SEC: Malcolm Johnson

The Magnolia State is home to the No. 1- and No. 3-ranked teams in the country.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rebels haven't allowed more than 20 points in a game this season (that came on the road, to Texas A&M and, mind you, the final six came as time expired when the game was out of hand). I'd like their chances at keeping Mississippi State under that 28-point benchmark. When the time comes, it'll be entertaining to watch those two units go head-to-head, that's for sure.

Mississippi State season preview

August, 13, 2014
8/13/14
10:30
AM ET


» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Mississippi State Bulldogs:

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

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

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

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

Instant impact newcomers: LB Gerri Green, DT Cory Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preseason predictions

ESPN Stats & Information: 8.45 wins

Bovada over-under: 7.5 wins

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

Having that big, powerful tight end who can knock defenders around and stretch the field is turning into more of a necessity for NFL offenses, and college coaches are taking notice.

“I definitely think it's a trend going on right now,” Vanderbilt tight end Steven Scheu said. “Tight ends are starting to become just a larger receiver, quite honestly, especially when you have guys who are tight ends in the NFL trying to get their contracts signed as a wide receiver because they're taking most of their snaps out wide."

In the SEC, most coaches are on board with having that lovely mismatch of size and athleticism lining up inside. Finding multifaceted players who create advantageous mismatches is the name of the game.

[+] EnlargeJake McGee
Lee Coleman/Icon SMIThe Gators were eager to add former Cavaliers TE Jake McGee, who beings a new dimension to their offense.
The use of the tight end as more of a blocker has become more a part of how NFL offenses operate over the past few years, especially with the emergence of these hybrid players.

In 2011, 14 tight ends ranked inside the top 50 in the NFL in receiving. Those tight ends were targeted 1,526 times and caught 1,006 passes for 12,422 yards and 91 touchdowns. Last year, the NFL saw nine tight ends rank in the top 50 in receiving, catching 723 passes for 8,686 yards and 85 touchdowns. Those tight ends were targeted 1,088 times.

For the SEC, eight tight ends ranked among the top 50 in the league in receiving in 2011. Those eight tight ends caught 233 passes for 2,771 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Those numbers have dropped in the last couple of years, as only three tight ends ranked inside the top 50 of the SEC in receiving yards last season, after five ranked in the top 50 in 2012.

But coaches see those numbers increasing in the coming years, as the tight end becomes more valued. There's a reason Florida coach Will Muschamp jumped at the chance to sign former Virginia tight end Jake McGee, who can play inside and outside and caught 71 passes for 769 yards and seven touchdowns in his last two years at Virginia.

To Muschamp, that kind of player changes blocking schemes for defenses, creating more holes and space for the offense, and can take bigger linebackers and safeties out of plays.

“That changes run gaps, that creates an extra gap,” Muschamp said. “It also creates an extra gap away from the quarterback. From a protection standpoint and a run-game standpoint, it does some good things to be able to utilize a tight end in the game.

“To be able to match up on a linebacker -- to have a guy who athletically is superior to a safety -- and to be able to find those matchups is huge.”

Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin didn't use much of a flex tight end at Houston, but emphasized them more as an offensive coordinator at A&M and Oklahoma. He could do it again this year with the 277-pound Cameron Clear and deep threat Ricky Seals-Jones playing inside.

Mississippi State owns one of the leagues most consistent players in Malcolm Johnson (768 career yards), and rival Ole Miss has the perfect safety net in flex Evan Engram.

Arkansas' best receiving threat might be sophomore Hunter Henry, who averaged 14.6 yards per catch last year.

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has had a ton of success with tight ends and hopes to make up for his losses at receiver by using his tight ends and bigger receivers inside.

South Carolina has thrived by using Rory Anderson and Jerell Adams to stretch the field the last couple of years. Anderson has averaged 17.8 yards per catch on 39 receptions, while Adams has averaged 16.3 on 17 catches.

Alabama's Nick Saban is even getting in onthe fun with freak sophomore athlete O.J. Howard lining up at tight end.

“Having a guy like that, really there's a lot of multiples in terms of how you can use him and create problems for the defense to have to adjust to him,” Saban said.

More and more, coaches are seeking tight ends with receiver skills, but who like to block. Some players are noticing that that quality makes them even more dangerous.

“It definitely intrigues not only me but people around me, my colleagues I guess, my fellow tight ends,” Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah. “It's a lot more fun to be integrated in an offense and be moved around a lot. I think it definitely throws defenses off, not knowing where exactly you're going to line up a linebacker or a safety on them or what the offense is going to do. I'm definitely noticing that a little bit more.”
Another day, another two college football award watch lists arrive.

Today we have the lists for the Mackey Award, which goes to the nation's top tight end, and the Rimington Trophy, which goes to the top center.

