice in their bowl game, giving them a C for the season.

Key losses: QB Tyler Russell, RB LaDarius Perkins, OL Gabe Jackson, OL Charles Siddoway, DT Denico Autry, LB Deontae Skinner, S Nickoe Whitley, P Baker Swedenburg

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtDak Prescott ended 2013 with a bang and could emerge as one of the top signal-callers in the SEC.
Key returnees: QB Dak Prescott, RB Josh Robinson, WR Jameon Lewis, WR Robert Johnson, TE Malcolm Johnson, OL Blaine Clausell, C Dillon Day, DT Chris Jones, DT Kaleb Eulls, DE Preston Smith, LB Benardrick McKinney, CB Jamerson Love, CB Taveze Calhoun

Instant impact newcomers: LB Gerri Green, DT Cory Thomas

Breakout player: Receiver De'Runnya Wilson has a chance to really make a name for himself this fall, but I'm going to go with Robinson. The compact, 5-foot-9, 215-pound wrecking ball of a player could be very, very fun to watch this fall. He's spent two years learning from Vick Ballard and Perkins and is primed to have a big year for the Bulldogs. He can grind out yards between the tackles and has excellent speed to get to the outside and make plays in space.

Key position battle: The Bulldogs will have quite the fight on their hands at right tackle. Senior Damien Robinson arrived as a highly-billed recruit, but has yet to live up to that label. It's now or never for him, but he'll have to compete with sophomore Justin Senior, who the coaches are pretty excited about. However, if neither works out veteran Justin Malone, who is coming back from a season-ending foot injury, could move from right guard to right tackle. That wouldn't be ideal for the Bulldogs.

Most important game: If Mississippi State is really going to turn the corner and actually compete for the SEC Western Division title, the Bulldogs have to get a win in Baton Rouge against LSU on Sept. 20. The Bulldogs return 18 starters, have better depth than coach Dan Mullen knows what to do with, and won't be afraid of a trip to Tiger Stadium. With that said, this is a must-win if this team is going to have a chance at making it to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. The Tigers are an enigma this season, but could be dangerous down the stretch. Getting them early is huge, and the Bulldogs have to take full advantage of that.

Biggest question mark: While right tackle is a concern for the Bulldogs, finding some consistency in field-goal kicking would be nice. Devon Bell and Evan Sobiesk combined to go an unflattering 9-for-20 on field-goal attempts last season. They were a combined 1-for-6 from 40-plus yards out and each had a kicked blocked in 2013. Transfer J.J. McGrath will compete for the starting job, but he's a ways behind Sobiesk at this point. Still, Sobiesk still has a long way to go in the consistency department.

Upset special: Again, in order for Mississippi State to take the next step as a program, the Bulldogs need to beat one of the league's best. After Texas A&M comes to town on Oct. 4, the Bulldogs host reigning SEC champion Auburn. And the Tigers could be pretty fatigued after a game against LSU. Talk about the perfect time to take one from Auburn. The Bulldogs lost a heartbreaker to Auburn last season after Nick Marshall orchestrated a late, game-winning touchdown drive. You better believe revenge will be on the Bulldogs' minds.

Key stat: What Mullen has done in five seasons at Mississippi State has been impressive, but he has struggled against ranked opponents. In the last three seasons, the Bulldogs have gone 0-15 against teams that finished the season ranked in one of the final polls.

They said it: “I’ve had a good year here and there at Mississippi State, but never consistency. I’m proud that that’s what we’ve been able to do. Yeah, at some point we’ll win a championship here. Maybe this year.” -- Mullen

Preseason predictions

ESPN Stats & Information: 8.45 wins

Bovada over-under: 7.5 wins

Our take: This is the deepest team Mullen has had at Mississippi State. The offense can run and pass for days with the weapons and experience coming back, while the defense is loaded with underrated talent. The schedule isn't too daunting with an incredibly easy nonconference slate and Auburn and Texas A&M at home. Having to go to Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss isn't ideal, but if the Bulldogs can take two from that road trio, they'll be in contention for the West title. The Bulldogs will challenge for the division and finish the regular season 9-3.

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