NCF Nation: Vick Ballard

Recent SEC signing class steals

January, 27, 2012
1/27/12
3:06
PM ET
Everyone wants the five-stars. No recruiting collection would be complete without them.

But as we've seen over the years, not all of them really pan out, leaving fans and coaches pouting along the way. However, when one of those five-stars busts, there's always an unheralded recruit that finds a way to steal the scene.

Today, we'll look at some of the best signing class steals from the past few years. We'll use ESPN's player rankings and since the ESPN rankings go back to 2006, we'll only go back that far.

These are players who might not have been so highly recruited coming out of high school, but were stars at the college level. We could have gone on for days with this list, but it had to be shortened.

Here they are:

  • [+] EnlargeNick Fairley
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Fairley was unheralded but broke out during in 2010 and was the nation's best lineman that season.
    Jake Bequette, DE, Arkansas: He was unranked in the 2007 class and was actually a tight end prospect. He received a grade of 40, but finished his Arkansas career as a top pass rusher, with 24 career sacks, 31 tackles for loss and forced eight fumbles.
  • Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State: He was a junior college transfer who wasn't highly sought after at all. But it didn't take Ballard long to make a name for himself as he quickly became a star for the Bulldogs in his two seasons, rushing for 2,157 yards and 28 touchdowns.
  • Ahmad Black, S, Florida: He came out of high school as the No. 49 safety and wasn't ranked in his region. He started off as a cornerback for Florida, but moved to safety and became quite the player. Black finished his career with 244 tackles and 13 interceptions. He also returned three interceptions for touchdowns.
  • Brandon Boykin, CB, Georgia: He was rated the No. 41 corner and No. 267 in his region in 2008. At Georgia, he was a dangerous return man, ranking second all-time in the SEC in kickoff return yards (2,593) and is the only player in SEC history with three 100-yard plays of any kind. He was also a tremendous corner, recording nine interceptions, 18 pass breakups and 152 tackles. He was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award in 2011.
  • Randall Cobb, WR, Kentucky: Cobb was ranked as the No. 86 athlete back in 2008 and was overlooked by just about everyone. He played just about everywhere in college and finished his Kentucky career with 1,661 receiving yards, 1,313 rushing yards, 689 passing yards and 1,700 return yards. He also had 42 total touchdowns.
  • Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn: The JUCO transfer signed with Auburn in 2007, but didn't qualify and finally made it to the Plains in 2009. He wasn't a highly rated JUCO prospect and was actually the No. 32-rated OT in 2007. He was an absolute star in 2010, setting the Auburn single-season record with 24.0 tackles for loss and had 11.5 sacks. He also earned the Lombardi Award for the nation's best lineman.
  • Jerry Franklin, LB, Arkansas: He was a relative nobody coming out of high school as an unranked wide receiver. All he did in his four years was lead the Razorbacks in tackles each year and finished second all-time at Arkansas with 376 total tackles in his career.
  • Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt: He was unranked and received a grade of 40 as a safety prospect in 2008. He turned into one of the SEC's best cover corners with the Commodores and left Vanderbilt tied for first in school history with 15 interceptions.
  • Brandon James, RB/KR, Florida: He was ranked as the 111th running back back in 2006 and ranked 345th in his region. James made his mark as a return man, as he finished his Florida career with four SEC and 11 Florida records for kickoff and punt returns. He is still the SEC career leader in return yards (4,089) and had five touchdowns on returns.
  • Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama: He was ranked as the No. 28 offensive tackle back in 2008, but enters his senior year with the Crimson Tide as arguably the nation's best offensive lineman. His versatility really showed in 2011 when he played just about every position on Alabama's offensive line and won the Outland Trophy as the nation's top interior lineman.
  • Tyrann Matheiu, CB, LSU: He was the No. 36 cornerback in 2010 and was unranked in his region with a grade of 77. LSU was his only major offer, but he's been one of the most exciting -- and dangerous -- players to watch on defense and in the return game the last two seasons. He was a Heisman finalist in 2011, led LSU in tackles (71), has forced 11 fumbles in two seasons and has 10 career takeaways.
  • Dexter McCluster, RB, Ole Miss: He was ranked the No. 71 running back back in 2006 and was No. 189 in his region. McCluster became an all-purpose star in the SEC during his four years, totaling 1,703 receiving yards, 1,955 rushing yards and 23 offensive touchdowns.
  • Eric Norwood, LB, South Carolina: He was ranked the No. 99 defensive end back in 2006 and was No. 387 in his region, but he had quite the career at South Carolina, leaving with the all-time record in tackles for loss (54.5) and sacks (29). He finished his career with 255 tackles as well.
  • Danny Trevathan, LB, Kentucky: He was an unranked linebacker with a grade of 40 coming out of high school in 2008. He became one of the league's top linebackers in his final two seasons, leading the SEC in tackles both seasons. He finished his career with 372 tackles.
  • Prentiss Waggner, DB, Tennessee: He was the No. 50 corner in 2008 and was 305th in his region. Waggner has really been one of Tennessee's best defenders the past two seasons, playing both safety and corner. He has defended 11 passes, recording seven interceptions. He can be a shutdown corner and a ball-hawking safety.
  • Jarius Wright, WR, Arkansas: He came out of high school as the No. 44 wide receiver in 2008 and was ranked 115th in his region. His 2011 season, in which he led the SEC in receiving, gave him the single-season records in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. He is also the Arkansas leader in career catches (168) and receiving yards (2,934).

The 2011 SEC All-Bowl team

January, 13, 2012
1/13/12
11:18
AM ET
We're taking one last look at the SEC's postseason by putting together our All-SEC bowl team:

OFFENSE

QB: Connor Shaw, South Carolina: Shaw didn't seem to feel the pressure of a bowl game, completing 11 of 17 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 42 yards and another score in the Gamecocks' win against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. He even gave South Carolina the momentum going into the second half with a touchdown on a Hail Mary to end the first half.

[+] EnlargeVick Ballard
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyMississippi State's Vick Ballard rushed for 180 yards against Wake Forest in the Music City Bowl.
RB: Vick Ballard, Mississippi State: Ballard ended his career with the Bulldogs with one of his best performances, as he rushed for 180 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries in Mississippi State's win against Wake Forest in the Music City Bowl. His touchdowns went for 72 and 60 yards.

RB: Onterio McCalebb, Auburn: As the Tigers' lead back in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, McCalebb had a game-high 109 rushing yards, including a long of 60. He also recorded a three-yard touchdown run and caught two passes for 53 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown in Auburn's win against Virginia.