The SEC well represented on both lists, with seven players on the Mackey list and 11 on the Rimington. Here is a rundown:

Mackey
Rory Anderson, South Carolina
Evan Engram, Ole Miss
Hunter Henry, Arkansas
O.J. Howard, Alabama
Malcolm Johnson, Mississippi State
Jay Rome, Georgia
C.J. Uzomah, Auburn

Rimington
David Andrews, Georgia
Evan Boehm, Missouri
Dillon Day, Mississippi State
Reese Dismukes, Auburn
Max Garcia, Florida
Ryan Kelly, Alabama
Mike Matthews, Texas A&M
Elliott Porter, LSU
Jon Toth, Kentucky
Joe Townsend, Vanderbilt
Cody Waldrop, South Carolina

Ranking the SEC tight ends

June, 11, 2014
6/11/14
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We started the day by ranking all 14 teams based on their receivers and tight ends. Next, we looked at the top 10 wide receivers in the SEC. Now it’s time to look at the top 10 tight ends.

[+] EnlargeO.J. Howard
AP Photo/Butch DillO.J. Howard figures to play a bigger role in Alabama's offense in 2014.
1. O.J. Howard, So., Alabama: He’s big, he’s strong and boy is he athletic. There were times last season when Howard looked unstoppable. Linebackers were too slow to keep up with him and cornerbacks were too small to cover him one on one. But he was underutilized as a freshman, failing to catch a pass in five games. With Lane Kiffin now running the offense and a new quarterback under center, Howard won’t go unnoticed as a sophomore.

2. Hunter Henry, So., Arkansas: Even without any consistency at quarterback, Henry emerged as one of the most promising young tight ends in the country as a true freshman last year, a pass-catcher who wasn't afraid to go over the middle. He finished with 28 catches for 409 yards and four touchdowns, and this year coaches are expecting even more.

3. Evan Engram, So., Ole Miss: Injuries clouded an otherwise eye-opening rookie campaign. He started last season on a tear with 20 catches and four touchdowns through seven games and then missed the final five games of the regular season. If he has a clean bill of health, he’s the type of hybrid receiver-tight end who can flourish in Hugh Freeze’s offense and complement Laquon Treadwell on the outside.

4. Jake McGee, Sr., Florida: The Gators' outlook at tight end went from bleak to rosy in one stroke when McGee transferred from Virginia, where he was the Cavs' leading receiver last season. At 6-6, 255, he gives quarterback Jeff Driskel a veteran safety net he can turn to in a pinch. Last season at UVA, McGee got a first down or touchdown on 26 of his 43 receptions.

5. Malcolm Johnson, Sr., Mississippi State: When he arrived in Starkville, Johnson was a three-star wide receiver who weighed only 200 pounds. Now, four years later, he’s 231 pounds and considered one of the better tight ends in the conference. He not only has evolved into a tight end, he ha become more productive every year. He had his best season yet last year with 30 catches for 391 yards and two touchdowns.

6. Rory Anderson, Sr., South Carolina: The only question with Anderson is his health. He tore his triceps during spring practice, but the Gamecocks are optimistic that he will be ready for the season. He's a big-play target at tight end who has averaged 17.8 yards per catch during his career and had five touchdowns as a sophomore.

[+] EnlargeJay Rome
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIGeorgia's Jay Rome, who was the top-ranked tight end in the Class of 2011, has 20 career catches for the Bulldogs.
7. Jay Rome, Jr., Georgia: Everybody is excited about incoming freshman Jeb Blazevich, but don’t sleep on Rome. He only had nine catches last year, but he played behind Arthur Lynch and missed the final four games with an injury. At 6-foot-6, 254 pounds, Rome will provide a big target for quarterback Hutson Mason, and be an asset in the rushing game.

8. Cameron Clear, Sr., Texas A&M: Kevin Sumlin’s wide-open up-tempo offense doesn’t have an extensive history of using tight ends but he hasn’t always had the kind of premier player at the position to utilize. Clear, a massive 6-6, 274-pounder who can move well for his size, gives the Aggies a matchup advantage at the position. He wasn’t used often in his first year on campus, but look for his role to expand this fall under new offensive coordinator Jake Spavital.

9. Jerell Adams, Jr., South Carolina: With three touchdown catches in 22 career games, Adams is one of those players who could explode this season. He's got great size (6-6, 247) and more than enough speed to get open and make plays down the field.

10. C.J. Uzomah, Sr., Auburn: He might not be the most productive tight end in the SEC, but he’s one of the most clutch. Uzomah had the game-winning touchdown grab against Mississippi State, and he caught another touchdown in the Iron Bowl. As quarterback Nick Marshall evolves as a passer, Uzomah could see his stock rise.

SEC lunchtime links

November, 1, 2013
11/01/13
12:00
PM ET
We’re 24 hours away from opening kick in Week 10, so let’s take one last look around the SEC in Friday’s edition of the lunch links.
Another preseason watch list is out. This time, the John Mackey Award, which is given annually to the nation's best tight end, has released its candidates for the 2013 season.

Of those on the watch list, five are from the SEC. Here are those five:
I'd also keep an eye on Alabama's Oj Howard, who could have a monster year for the Crimson Tide. He's extremely athletic and could be a major mismatch for linebackers with his speed and defensive backs with his size. He caught just about everything thrown his way this spring.

South Carolina's Jerell Adams had a solid freshman year, and even with Anderson sharing time with him, Adams could have a big year in Columbia because he's so athletic.

