SEC: Josh Boyd

Lunchtime links

February, 25, 2013
2/25/13
12:30
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Congrats to "Argo" and "Django." Two great movies and both earned big honors last night.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 10

November, 4, 2012
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Another weekend is in the books, and here's what we learned about the SEC:

1. It's still Alabama's world: The Crimson Tide went right down to the wire with fifth-ranked LSU. Alabama was outplayed for most of the game, but when it needed a game-winning drive, AJ McCarron delivered, connecting on 4 of 5 passes for 72 yards and the decisive 28-yard touchdown on a screen pass. Now the rest of the nation has to continue looking up at the Tide. If LSU had won, the SEC's BCS world might have been turned upside-down, but now Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame are all jockeying for position to play Alabama (if the Tide can continue their winning ways). Alabama controls its own destiny not only on the path to the SEC title game but also the Discover BCS National Championship Game in Miami.

2. Mississippi State isn't who we thought it was: The Bulldogs might have started 7-0, but it's clear that the soft early schedule helped mask some of the offensive and defensive issues this team has. The Bulldogs were pummeled by Alabama and then routed by Texas A&M, showing glaring weaknesses in their game. The defensive line is the biggest problem -- the Bulldogs just can't get any pressure on opposing backfields. That defensive line has been pushed around, and junior college transfer defensive end Denico Autry and veteran defensive tackle Josh Boyd haven't lived up to their preseason hype. The Bulldogs are losing the battle up front, and it's hurting the rest of the defense. There's no creativity, and the aggression is minimal. The offense hasn't found any consistency or rhythm in the past two weeks, and with a tough slate remaining in November, the 10 wins we thought Mississippi State could get might not happen anymore.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Spruce Derden/US PresswireTexas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is this week's big threat to Alabama's undefeated season.
3. There's some fight left in sputtering teams: Arkansas, Auburn and Tennessee entered the weekend with losing records, but all found ways to win Saturday. All of them could have rolled over Saturday. Auburn was the most impressive, routing New Mexico State 42-7 behind a superb running game and new starting quarterback Jonathan Wallace. The Tigers could have stumbled through this game, but after a slow first half, Auburn scored 35 second-half points. Tennessee and Arkansas were both in dogfights Saturday. The Razorbacks slipped past Tulsa by four points, while Tennessee survived a shootout with Troy to win 55-48. Both Arkansas and Tennessee still have bowl hopes. Arkansas has to get two wins in a tough month of November, while the Vols could still get eight wins by sweeping November and getting a bowl win.

4. Johnny Manziel poses a real threat to Alabama: With the way Zach Mettenberger threw the ball around Saturday, the coming weekend's Alabama-Texas A&M game just got a lot more interesting. Mettenberger registered a career-high 298 passing yards and a touchdown. Manziel has walked all over defenses this fall and he should be able to make some plays through the air on Alabama's secondary. He should be able to run around a little bit as well. Manziel struggled against Florida and LSU, but ran through Mississippi State over the weekend. He's growing each week and the Aggies offense is getting better and better. There are some holes in Alabama's defense that weren't there last season and Manziel has the ability to exploit them. Alabama should adjust through the week, but keeping up with Manziel will be a tall task for the Tide.

5. Georgia has the talent to take the SEC: When the Bulldogs can play a complete game on the field, they are very hard to stop. We've known that both sides of the ball are loaded with talent, but neither side has been able to live up to its potential at the same time in a game. Saturday, the Dawgs did that in their 37-10 victory over Ole Miss. The offense churned out 533 yards, while the defense held the Rebels' high-flying offense to just 234 yards and forced three turnovers. If Georgia can get past Auburn and play a complete game in Atlanta, the Dawgs could take the SEC title. Could this team beat Alabama? That's yet to be seen, but the team that we saw Saturday would have a chance with an offense that could test Alabama's secondary. Mettenberger picked on the Crimson Tide defensive backs all night, and Aaron Murray has the ability and the weapons to do the same thing. When that defense is clicking it could give Alabama's offense fits.
Saturday serves as both a blessing and a curse for Mississippi State's defense.

On one hand, the Bulldogs' defense has a chance to redeem itself after Alabama rolled right over this unit last week. The problem is that Mississippi State is taking on the SEC's best offense.