WR: Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina: Jeffery's day would have been even better if he hadn't been ejected. However, he still caught four passes for a game-high 148 yards and snagged Shaw's Hail Mary touchdown pass at the end of the first half. He also had a 78-yard reception.

WR: Tavarres King, Georgia: King tried his best to get Georgia a victory in the Outback Bowl against Michigan State. He was Aaron Murray's best friend, catching six passes for a career-high 205 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown pass that at one point stood as the longest play in Outback Bowl history.

TE: Brad Smelley, Alabama: The Crimson Tide got its passing game going with Smelley in Monday's Allstate BCS National Championship win against LSU. He was AJ McCarron's safety net when plays broke down, and the young quarterback also used Smelley on rollouts. Smelley finished the game with seven catches for 39 yards.

OL: Barrett Jones, Alabama: Behind one of the most versatile linemen in the entire country, Alabama's line held back LSU's defensive front for most of Monday night's game. Alabama ran for 150 yards against LSU's vaunted defense. He also kept McCarron safe, as the youngster was sacked only twice while throwing for 234 yards.

OL: Alvin Bailey, Arkansas: He just keeps looking better and better for the Razorbacks. In Arkansas' AT&T Cotton Bowl victory against Kansas State, he helped Arkansas churn out 129 rushing yards on 4.3 yards per carry and helped give quarterback Tyler Wilson enough time to pass for 216 yards and two touchdowns.

OL: Kyle Nunn, South Carolina: The Gamecocks' offensive line gave up four sacks to Nebraska, but Shaw was still able to throw for 230 yards and two touchdowns. With Nunn's help, the Gamecocks also rushed for 121 yards against the Cornhuskers.

OL: Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State: Ballard's outstanding performance for the Bulldogs wouldn't have been possible if not for some solid line play. Jackson had one of his best outings, as he helped Mississippi State rush for 253 yards and pass for another 129. Mississippi State gave up just one sack to Wake Forest.

C: William Vlachos, Alabama: Vlachos had his hands full with the interior of LSU's defensive line, but he more than held his own. He battled all night with LSU's Michael Brockers and allowed him to assist on just one tackle for loss. He provided a ton of protection in the passing game and helped Alabama rush for 150 yards on LSU's defense.

DEFENSE

DE: Jake Bequette, Arkansas: Bequette said before Arkansas' bowl game that the Hogs' defense needed to make a statement. Bequette certainly made a few in his final game with the Razorbacks, registering two sacks, forcing a fumble and totaling three tackles.

DE: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina: The freshman put a nice bow on his first season with the Gamecocks. He put a ton of pressure on Nebraska's backfield with two sacks for a loss of 13 yards and finished the game with four tackles.

DT: Fletcher Cox, Mississippi State: Cox wanted to make a lasting impression in his final game with the Bulldogs, and he certainly did by disrupting Wake Forest's offensive line in the Music City Bowl. He finished the game with seven tackles, including two for loss and a sack, and blocked his fifth career kick, which is a Mississippi State record.

DT: Michael Brockers, LSU: Brockers had a tough time with Vlachos in the middle, but that didn't stop him from making plays. He did a tremendous job of clogging holes in the middle for the Tigers and finished the game with seven tackles, assisting on one for loss, and blocked a field goal attempt.

LB: Courtney Upshaw, Alabama: It came as no surprise that Upshaw was named the Defensive Most Valuable Player in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game. He was nearly unblockable for LSU on Monday night. He put immense pressure on LSU's backfield and finished the game with six tackles, including a sack.

LB: Archibald Barnes, Vanderbilt: Barnes was a true rover for Vanderbilt against Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl. He had a game-high 10 tackles, assisting on one for a loss, and blocked a field goal attempt in the fourth quarter that gave Vandy some life late.

LB: Alec Ogletree, Georgia: Georgia might not have come up with the win in the Outback Bowl, but it wasn't because of how Ogletree played. He was all over the field for the Bulldogs, grabbing a game-high 13 tackles, including two for loss, breaking up two passes and getting a sack.

CB: Casey Hayward, Vanderbilt: Yet again, Hayward was tremendous in coverage for the Commodores. He grabbed two interceptions and broke up another pass. He was also second on the team with eight tackles, including one for loss. Cincinnati threw for just 80 yards against the Commodores.

CB: Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina: Gilmore ended his South Carolina career on a high note. He recorded five tackles, including one for loss, and an interception. He also returned a blocked extra point for South Carolina's first points of the game. Nebraska threw for just 116 yards on the Gamecocks' secondary.

S: Mark Barron, Alabama: Barron recorded just two tackles, including a sack, but he was outstanding in coverage. He roamed the back part of the field for the Crimson Tide and didn't allow LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson to stretch the field at all because of his positioning. Jefferson threw for just 53 yards on Alabama.

S: Matt Elam, Florida: Elam was Florida's most consistent player during the regular season, and he was all over the field for the Gators in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl against Ohio State. He finished the game with six tackles, two for loss and a sack.

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK: Jeremy Shelley, Alabama: Talk about redeeming the position that spoiled Alabama's first game against LSU. Shelley hit five of his seven field goal attempts against the Tigers and even rebounded to hit four of his final five after having his second attempt blocked in the second quarter.

P: Dylan Breeding, Arkansas: He punted four times for an average of 46.8 yards per kick. He had a long of 63 yards and dropped two inside the 20-yard line against Kansas State.

RS: Joe Adams, Arkansas: Surprise, surprise, Adams made another special teams unit look silly. Against Kansas State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, Adams got things started for the Hogs with a nifty 51-yard punt return for a touchdown. His return sparked a 16-point second quarter for the Hogs.

AP: Brandon Boykin, Georgia: Boykin found a way to put points on the board three different ways in the Outback Bowl. He forced a safety when he stuffed Michigan State's Keshawn Martin on the Spartans' first offensive play, returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown and caught a 13-yard touchdown late. His punt return was the longest play in Outback Bowl history.

Early 2012 SEC power rankings

January, 10, 2012
1/10/12
3:00
PM ET
We officially said goodbye to the 2011 season Monday night and crowned the Alabama Crimson Tide as college football's new champions. Now, it's time to shift our focus to 2012. Here's to hoping the Mayans were wrong:

1. Alabama: The defense will get hit the hardest by graduation and the NFL draft, but Alabama's offense should be better. While it's almost a forgone conclusion that junior running back Trent Richardson will declare for the NFL draft, Alabama returns a veteran offensive line, has a good set of up-and-coming receivers and has some pretty talented running backs to work with, including pounder Eddie Lacy. Oh, and that quarterback ain't too bad, either.

2. LSU: The Tigers might have come up short in the big one, but it's not like LSU is going anywhere. That defense that ranked second nationally was made up by a slew of youngsters. LSU returns double-digit starters next year, including most of its front seven. A major bright spot for this team is that former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger will now get his chance, and has skill that Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee lacked.

3. Georgia: The Bulldogs might return more starters next year than LSU. After surpassing expectations and challenging LSU for the SEC title, the Bulldogs should enter next fall as the favorites in the SEC East. Stud quarterback Aaron Murray returns and so do most of his weapons. With arguably the easiest schedule (again) in the SEC, Mark Richt will be expected to take his Dawgs back to Atlanta.

4. South Carolina: There won't be any sleeping on the Gamecocks in 2012. After getting 11 wins for only the second time in school history, South Carolina should compete for the SEC East for the third straight year. The Gamecocks return a slew of talent, especially on defense, and saw tremendous improvement in quarterback Connor Shaw. Also, running back Marcus Lattimore should be back and healthy after his devastating season-ending knee injury.

5. Arkansas: The Razorbacks will lose a lot of key players that have helped Arkansas get to where it is under Bobby Petrino. Defensively, five seniors will say goodbye, while the offense will lose three NFL wide receivers. However, that offensive line, which grew up as the season progressed, will be much better and star running back Knile Davis should be back and healthy. Quarterback Tyler Wilson is back, so there shouldn't be much dip in the passing game even with some new faces at receiver.

6. Auburn: Those youngsters on the Plains will be more mature and much improved in 2012. That has to be a scary thought for other SEC members. Auburn doesn't lose much from its 2011 team and gets a great addition to the defensive side of the ball in new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Offensively, there are weapons everywhere, but the key will be finding the right quarterback ... again.

7. Florida: Will Muschamp's first year as the Gators' head coach didn't go as planned, but there is still a lot of talent in Gainesville, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Florida loses just one starter on defense and should have one of the fastest, most aggressive defensive units around the SEC. Getting that offense going will be key to Muschamp's second year, but with all that turnover, it should be a fresh start for this unit.

8. Missouri: This new group of Tigers enters 2012 as a factor in the SEC East. Missouri returns nearly everyone from 2011, including quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey, who both put up solid numbers in 2011. The Tigers will no doubt hit some snags as they transition into their new home, but with all the talent that returns, Missouri won't be a pushover in its first year in the SEC.

9. Tennessee: Derek Dooley has the pieces in place on both sides of the ball to compete in the SEC East. That young defense won't be so young in 2012 and quarterback Tyler Bray returns with his deep-threat sidekicks at wide receiver. With a solid offensive line, the next step for Tennessee is to find a consistent running back to help take the pressure off of the passing game. There's a lot of pressure on Dooley to get things done, and he has the talent to in 2012.

10. Texas A&M: The Aggies have the pleasure of entering the SEC as a Western Division team. That's not exactly a warm welcome. It doesn't help that Texas A&M is losing a ton from its 2011 team. There could be six NFL draft picks who won't be back in College Station next season. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill and top safety Trent Hunter are gone, and so is receiver Jeff Fuller. Christine Michael should do well as Cyrus Gray's replacement at running back, but the core of this team will be gone.

11. Vanderbilt: Year 1 of the James Franklin era was a success and there shouldn't be a lot of drop-off for the Commodores next season. Vandy loses top defenders Chris Marve, Tim Fugger and Casey Hayward, but a lot of veterans return on that side of the ball. Jordan Rodgers is back at quarterback, Zac Stacy returns at running back and wide receivers Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews will be back. Running back and specialist Warren Norman should be back too and the offensive line returns four starters.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lose a lot on both sides of the ball in 2012, but should have a top cornerback combo in Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield. Losing Fletcher Cox up front will leave a hole on the defensive line and saying goodbye to linebacker Brandon Wilson won't be easy. Tyler Russell will probably get the first crack at quarterback for the Bulldogs, but he will be without his safety net in running back Vick Ballard. The good thing is that the receivers are back, but this team will have to grow up in a hurry.

13. Kentucky: The offensive line will have some missing pieces in 2012 and the defense loses six starters, including star linebacker Danny Trevathan. Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton will battle at quarterback, but with how 2011 ended, Smith might have the advantage. This team struggled mightily on offense and the problem was that there wasn't a lot of improvement throughout the year. The offseason should be dedicated to find ways to get this offense moving.

14. Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze steps into a tough situation at Ole Miss. His first order of business needs to be improving the discipline on this team. It was awful in 2011, and if Ole Miss wants to improve it has to clean that up. The defense should get a boost with leader D.T. Shackelford returning from his season-ending knee injury and offensive playmakers Jeff Scott, Donte Moncrief and Nickolas Brassell are back. The offensive line loses some key components, and the quarterback situation is far from figured out.

Top SEC bowl performers

January, 3, 2012
1/03/12
2:30
PM ET
The SEC still has three bowl teams left, but we're going to take a look at some players who have already seen their seasons come to an end.

It was a fun weekend of football and a good weekend for the SEC. The conference went 4-2, with Georgia and Vanderbilt being the only teams to come up short.

With those games came some pretty good performances from players.