Texas A&M has the fifth-best offense nationally, averaging 542.9 yards per game, and is third in scoring (45.5). Thanks to a group of talented skill players, a veteran offensive line and the human highlight reel at quarterback, the Aggies' offense has been one of the most fun ones to watch this season.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
Mark Zerof/US PresswireMississippi State coach Dan Mullen hopes his talented secondary can help slow Texas A&M's explosive offense.
"They are going to spread you out across the field and create those matchups for their talent," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said.

Mike Evans and Ryan Swope have been outstanding at wide receiver this season for the Aggies, combining for 83 catches for 1,225 yards and seven touchdowns. Ben Malena has been a pleasant surprise at running back (525 yards and five touchdowns).

But we know what really makes this A&M offense tick: Johnny Manziel.

The redshirt freshman has received Heisman love, and he has killed teams with his arm and his legs. He's averaging 277 yards passing and 99 rushing each game. He also has combined to score 29 touchdowns in his first season on the field.

"If you give him all day to stand back there and throw, he'll throw and beat you with his arm. If you give him open spaces, he's going to take off and beat you with his legs," Mullen said. "You have to do everything to contain him."

And good defenses have done so in the second half of games. Florida and LSU clamped down on Johnny Football in their wins against the Aggies, and the Bulldogs are looking to take some of what the Gators and Tigers did and expand on it Saturday.

Mullen knows he has to put pressure on Manziel, but he can't be too aggressive because running lanes could open up. And you obviously can't give him time to stand in the pocket.

Only two defenses have calmed Manziel's storm, and the Bulldogs certainly have the talent to do it, as well, especially with such a talented secondary.

This is the same unit that gave up some big plays against Alabama, but it's also the same unit that has arguably the nation's top cornerback duo in Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, who have combined for 10 of Mississippi State's 12 interceptions.

Communication issues hurt this group against Alabama, but don't expect these players to have the same sort of issues Saturday. And with the way Manziel likes to improvise, things could get tricky for him if he doesn't settle down under duress.

"Your concern is that this is a really, really good secondary," A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "Not only is it a good secondary, it's an experienced secondary."

To take some of the pressure off that secondary, all eyes will be on Mississippi State's defensive line. What was expected to be a strong part of this defense hasn't really lived up to expectations.

The line has combined for eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss through eight games. The core was supposed to be junior college transfer Denico Autry and veteran Josh Boyd. They've combined for just three sacks and seven tackles for loss.

"I want pressure every play," Mullen said. "I guess if every time a team tries to throw the ball and it ends in a sack, that's what I want."

In a perfect world, Mullen would get that. For now, he'll have to hope for flat-out improvement up front. And he'll need it if this defense is going to rebound Saturday.

Welcome to Starkville

September, 8, 2012
9/08/12
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STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Greetings from Davis Wade Stadium!

There might be a lot of attention on the matchups with the two SEC newbies, but make no mistake about it: Mississippi State-Auburn is huge.

It really set the tone for both schools last year, and that should be the same story this year as well. Auburn is coming off of a tough loss to Clemson last week, while Mississippi State is riding high off of a 56-9 route of Jackson State. But this game is completely different than the ones we saw last week. This one has league pride and momentum on the line.

Dan Mullen and Gene Chizik have both talked about the importance of this game, as it pertains to heading into the rest of the season. Getting behind in the SEC race is never a good thing.

For Auburn, there are a lot of questions on both sides of the ball. Poor tackling killed the Tigers against Clemson, while a lack of offensive efficiency in Clemson territory really put a dent in Auburn's scoring efforts. That has to change today. History is certainly on Auburn's side, as the Tigers have won four straight against the Bulldogs and 10 of the past 11 in this series. Auburn is also 18-1 in its past 19 SEC openers.

Like all SEC games, play up front will be key. Both teams bring in offensive lines with questions at both tackle spots. Auburn has either freshmen or redshirt freshmen at both right and left tackle in the two-deep, while Mississippi State is working with a junior college transfer (Charles Siddoway) and three sophomores in the two-deep at both tackle spots.

If Auburn defensive ends Corey Lemonier and Dee Ford bring enough heat on the outside, it could be a long day for Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell. But the Bulldogs have a pretty talented defensive line as well. Josh Boyd should be able to generate some pressure through the middle, while Denico Autry has a chance to have a solid day at one of the end spots.

This is a big one in Starkville, as Mullen looks to grab his first SEC West win against a team not named Ole Miss. Should be fun.