Here are some top performers:
  • Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State: He saved one of his best performances for last, as he rushed for 180 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries. His touchdowns went for 60 and 72 yards.
  • Archibald Barnes, LB, Vanderbilt: He was all over the field for the Commodores, leading the Liberty Bowl with 10 total tackles. He also blocked a field goal in the fourth quarter that gave Vandy some life late.
  • Emory Blake, WR, Auburn: Blake made his day in the Georgia Dome look easy as he caught six passes for 108 yards in the win over Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
  • Jon Bostic, LB, Florida: He was one of the most active players on defense this past weekend, recording eight tackles, including four for loss.
  • Brandon Boykin, CB, Georgia: In his final game as a Bulldog, Boykin found a way to put points on the board three different ways in the Outback Bowl. First, he forced a safety when he stuffed Michigan State's Keshawn Martin on the Spartans' first offensive play. He then returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown and caught a 13-yard touchdown late. His punt return was the longest play in Outback Bowl history.
  • Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina: The true freshman put a stamp on his first season by recording two sacks for a loss of 13 yards. He finished the Capital One Bowl with four total tackles.
  • Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State: Cox made sure he went out with a blast in the Music City Bowl, recording seven tackles, with two coming for loss, had a sack and blocked a field goal.
  • Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt: He grabbed eight tackles, including one for loss, and grabbed two interceptions. With his picks, Hayward tied for first in career interceptions at Vanderbilt.
  • Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina: If not for his ejection, Jeffery's numbers would have been much better. Still, he caught just four passes for a game-high 148 yards. He snagged Connor Shaw's Hail Mary touchdown pass at the end of the first half and had a 78-yard reception.
  • Tavarres King, WR, Georgia: King was almost one of the heroes for Georgia, catching six passes for a career-high 205 yards and had an 80-yard touchdown reception, which was also a career long. Before Boykin's punt return, King's play stood as the longest play in Outback Bowl history.
  • Onterio McCalebb, RB, Auburn: Taking over as Auburn's lead back in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, McCalebb had a game-high 109 rushing yards, including a long of 60 yards. He also recorded a 3-yard touchdown run and caught two passes for 53 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown.
  • Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia: He was all over the field for the Bulldogs, recording an Outback Bowl-high 13 tackles, including two for loss, broke up two passes and had a sack.
  • Chris Rainey, RB, Florida: Rainey ended his Florida career with a great showing against Ohio State in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. He led Florida with 71 rushing yards, had 31 receiving yards and blocked a punt that was scooped up and run in for a touchdown by linebacker Graham Stewart.
  • Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina: Shaw didn't let the big stage bother him, as he passed for 230 yards and two touchdowns, including a nifty Hail Mary to end the first half. He also carried the ball for 42 yards and another touchdown.
Georgia will be well represented in the 2012 Senior Bowl later this month.

Cornerback Brandon Boykin, punter Drew Butler, offensive tackle Cordy Glenn and center Ben Jones will head to Mobile, Ala., for one last game at the college level.

"Georgia had one of the more remarkable winning streaks in the country this season, and there's no doubt these four seniors played a big role in the Bulldogs reeling off 10 straight victories to claim the Eastern Division title," said Steve Hale, who is the President and CEO of the Senior Bowl. "We're confident this group will take advantage of this opportunity to showcase their skills in front of the NFL decision-makers."

All four could hear their names called during the 2012 NFL Draft. Boykin was a second team All-SEC selection by the league coaches after recording 48 tackles, including nine tackles for loss, three interceptions, nine pass breakups and two fumble recoveries. Boykin would have heard his name in last year's draft as well, but he made a last-minute decision to return to school for his senior season.

Glenn and Jones were two of the best offensive linemen in the SEC this season. Glenn showed some versatility by moving from right tackle to left tackle, while Jones was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, which is given annually to the nation's top center.

Butler punted 51 times for 2,260 yards, averaging 44.3 yards per punt, which ranks second in the SEC and 13th in the country. He had 16 punts of 50 yards or more and downed 19 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line.

Mississippi State running back Vick Ballard also added his name to the Senior Bowl roster. Ballard is fresh off of a 180-yard, two-touchdown performance in the Music City Bowl win against Wake Forest. Ballard rushed for 1,189 yards, averaged 6.2 yards per carry and scored 10 rushing touchdowns in 2011.

The game will be played at 4 p.m. ET on Jan. 28. All of the Senior Bowl practices can be seen on the NFL Network.

The SEC started bowl season 1-0 after Mississippi State beat Wake Forest 23-17 in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl Friday night.

Mississippi State racked some points up early, but Wake Forest fought back before the Bulldogs' defense hunkered down for most of the second half.

Here's the instant analysis:

How the game was won: Mississippi State's offense racked up 246 yards and 16 points in the first half, while the Demon Deacons managed just 130 yards and a touchdown. The Bulldogs' defense played well all night, especially the closer Wake Forest got to the end zone. Mississippi State held Wake Forest to 287 total yards. On offense, quarterback Chris Relf overcame two interceptions to play effectively both throwing and running the ball. Mississippi State's running game put up 253 yards, including 180 from senior Vick Ballard.

Turning point: After Wake Forest cut Mississippi State's lead to 16-14 early in the second quarter, the Bulldogs' offense was pretty quiet in the third quarter. But with almost 13 minutes remaining in the game, Ballard took a carry up the middle for a 72-yard touchdown, making it a two-score game and giving the Bulldogs enough points for the win.

Stat of the game: The teams combined to go 7-of-30 on third downs, with Wake Forest converting just 2-of-17.

Stat of the game 2: Wake Forest won the turnover battle 4-0.

Player of the game: Ballard made the most of his final game in a Mississippi State uniform. The senior carried the ball only 14 times, but had 180 yards and had touchdowns of 60 and 72 yards. Ballard pounded the Demon Deacons' defense through the middle of the field and used his speed to make a handful of plays off the edge. He outrushed Wake Forest by 117 yards on 24 less carries.

Unsung hero of the game: Friday might have been defensive tackle Fletcher Cox's final game with the Bulldogs as well. He had a strong game, recording seven tackles (including two for loss), assisting on a sack, blocking his fifth career kick (a school record) and providing plenty of pressure inside Wake Forest's backfield all night.

Second guessing: Dan Mullen has a pretty aggressive coaching style, but he made a bad call when he decided to go for the end zone from the Wake Forest 9-yard line with six seconds left in the first half instead of kicking a field goal. Wake Forest grabbed a chunk of momentum and drove 64 yards for a touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter to make it 16-14. Luckily for Mullen, the play didn't cost Mississippi State the win.

What it means: Mullen has now directed Mississippi State to bowl wins in back-to-back years for the first time in more than a decade. It also gives Mississippi State its fifth straight bowl win overall. The Bulldogs have back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in more than a decade. Mississippi State didn't live up to its higher expectations this season, but getting to seven wins -- including a bowl victory -- will make the offseason much easier for Mullen and his players.

Record performance: Cox wasn't the only one taking home a school record. Wake Forest wide receiver Chris Givens entered the game with a school-record 1,276 receiving yards. The ACC's leader in receiving for the 2011 season added to his record-setting year by gaining 54 more yards on nine catches, giving the junior 1,330 yards on the year.

Music City Bowl keys

December, 30, 2011
12/30/11
10:30
AM ET
Here are three keys for Wake Forest heading into tonight’s game against Mississippi State:

1. Continue to protect the ball. Wake Forest has a chance to set the single-season record for fewest turnovers. The Deacons come into the bowl game with just 12 turnovers on the year (8 INTs, 4 fumbles). The school-record for fewest turnovers in a season is 13, set by the 2004 team. Quarterback Tanner Price has done his part and hasn’t thrown a pick since he had three against North Carolina on Oct. 29. Price’s career long streak is 134 attempts without an interception.

2. Get the running game going. The greatest area of improvement for the Deacs from 2010 to 2011 has been its passing offense, but Mississippi State has one of the better pass defenses in the country. The Bulldogs are No. 23 in the country in pass defense and No. 37 in pass efficiency defense. To help open things up for Price, Wake Forest needs to make the Bulldogs respect their running game, which currently ranks No. 96 in the country at 118.92 yards per game.

3. Stop Vick Ballard. The senior ran for 1,009 yards this season and has scored 29 total touchdowns over the past two years. He is coming off an impressive performance in the Egg Bowl, running 23 times for 144 yards and a touchdown and also catching a touchdown pass from quarterback Chris Relf. The Deacs’ rushing defense has been kind, allowing 162.92 yards per game.

Music City Bowl keys

December, 30, 2011
12/30/11
10:30
AM ET
Here are three keys for Mississippi State heading into Friday's Franklin American Mortgage Music Bowl against Wake Forest:

Get the passing game going: With Tyler Russell's knee still not 100 percent, the Bulldogs will send veteran quarterback Chris Relf out first against Wake Forest. Relf was one of the biggest SEC surprises last year, but lost his starting job during the second half of the 2011 season. While Relf has struggled this season, the Demon Deacons rank 72nd nationally in pass defense, allowing nearly 240 passing yards per game and have allowed 21 touchdowns through the air. Mississippi State's offense has stalled at times this year, but opening up the passing game could overwhelm Wake Forest.

Blanket Chris Givens: Mississippi State has a pretty talented secondary, but there was more bend in that unit than people expected. Now, that group will have to contain Givens, who led the ACC with 1,276 receiving yards and had nine touchdowns. Givens recorded seven 100-plus-yard performances this season, including an eight-catch, 191-yard outing against Maryland late in the year. The Bulldogs are giving up 195 passing yards a game, and containing Givens should be the top objective for this defensive backfield.

Keep Vick Ballard going: Quietly, Ballard eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark this season. With his 5-11, 220-pound frame, Ballard is a bullish downhill running back. He struggled with consistency throughout the season, but he's coming off a 144-yard performance against Ole Miss and the break should make his legs fresh. Wake Forest is giving up 163 rushing yards a game, and opponents have scored 19 touchdowns on the ground against the Demon Deacons. Passing will be important for Mississippi State, but Ballard is too much of a force to ignore.

Bulldogs put Rebels out of their misery

November, 26, 2011
11/26/11
10:38
PM ET
Mississippi State offensive guard Addison Lawrence said earlier this week that he thought Ole Miss would "kind of lay down" if the Bulldogs jumped on the struggling Rebels early.

That was about the size of it Saturday, as Mississippi State raced out to a 28-0 lead in the early minutes of the third quarter and cruised to a 31-3 victory over Ole Miss at rain-soaked Scott Field. It was Mississippi State's third straight win in the Egg Bowl, marking the first time in nearly 70 years that the Bulldogs have won three in a row in the series.

Mississippi State (6-6, 2-6) gained bowl eligibility with the win, the second straight season that Dan Mullen has led the Bulldogs to a bowl game. The Liberty Bowl is their likely destination.

A pair of seniors came up big in their final home games. Quarterback Chris Relf ran his record to 3-0 against Ole Miss. He passed for a pair of touchdowns and now has seven passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown in three career games against the Rebels. Running back Vick Ballard rushed for 144 yards on 23 carries. He had a 25-yard touchdown run and also caught an 18-yard touchdown pass.

After just missing 1,000 yards a year ago, Ballard surpassed the 1,000-yard rushing figure Saturday with his big night.

Mercifully, for Ole Miss, the season is over. The Rebels (2-10, 0-8) last won just two games in a season in 1946. Houston Nutt walks away after seeing his Rebels lose their last seven games. In their last three losses to Mississippi State, LSU and Louisiana Tech, Ole Miss was outscored by a 110-13 margin.

Whoever the new Ole Miss coach is will inherit a program that has lost 14 straight SEC games.

Predictions: SEC Week 9

October, 27, 2011
10/27/11
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I’m done talking.

Besides, the Kid does enough talking for the both of us.

I guess it’s just his generation, even though he’s really not that bad a kid.

But, hey, I know the stakes. I know what I have to do to get back into this thing.

As Bill Parcells used to say, you are what your record says you are.

And right now, my record says I’m winning the silver medal and the Kid’s winning the gold medal.

We both turned in perfect 5-0 records last week. The truth is there weren’t any tough picks on the schedule.

That changes this week.

We’ll see if I can make up any ground on the Kid. He’s 54-7 (.885), and I’m 51-10 (.836).

It’s a long way from being over, though. It wasn’t over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor, and it’s not over now just because some upstart who took one too many soccer balls off the noggin has carved out a three-game lead.

But, again, enough with the talking, and let’s get to the picking:

OLE MISS at No. 23 AUBURN

Chris Low: You can see the frustration in Houston Nutt’s face and hear it in his voice. His Rebels have lost 10 consecutive SEC games dating back to last season, but haven’t quit fighting. They face an Auburn team that has won 12 in a row at home. … Auburn 30, Ole Miss 14

Edward Aschoff: Ole Miss held its own against Arkansas last week and even though the Rebels lost, they might have some momentum to take into Auburn. However, the Tigers are tough to beat at home. This could get really ugly on offense for both teams, but Auburn pulls it out in the fourth. ... Auburn 20, Ole Miss 17

No. 10 ARKANSAS at VANDERBILT

Chris Low: The days of rolling into the Music City, touring the Grand Ole Opry and then cruising to an easy victory over the Commodores are over. James Franklin and his crew ain’t taking nothing from nobody. Vanderbilt has the secondary to match up with Arkansas’ passing attack. It won’t be easy for the Hogs, but they will make enough big plays to escape. … Arkansas 28, Vanderbilt 23

Edward Aschoff: The Razorbacks came out slow against Ole Miss last week and it almost resulted in a loss. You can bet coach Bobby Petrino will have his players ready this week, especially with the talent Vanderbilt has in its secondary. ... Arkansas 31, Vanderbilt 17