Lunchtime links

August, 29, 2012
8/29/12
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It's like Christmas Eve (which is my birthday so don't forget) around here with college football starting up Thursday! Before we get into the links, we want to let you know that we're wiping the dust off the old mailbag Friday, so get your questions in! If you'd like to send questions via Twitter, hit up @ESPN_SEC and @AschoffESPN.

We can't bring the mailbag back without you!

Proving ground: Western Division

August, 20, 2012
8/20/12
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With the start of the 2012 college football season less than two weeks away, let’s take a look at those players in the SEC who have the most to prove.

I’ll kick it off with five players in the West, and Edward will come back later today with five players in the East.

Keep in mind that there are all sorts of reasons why a player may have something to prove. Sometimes, it’s making that jump from a good player to a great player. Other times, it’s going from a hyped freshman to a key contributor, bouncing back from a so-so or injury-plagued season or simply filling some big shoes.

Here are five players in the West to watch. They’re listed alphabetically:

[+] EnlargeArkansas running back Knile Davis
AP Photo/Danny JohnstonA fractured ankle kept Knile Davis off the field last season, but the junior running back netted 1322 yards in 2010.
Josh Boyd, DT, Mississippi State: It’s Boyd’s time now to be the enforcer in the middle of that Mississippi State defensive line. He’s been a productive player the last couple of seasons, but with Fletcher Cox leaving early for the NFL, the Bulldogs need Boyd to step his game up more than ever in 2012. He has the physical tools to be an All-SEC player and one of the premier interior defensive linemen in the league.

Knile Davis, RB, Arkansas: There’s still some mystery as to whether Davis is all the way back after missing all of last season with a fractured ankle. The Hogs have held him out of full contact work this preseason in scrimmages, although his teammates say he’s looked like his old self in everything else. Davis led all SEC running backs in rushing in 2010 with 1,322 yards. There’s no doubting his talent, determination and heart. He just has to go show it on the field … again.

Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama: From the day Kouandjio walked onto campus at Alabama, his teammates have raved about his pure physical ability. One of the most heralded prospects in the country two years ago, the 6-foot-6, 311-pound sophomore has been impressive enough that the Crimson Tide moved Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones to center to make room for Kouandjo at left tackle. That’s a lot of pressure for a first-time starter, but the feeling in and around the Alabama program is that he has a lot of game.

Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU: The Tigers were a consistent passing game away from winning the national championship last season. They think Mettenberger is the missing piece to the puzzle. He has a big arm and has been very impressive in both spring practice and preseason camp. He just doesn’t have any meaningful experience in SEC games. Coach Les Miles has said LSU will open up the passing game with Mettenberger at the helm. This is the second chance Mettenberger has been waiting for after getting in trouble at Georgia and being dismissed from the team earlier in his career.

Trovon Reed, WR, Auburn: Injuries have plagued Reed during his first two seasons on the Plains. He arrived with the reputation of being electric in the open field and the kind of player who can turn short passes into big gains. Auburn struggled to get anything going in the passing game a year ago, and with the uncertainty at quarterback going into this season, the Tigers are looking for as many playmakers as they can find on offense. They need Reed healthy and they need him to be the difference-maker everybody was convinced he was when they signed him.
Now that we've ranked the best defensive lines in the SEC, who are the best individual players up front defensively?

We'll start with the defensive tackles today and come back on Monday and rank the 10 best defensive ends.

Here goes:

1. Bennie Logan, Jr., LSU: Overshadowed last season by eventual first-rounder Michael Brockers, Logan will anchor what should be one of the most dominant defensive lines in college football.

[+] EnlargeJesse Williams
AP Photo/Butch DillJesse Williams had 24 tackles for Alabama last season.
2. Jesse Williams, Sr., Alabama: He has incredible strength and tremendous size. Williams’ move to nose guard from end will make him a force in the middle for the Crimson Tide.

3. John Jenkins, Sr., Georgia: Good luck in moving the 350-pound Jenkins an inch. He made more plays as last season progressed and should be even better his second time through the SEC.

4. Dominique Easley, Jr., Florida: Versatile enough to play inside and outside, Easley is one of the better interior playmakers in the league. The only concern is how well he recovers from last season’s ACL tear.

5. Josh Boyd, Sr., Mississippi State: Fletcher Cox got most of the publicity last season in Starkville. But now that Cox is gone, it’s Boyd time to shine for the Bulldogs. He had 4.5 sacks last season.