MISSISSIPPI STATE at KENTUCKY

Chris Low: The Wildcats are breaking out the all-black uniforms against the Bulldogs in a game that’s going to mean the first conference win for somebody. Both teams have had trouble moving the ball and scoring points, but Mississippi State has a few more playmakers and will lean heavily on senior running back Vick Ballard. … Mississippi State 24, Kentucky 17

Edward Aschoff: One of these teams is finally going to get a conference win. The question is, which offense will come to play in Lexington? Mississippi State's offense has been nonexistent since Week 2 and Kentucky had its best offensive performance last weekend against Jacksonville State. This one has the makings to get pretty ugly as well. ... Mississippi State 20, Kentucky 13

No. 13 SOUTH CAROLINA at TENNESSEE

Chris Low: There’s never an ideal time for a true freshman quarterback to get his first start in this league, but Tennessee’s Justin Worley will debut against a South Carolina defense that leads the SEC with 24 forced turnovers and is third with 15 sacks. The Gamecocks have been pretty average on offense, particularly with Marcus Lattimore sidelined, but they’ll win this one with their defense. … South Carolina 24, Tennessee 16

Edward Aschoff: Justin Worley might feel a little slighted for not getting an offer from South Carolina. Now, he'll make his first start against the Gamecocks. But South Carolina's aggressive defense should make his day miserable at times. We'll also get our first glimpse of South Carolina's offensive life after Marcus Lattimore. ... South Carolina 23, Tennessee 10

No. 22 GEORGIA vs. FLORIDA

Chris Low: Both teams should be as healthy as they’ve been coming off the bye week, and Georgia gets back its best defender – inside linebacker Alec Ogletree. Florida hopes to get quarterback John Brantley back from a high ankle sprain that’s caused him to miss the past two games. It’s debatable how healthy Brantley really is and how effective he’ll be, which is why the Bulldogs get the nod. For only the fourth time in the last 22 years, they’ll leave Jacksonville with a win. … Georgia 28, Florida 21

Edward Aschoff: This is a must-win for both teams. Florida's offense hopes to get a major boost offensively if John Brantley can play. The Gators will need it against this rejuvenated Georgia defense. History isn't on the Bulldogs' side and it will bite the Dawgs again. ... Florida 24, Georgia 20

What to watch in the SEC: Week 7

October, 13, 2011
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We're at the halfway point in the college football season, so teams will be a little more on edge from here on out.

Conference races are really heating up and things will only get more and more exciting.

We start the second half in the SEC with the countdown to the Nov. 5 slugfest between Alabama and LSU, but we also start with some quarterback controversy lurking within the league.

Exciting stuff.

Here is some more exciting stuff to keep an eye on this weekend:

1. Musical quarterbacks: Outside of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and LSU, there are quarterback issues in this league. Florida and Tennessee are playing without their starters (John Brantley and Tyler Bray, respectively) due to injuries, while Mississippi State and Vanderbilt have opened up their quarterback competitions. South Carolina benched Stephen Garcia for Connor Shaw, then officially said goodbye to Garcia earlier this week. Shaw showed off last week against Kentucky, but the depth behind him is beyond worrisome. Auburn will play both Barrett Trotter and Kiehl Frazier against Florida, but the more athletic Frazier has been getting more and more snaps with each game and coach Gene Chizik is having to answer more questions about Trotter's status as the starter. And Ole Miss is hoping that Randall Mackey is the guy from here on out. But wasn't Barry Brunetti the guy before Zack Stoudt was?

2. Mr. 100: I guess Trent Richardson really was ready to take over as Alabama's workhorse in the backfield. The junior running back has had his hat thrown into the Heisman ring and it doesn't look like it will be coming out anytime soon. That makes sense, considering the tear he's currently on. Richardson has rushed for 100-plus yards in five straight games and he's looking to get to six straight this weekend. Well, Alabama faces an Ole Miss defense that is giving up 193 rushing yards per game, so things appear to be in Richardson's favor this weekend.

[+] EnlargeJordan Jefferson
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThough he remains the backup, Jordan Jefferson should see his role increase in LSU's offense.
3. More Jefferson: While LSU coach Les Miles continues to say that there is absolutely no quarterback controversy in Baton Rouge, Jordan Jefferson will continue to get more snaps behind Jarrett Lee. As he should. Jefferson brings another element to the offense that Lee doesn't -- his feet. Jefferson's touches went up from four in his first game back to eight in his second and his numbers should increase this weekend against Tennessee. But make no mistake about it, Lee is the starter until something unforeseen happens. Both players want to be the starter, but Lee has earned it and he deserves to keep it. The Tigers are just as successful with the Jefferson element on the field and having both play isn't hurting the team, so Jefferson's role should continue to expand going forward.

4. Swing game on the Plains: Auburn and Florida will play a season-defining game this weekend. A win for either team could be the difference between a winning record and a .500 record. Auburn's youth has shown at times, but so has its heart, which has carried it to three close-call wins this season. The Tigers still have LSU and Georgia on the road before the Iron Bowl comes back to Auburn, so getting a win this weekend will definitely go a long way. As for Florida, the Gators will be equipped with two true freshmen -- Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel -- getting the snaps at quarterback until senior Brantley comes back. That could be for the Georgia game, but Saturday, it's up to the kids. A Florida win would keep the Gators in the East hunt and give them momentum going into the bye. A loss could send this team really scrambling.

5. Shaw's second go-round: Connor Shaw will make his second start in a row for South Carolina this weekend and he'll do so on the road against a tough Mississippi State secondary. This won't be easy by any means, and this will be the first chance we get to see the sophomore perform on the road this year. He was calm and composed against Kentucky, but he'll be going against a team desperate for a conference win and a fan base looking for some sort of hope this season. Can Shaw duplicate last week's outing? Can he at least be consistent for the Gamecocks for two weeks in a row? The team thinks so, but Davis Wade Stadium isn't the easiest place to maneuver if you're a young quarterback.

6. Simms begins the gantlet: Matt Simms was in this position last year when he had to start against Tennessee's toughest opponents before Bray took over for him. With Bray out for an extended period of time, Simms' number has been called yet again and his first opponent is the No. 1 team in the country in LSU. It's an LSU team carrying the league's second-rated defense and a host of defensive playmakers. It won't be easy for Simms, but he says he's ready. However, this is just the first step for the senior. He'll still face Alabama (on the road), South Carolina and Arkansas (on the road) in the next four weeks. That's tough for any quarterback. Starting off with an impressive debut will help the psyche of this team. He doesn't have to be perfect, but does have to be effective enough to inject some confidence into this team for the road ahead.

7. Like brother ... like brother? Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers could make his first start for the Commodores this weekend against Georgia and if he's anything like his Super Bowl-winning older brother, Aaron, Vanderbilt's fan base should be stoked. Now, this wouldn't exactly be the best game for him to really kick off his Vandy career in, with Georgia giving up less than 180 passing yards a game, but if he does get the start, there will no doubt be a little more excitement in the air in Nashville. Larry Smith hasn't gotten the job done for the Commodores, so it might be time for a move. Vanderbilt needs to shake things up on offense and starting Rodgers could be a way to do that.

8. Mississippi State's lost offense: The Bulldogs have a mound of offensive problems. They haven't seen the dynamic duo of quarterback Chris Relf and Vick Ballard do much of anything since Week 2 and the offensive line is a mess. The execution has been lacking and this team is scrambling to figure things out when it has the ball. After Tyler Russell rescued an offense that went scoreless against UAB in the first half, he's in a battle with Relf for the starting spot. Would starting Russell provide a spark for this reeling offense? And would it matter against a revamped South Carolina defense? The Gamecocks love to bring a lot of pressure and could make either quarterback's day miserable Saturday.

9. Florida's rushing defense: If you're Auburn running back Michael Dyer, you have to be pretty happy with your odds of clearing the century mark against the Gators Saturday. Florida has given up a total of 464 rushing yards in the last two games and both Alabama's Trent Richardson (181) and LSU's Spencer Ware (109) went into triple digits in the rushing department. Dyer has rushed for more than 100 yards four times this season. We might have given Florida's front seven way more credit than it deserved to start the year, as the last two weeks have been far from nice for this unit. With Dyer's blend of power and speed, Florida's defense has yet another tough runner to keep in check this week.

10. More of the Honey Badger: The legend of LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu grows larger and more fantastic with each week. Those Honey Badger T-Shirts floating around LSU's campus are easily the best in the sport right now and he really does take what he wants. This weekend, he faces yet another backup quarterback making his starting debut for the season. Yes, Simms is experienced, but the Honey Badger doesn't care (or don't care). He will no doubt make Simms' day that much more frustrating because of his ability to somehow pop up wherever the ball is on the field. Just remember, he takes what he wants.

At the half: UAB 3, Mississippi State 0

October, 8, 2011
10/08/11
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All those questions circulating around Starkville, Miss., about what's wrong with Mississippi State have only intensified following a forgettable first half by the Bulldogs on Saturday.

They trail 3-0 to a winless UAB team that has a lead in a game for the first time all season.

If that's not enough, the Bulldogs have just 118 total yards at the half in what has become a recurring theme for them. They're not moving the ball with any consistency and not scoring any points, and there's blame to go around.

Injuries in the offensive line have been a big part of the Bulldogs' struggles on offense, but they're simply not getting it done up front. Several times in the first half, running back Vick Ballard was hit either at the line of scrimmage or in his own backfield. And this is a UAB defense that was ranked 116th nationally in rushing defense coming into the game and giving up an average of 228.8 yards on the ground.

Senior quarterback Chris Relf isn't throwing the football with any confidence, and defenses are playing the Bulldogs accordingly. His receivers also aren't helping him very much.

The defense has done its part in the first half, although letting the Blazers drive for a late field goal wasn't the way you want to finish a half.

It's already been a disappointing season for Mississippi State. But if the Bulldogs don't wake up in the second half of this game, it's a season that may completely unravel.
It was a sloppy one in Athens, Ga., but it's finally over.

Georgia overcame three Aaron Murray interceptions and just 315 yards of total offense to beat Mississippi State 24-10. It wasn't pretty by any means, but Georgia has a three-game winning streak and is now 2-1 in the SEC, and that's all that matters for this Bulldogs team right now.

Murray has seen much better days in his career, as he passed for 160 yards and two touchdowns to go with his three picks. He found tight end Orson Charles and freshman standout Malcolm Mitchell for his two touchdowns.

Isaiah Crowell and Mitchell continue to really be the bright young stars of this Georgia offense. Crowell carried the ball 22 times for 104 yards, while Mitchell caught five passes for a game-high 60 yards. You have to give Mississippi State props for its run defense in the second half. Crowell had 90 yards at halftime, but only 14 in the second half.

As for Mississippi State's offense, well, this pack of Bulldogs didn't score an offensive touchdown. The Bulldogs talked about fixing the little things and cleaning up the mistakes, but Mississippi State failed to do much of that as the Bulldogs managed just 213 total yards and just 56 rushing yards.

When you have Vick Ballard and Chris Relf in your backfield that is just unacceptable. Ballard carried the ball just eight times for 23 yards, while Relf had 31 yards rushing. Relf also passed for 157 yards, but had two interceptions.

Mississippi State's lone touchdown came on a 72-yard interception return by Darius Slay in the fourth quarter when the game was out of reach.

For Georgia, the momentum continues for a team left for dead after the first two weeks. For Mississippi State, an 0-3 start will create a major mental roadblock for a team that some had pegged as a dark horse in the West. The offensive problems are mounting for Mississippi State and we still haven't seen much of Chad Bumphis on offense. It's like he has disappeared. He is a player that has to be more involved in the offense, but he has to make more of an effort to be. He had just two catches for 15 yards and one carry for no yards against Georgia. When you are your team's best offensive athlete you have to get more than three touches. You have to find a way.

Georgia still has some things to clean up on both sides of the ball, but this winning streak is only a good thing for a team looking to make it back to Atlanta for the SEC title game.
Vick Ballard isn’t sugarcoating anything.

He looks at the first two weeks of the season, compares them to what he’s seen lately from the Mississippi State Bulldogs offense, and sees a significant difference.

“We just aren’t executing like we normally have,” the senior running back said.

"It’s real frustrating because we’re the type of offense that can put up at least 40 points (a game). It’s real frustrating.”

The Bulldogs had one of the nation’s best offenses through the first two weeks of the season, averaging 588 yards in the first two games, but that was against lowly Memphis and an Auburn team that sports the SEC’s worst defense.

Against LSU and Louisiana Tech, the Bulldogs averaged just 267 yards and combined for 32 points after racking up 93 in the first two games.

[+] EnlargeMississippi State's Dan Mullen
Nelson Chenault/US PRESSWIRECoach Dan Mullen says the Bulldogs must execute on offense.
There has been a missed block here and a blown assignment there. A botched route blows up a play and a poor read sets the drive back.