6. Sharrif Floyd, Jr., Florida: He’s back at his natural position of tackle and may play some at nose when the Gators go to a three-man front. This should be his most productive season yet.

7. Anthony Johnson, So., LSU: Yes, another LSU defensive lineman is on the list. Johnson will see his snaps increase dramatically this season, and there’s a reason they call him “Freak.”

8. Rob Lohr, Sr., Vanderbilt: One of the more underrated defensive players in the league, Lohr had 41 tackles last season, including 11.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.

9. Byran Jones, Jr., Arkansas: The Hogs have good experience and good depth at tackle. Jones is the best of the bunch, although Robert Thomas may have something to say about that this season.

10. Sheldon Richardson, Jr., Missouri: Despite starting in only two games last season, Richardson managed eight tackles for loss. The Tigers need him to take another step this season, and he’s poised to do that.
The SEC has a nation-leading 19 players on the 2012 preseason watch list for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, which is awarded annually to the nation's best defensive player. Alabama leads the SEC with five players on the list, while LSU is second with four.

Here are all 19 SEC players on the Nagurski Trophy list:
For the complete Nagurski Trophy watch list, go here.

The SEC also leads the country with 19 players on the 2012 preseason watch list for the Outland Trophy, which is presented annually to the nation's top interior lineman. Alabama leads the SEC with four players on the list, including reigning Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones.

Here are all 19 SEC players on the Outland Trophy watch list:
For the full Outland Trophy watch list, go here.

Lunchtime links

June, 20, 2012
6/20/12
12:00
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The NBA season is pretty much over, but we still have Euro 2012 and just 70-something days until college football is back!

Mississippi State spring wrap

May, 15, 2012
5/15/12
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2011 overall record: 7-6
2011 conference record: 2-6
Returning starters: Offense: 5; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Tyler Russell, RB LaDarius Perkins, WR Chad Bumphis, WR Arceto Clark, OG Gabe Jackson, DT Josh Boyd, LB Cameron Lawrence, CB Johnthan Banks, S Nickoe Whitley

Key losses
QB Chris Relf, RB Vick Ballard, OG Quentin Saulsberry, DT Fletcher Cox, LB Brandon Wilson, S Charles Mitchell

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Vick Ballard (1,189 yards)
Passing: Chris Relf (1,212 yards)
Receiving: Arceto Clark* (442 yards)
Tackles: Cameron Lawrence* (123)
Sacks: Fletcher Cox (5)
Interceptions: Johnthan Banks* (5)

Spring answers

1. Turning the corner: With Darius Slay having a huge spring, the Bulldogs should be well stocked at cornerback. Slay didn’t arrive from junior college until last summer, so he was sort of feeling his way around the league last season. But he looked much more comfortable this spring, and the Mississippi State coaches feel like they have three starters at cornerback. Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield combined for 21 interceptions over the past three seasons, and Banks is being projected as a first-round draft choice next April.

2. Running back depth: Vick Ballard’s toughness and consistency make him a tough component to replace in Mississippi State’s offense, but the Bulldogs exited the spring trying to figure out how they’re going to play four running backs in the fall. It’s always a plus to have that kind of depth in the SEC, and all four are a little bit different. Speedy junior LaDarius Perkins and 225-pound sophomore Nick Griffin complement each other perfectly, and both are big-play threats. Redshirt freshman Josh Robinson is a blur in the open field, while redshirt freshman Derrick Milton is a punishing runner.

3. Autry off the edge: The Bulldogs needed a finisher off the edge, and it looks like they’ve found him in junior college newcomer Denico Autry. Throughout the spring, Autry was a fixture in the backfield and combines a quick first step with an aggressive in-your-face approach to rushing the passer. He was one of the top junior college prospects in the country, and judging from his performance in the spring, he has a chance to be a real difference-maker for the Bulldogs in 2012.

Fall questions

1. Replacing Cox: When Fletcher Cox got it going during the second half of the season last year, there was no stopping him. He made everybody on that defense better. Now that he’s gone early to the pros, one man’s not going to replace him. Everybody in the middle of that defensive line will need to elevate his game, starting with Josh Boyd. The good news is that Boyd is plenty capable, although it’s not going to be the same without Cox playing alongside him. Freshman Quay Evans was an early enrollee and demonstrated this spring why he was one of the top tackle prospects in the country. He won’t have to wait long to get onto the field.