Mississippi State enters its game against Georgia with a 2-2 record. More importantly, the Bulldogs are 0-2 in conference play. Expectations were much higher for this team coming into the season, but the offensive stall has some second-guessing the Bulldogs.

Two conference losses likely put a West championship out of reach, but Ballard said this team is still upbeat. The offense is confident. This team was in the exact same situation last year heading into the Georgia game. Mississippi State won that game and went on a six-game winning streak, eventually making a January bowl.

“Everyone wants to go undefeated,“ Ballard said. “We lost those two games, but the fact that we were in the same situation last year gives us confidence for the next couple of games.”

If this team wants to repeat last year’s success, the offense has to get back on track. Ballard and head coach Dan Mullen said it starts with the little things.

It’s about getting back to the basics for the Bulldogs. Mullen runs a physical spread offense because of the bruising running style of Ballard and quarterback Chris Relf. Mullen not only wants to spread you out and make you attack all 11 players, but he wants you to grind or the Bulldogs will pop you in the mouth.

That pop hasn’t been there the last couple of weeks, with Ballard getting 38 and 68 yards in games and Relf getting 30 rushing yards on 25 carries. The physicality we saw earlier from the Bulldogs isn’t there and it hurts this potent attack.

Another reason for the Bulldogs' shortcomings on offense has been the offensive line shuffle. First, starting left tackle James Carmon went down with a knee injury against Auburn, shoving freshman Blaine Clausell into the starting role.

With junior right guard Tobias Smith out for the year after suffering a knee injury against LSU, Carmon, who returned this week and worked all over the offensive line, or senior Quentin Saulsberry could get the nod at his spot. Redshirt freshman Dillon Day is expected to continue to start at center.

That means there are two freshmen on this offensive line and youth here is always a concern in the SEC. Mullen said that makes it even more important communication issues get fixed and plays know exactly when and where to be on the field, as minute mistakes can create enormous problems and that’s what the offense has dealt with in the past two weeks.

“One guy off gets you out of rhythm in the offense and it kind of really slows you down,” Mullen said. “Every time we’ve been taking shots early in the season we’ve been hitting them down the field. We’ve been just off the fingertips the last two weeks. Those issues can really start to compound, one after the other, where you don’t get into a good rhythm on offense.

“When you’re going forward and backward, forward and backward, with guys making some mistakes and not executing cleanly you get out of that rhythm and you don’t put up those huge numbers that you are when you’re in great rhythm.”

No one would blame Mullen for getting awfully close to pressing the panic button after an 0-2 start, but isn’t. In fact, he’s not ready to change much of anything offensively. He just wants to little things corrected.

“We’re not changing a whole lot of what we do because we’re not far off from where we want to be,” he said. “We have to be cleaner and execute better.”
With the LSU-Mississippi State game just hours away, fellow SEC blogger Chris Low and I decided to look at the keys to victory for each team.

LSU comes in with all the momentum after two tremendous showings by its defense. Mississippi State was a trendy dark-horse pick to win the West before the season started, but that talk was halted after a tough loss to Auburn last week.

Starkville will no doubt be jumping for tonight's game, but how can each team win? I looked into three ways that the Bulldogs could pull the upset, while Chris looked at how LSU can stay undefeated in a hostile environment.

Mississippi State's keys to victory:

1. Stop the run: Mississippi State was awful when it came to stopping the run last week. Auburn carved up the Bulldogs' front seven for 235 yards on the ground inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. Maybe we should have seen it coming after the Bulldogs surrendered more than 160 yards to Memphis a week earlier. LSU brings in a tough running game that features multiple backs, so stamina won't be an issue. The Tigers have put up back-to-back 175-yard rushing performances and if the Bulldogs don't get tougher in the trenches, it could be another long day for Mississippi State's defense. Mississippi State barely got any push from defensive tackle Fletcher Cox when he returned last week, but he and Josh Boyd can't afford to slump tonight.

2. Force Jarrett Lee to beat you: Lee hasn't been spectacular this season, but he has run the offense the way his coaches have asked him to. Lee's unsettled football past is well documented and if he gets in trouble, he can be a defense's best friend. He has had interception problems in the past and Mississippi State fields one of the most athletic and dangerous secondaries in the SEC. Cornerbacks Corey Broomfield and Johnthan Banks are big plays waiting to happen, while Charles Mitchell and Nickoe Whitley have a tremendous knack for finding the ball. Lee has yet to feel rattled this season, but the Bulldogs have the personnel in the secondary to do that.

3. Get the wide receivers more involved: Quarterback Chris Relf showed that he can be a one-man wrecking crew, but even that wasn't enough to push the Bulldogs past Auburn last week. He needs more help from his receivers. In two games, Mississippi State's leading receiver, Jameon Lewis, has just five catches for 116 yards and a touchdown. He had one catch for 3 yards against Auburn. Last week, Relf passed for 198 yards, but running back Vick Ballard led the team in catches with five. In order to get more variety out of the offense, Mississippi State's receivers have to get more separation and be more of a factor.

LSU's keys to victory:

1. Take control early: Scott Field is a tough place to play, and those cowbells have a way of ringing in your ears after a while. They don’t ring nearly as much or as loudly when Mississippi State is down, though. So taking the crowd out of the game early would be a huge help to LSU, which is at its best when it’s playing with the lead, running the football and dictating the flow of the game.

2. Hit some plays in the passing game: The Tigers don’t necessarily need to throw for 250 or 300 yards, but they do need to keep the Mississippi State defense honest by hitting a few big pass plays down the field. LSU’s longest completion to a wide receiver in the Oregon game was 10 yards to Rueben Randle, but Randle came back with a big outing last week in the blowout of Northwestern State. LSU is going to need Randle, Odell Beckham and Kadron Boone to stretch that Mississippi State defense tonight so that the Bulldogs aren’t able to walk a safety up and stack the box.

3. Ground the Bulldogs’ ground game: Mississippi State’s Vick Ballard is tied for third nationally in rushing. He has 301 yards in his first two games and is averaging 9.1 yards per carry. It’s not just Ballard, either. Quarterback Chris Relf is a big part of the Mississippi running game along with backup running back LaDarius Perkins, who had a 40-yard touchdown run last week against Auburn. LSU’s challenge is to keep Mississippi State from getting that running game going, particularly on first and second down, and forcing Relf into a lot of third-and-long situations. The Tigers are ranked eighth nationally against the run and are allowing just 1.65 yards per attempt. If they play that way tonight, they’ll make it 12 in a row over the Bulldogs.

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