2. Passing game consistency: Tyler Russell took the kind of steps this spring Dan Mullen was hoping to see. Throwing the ball from the pocket is what he does best. He still has to prove he’s going to take care of the ball, and the Bulldogs have to prove they can protect him. Mullen is encouraged by this group of receivers, and 6-4 redshirt freshman Joe Morrow has a chance to be special. The key is putting it all together and getting more production, period, out of the passing game than the Bulldogs did a year ago.

3. Tightening up special teams: The Bulldogs figure to be in a lot of close games in 2012, which means making field goals from 45 yards on in will be critical. Derek DePasquale is gone, and Brian Egan, a former Parade All-American, will get a chance to prove that he can make big kicks for the Bulldogs. They also need to make the return game a weapon and have the athletes to do it (Chad Bumphis, Jameon Lewis and Banks), while shoring up their coverage on kickoffs will be equally important. In short, if the Bulldogs are going to get back to winning eight or more games, special teams will be the difference.

Lunchtime links

March, 28, 2012
3/28/12
12:00
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Time for some links.

Season report card: Mississippi State

December, 21, 2011
12/21/11
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We move on to our first bowl team and take a look at Mississippi State's 2011 regular season:

OFFENSE: C

With the weapons Mississippi State brought back this season, a lot was expected from the Bulldogs in 2011. Things started fine, as the Bulldogs racked up a ton of yards and points through the first two weeks. But even though Mississippi State scored 34 points and totaled 531 yards in Week 2 against Auburn, quarterback Chris Relf's game-tying touchdown run was stopped short of the goal line and it seemed like everything changed for the Bulldogs. The offense just never got back to its 2010 form and Relf's play suffered throughout the season. The Bulldogs eventually had a quarterback battle on their hands with Relf and Tyler Russell, who eventually took over as Mississippi State's No. 1 QB. Running back Vick Ballard passed his rushing mark from last year, gaining 1,009 yards, but finished with eight touchdowns, which is 11 fewer than last year. Even with solid depth at wide receiver, Mississippi State's passing game averaged just 186.2 yards per game and the Bulldogs finished the season ranking sixth in the SEC in total offense, averaging 355.1 yards per game.

DEFENSE: B -

The Bulldogs entered the season with questions inside its front seven. Mississippi State had talent on the interior of the line with Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd, but had to replacing three starting linebackers. The Bulldogs were also replacing defensive coordinator Manny Diaz with Chris Wilson. No one was quite sure what the Bulldogs would do on defense, but the defensive backfield was stacked with talent. Cornerback Johnthan Banks highlighted the Bulldog's secondary, having a very solid year in Starkville. He defended 14 passes, intercepted five passes, had three sacks and totaled 64 tackles. There was a lot of bend in Mississippi State's defense, but the unit played better than most expected at times. Mississippi State gave up 355.9 yards per game, but only 19.9 points per contest. Mississippi State's pass defense ranked ninth in the league, but allowed just nine passing touchdowns.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C-

The Bulldogs didn't have much success at all returning kickoffs. Mississippi State was last in the SEC in kickoff returns, averaging only 17.7 yards per return. Mississippi State was the only team to average fewer than 20 yards on kick returns. Mississippi State did better on punt returns, getting a touchdown from both Banks and Chad Bumphis. Mississippi State connected on 11 of 18 field goals, but was sixth in punting, as punter Baker Swedenburg averaged 41.9 yards per punt and netted 38 yards per kick.

COACHING: C

Dan Mullen did a tremendous job in 2010, getting the Bulldogs to nine wins for the first time since 1999. This year, the Bulldogs took a step back, even with lofty expectations before the season. Mississippi State enters the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl against Wake Forest with a 6-6 record. Mullen continued his SEC West slide, yet again beating only Ole Miss from his side of the division. The offense failed to live up to its expectations, but the defense did perform better than expected for the most part. Despite some rough patches, Mullen kept his team competitive for the entire season, winning the games the Bulldogs were supposed to, and has Mississippi State in the postseason in back-to-back years for the first time in more than a decade.
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.
You have to admire Brandon Wilson’s patience.

Ever since Mississippi State said goodbye to three starting linebackers -- Emmanuel Gatling, Chris White and K.J. Wright -- from 2010, he, his teammates and coaches have had to field questions about replacing the trio.

It was old the second time he was asked, and it was even older when he lost count of the linebacker queries.

But even when the question was raised again just a week before the Bulldogs’ season-opener Thursday against Memphis, Wilson was cool and collected. There was no anger or annoyance in his voice. He expected the questions and was quick to say he and his teammates can’t worry about the past because they are the present.

[+] EnlargeCameron Lawrence
Shelby Daniel/Icon SMICameron Lawrence is one player Mississippi State is counting on to fill the void at linebacker.
“Now is our time to shine and I definitely think we’ll do that,” Wilson said.

According to the Bulldogs’ opening depth chart, Wilson, a senior, will man the middle, while junior Cameron Lawrence and redshirt freshman Matthew Wells will hold down the outside spots.

While the talk has centered around what Mississippi State lost, this group isn’t completely new to things. Lawrence, who Wilson said has the potential to be one of the fastest, most athletic linebackers in the conference, played in 10 games last season before suffering an injury. He registered 31 tackles, while Wilson played in all 13 games last season, recording 17 tackles.

This group hasn’t put up eye-popping numbers, like the 253 combined tackles and nine sacks last year’s starters produced, but Wilson assures this group has the talent to pull its weight. Though he’s tired of hearing about who isn’t around, he understands that this year’s linebacker unit has a lot to live up to and a lot of responsibility.

Wilson claims the Bulldogs have “the best defensive backfield in the SEC, hands down,” and a disruptive interior line combo in Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd, but it’s the linebackers who have to do most of the communicating. It’s the linebackers who run the defense. And it’s the linebackers who have to make sure they’ve got their jobs covered.

“If you go hard, everything will be all right,” Wilson said.

The Bulldogs got a veteran dose of help this offseason when former Clemson linebacker Brandon Maye transferred in. The fifth-year senior is battling Wilson in the middle, but has brought needed competition and leadership to the group.

Maye said his transition to Starkville was easy for the most part, but learning the playbook was the toughest obstacle. He has most of it down, but admits he’s still learning.

What didn’t take him time to realize was the determination he saw out of his new teammates. He knew about the inexperience coming in, but Maye said guys have been flying around nonstop since he arrived.

“You see a young group. You see a young group that’s hungry and eager to prove people wrong,“ Maye said. “We’ve been working and training all summer for this opportunity to go out and prove all these doubters wrong.

“These guys are very hungry. They’re young, but talent overrides experience sometimes.”

There will be growing pains, for sure. Wilson sees those issues in practice when the linebackers aren't on the same page or are confused. He knows this group has to read offenses better and know the defense like they know their last names.

But Wilson isn’t worried about being perfect just yet. It's going to take some time for this group to really mesh. Experience will help, but Wilson said this group needs to concentrate on playing its way, and its way only.

“As long as I know we get in that film room, we workout hard, we practice hard and we’re going to hit hard, everything else will fall into place,” he said. “We have to go out and play our game. We can’t play like Chris White and K.J. played last year. We’re going to play our young, fast, more athletic style of play.”

The SEC's best 25 players: No. 22

July, 29, 2011
7/29/11
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When you're good up front defensively, you've always got a chance. That said, the No. 22 guy in our countdown is one of the SEC's most talented interior defensive linemen:

No. 22: Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State

2010 numbers: Cox started in 11 games and collected 29 total tackles, including 6.5 for loss. He finished with 2.5 sacks and also had four quarterback hurries. He blocked two kicks, giving him three blocked kicks in his first two seasons.

Most recent ranking: Not ranked in the 2010 postseason countdown.

Making the case for Cox: The 6-4, 295-pound junior has yet to put up monster numbers, but this may be the season he does that. He has the size, strength and explosiveness to be a dominant interior lineman in this league and showed flashes of greatness last season as a sophomore. Even though he plays inside, he's a natural pass-rusher and has an exceptionally quick first step for a player his size. The Bulldogs will lean heavily on Cox and his cohort at tackle, Josh Boyd, this season. They form one of the more talented tackle tandems in the league. And with some question marks at end, Mississippi State will need Cox and Boyd to be even more active in the middle of that defensive line. Cox is also ready to take on a leadership role this season and has been pushing his teammates this summer. Nobody's comparing Cox to Nick Fairley. At least, not yet. But don't be surprised if Cox emerges from the shadows much the same way as Fairley did a year ago and establishes himself as one of the SEC's premier defensive players.

Previously
  • No. 23: Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt
  • No. 24: Jaye Howard, DT, Florida
  • No. 25: Janzen Jackson, S, Tennessee

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