Junior college transfer Cameron Clear could also be a big factor in Texas A&M's passing game this fall.
ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. is rolling out his early top five rankings at each position this week.

Here are the positions he's looked at so far:
Now we're looking at the top tight ends and linebackers to keep an eye on during the 2013 season. First, we'll check out the tight ends and then look at linebackers a little later.

No SEC players made Kiper's top five, but Georgia's Arthur Lynch is in his "Next up" list. Lynch was third in the SEC among tight ends in receiving yards last year, hauling in 24 catches for 431 yards and three touchdowns. Georgia has a handful of receiving targets to use this year, and Lynch will continue to be one for quarterback Aaron Murray.

Other draft-eligible tight ends I'll be keeping an eye on this fall:
  • Rory Anderson, South Carolina: The coaches are really excited about what sophomore Jerell Adams could do this fall, but Anderson is a reliable target, especially in the red zone. Five of his 14 catches went for touchdowns.
  • Malcolm Johnson, Mississippi State: He missed five games last year, but will enter the fall as one of Tyler Russell's top receiving targets. He has the talent and athleticism to be one of the best at his position.
  • Austin Tate, Arkansas: He did well filling in for Chris Gragg at times last year. He isn't the mismatch problem that Gragg was, but he's a big body who can make players here and there and should be targeted a lot by the Hogs' young quarterback.
  • C.J. Uzomah, Auburn: He will enter the fall as Auburn's top returning pass-catcher and has the ability to extend the field with his speed. Uzomah is someone a young quarterback could really use as a reliable safety net.
We've already taken a look at five offensive and defensive players to keep an eye from the SEC Eastern Division who could really breakout in 2013, now it's time to take a look at five players on offense to watch out for from the West (in alphabetical order, of course):

Note: LSU running back Jeremy Hill didn't make this list because he technically already broke out in 2012. We'll also take a look at the five defensive players from the West to keep an eye on tomorrow.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Allen
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireArkansas QB Brandon Allen threw for 186 yards and one touchdown in his freshman season.
Brandon Allen, QB, Arkansas: We got to see just a little of what Allen could do when Tyler Wilson missed time because of his concussion, but he has the talent to be a fine player in this league. Now that he'll be counted on as being the guy in Fayetteville, he'll have time to develop some good chemistry with his receivers. And having offensive coordinator Jim Chaney helping him out shouldn't hurt either. Tyler Bray threw for 3,619 yards and 34 touchdowns under the guidance of Chaney in 2012.

Chris Black, WR, Alabama: He was supposed to be Alabama's top deep threat in 2012, but a shoulder injury sidelined him for the season, leaving fellow frosh Amari Cooper to become one of the SEC's top receivers. But Black should be fully healthy for the 2013 season, and while Cooper will continue to command most of the attention in the passing game, Black won't be ignored and he could have quite the season, as he helps take some of the attention away from Cooper. Another dynamic duo for Alabama? Goodness.

Malcolm Johnson, TE, Mississippi State: As a freshman, Johnson was a member of the All-SEC Freshman team, but a pectoral injury slowed him in 2012. With four senior receivers departing, quarterback Tyler Russell will have to start from scratch when it comes to finding a reliable receiving weapon, and he should heavily rely on Johnson this fall. That's not a bad thing because Johnson is a very athletic tight end, who will create mismatches over the middle because he has to speed to beat linebackers and the size to out-muscle defensive backs.

Trai Turner, OG, LSU: While the redshirt freshman didn't have a great outing against Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, LSU's coaches have high hopes for Turner, who started the last seven games of the season after Josh Williford suffered a concussion in the loss to Florida. Turner played very well down the stretch for the Tigers and could be primed for a true breakout year in 2013. He'll only get better with more reps and more development this spring.

Brandon Williams, RB, Texas A&M: After sitting out the 2012 season because of transfer rules, the former Oklahoma Sooner could make a big splash in the Aggies' backfield. He rushed for 219 yards on 46 carries as a freshman in 2011, and many feel he could be a very special player in this league. Having Johnny Football there should make his job easier. Now, Ben Malena and Trey Williams are still around, but Williams might be the most complete back the Aggies have, and Kevin Sumlin has shown that he isn't afraid to throw multiple guys out there at the running back position.

Best/worst in 2012: Mississippi State

December, 18, 2012
12/18/12
10:15
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We continue our look at the best and worst moments for all 14 SEC teams by looking at Mississippi State:

BEST

The Bulldogs were looking for real respect during the first half of the season, and their 41-31 win over Tennessee made everyone look at Mississippi State in a different light. Through the first five games of the season, the Bulldogs skated through very winnable games, but still felt like outcasts nationally. But against a high-powered offense like Tennessee's, the Bulldogs showed that they could win a back-and-forth, chest match with some big plays of their own. Mississippi State racked up 450 yards of total offense and watched as starting quarterback Tyler Russell continued his run as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the SEC with his 291 yards, two touchdowns and zero turnovers. Mississippi State held a 27-14 lead at halftime, but the Vols inched back with some big plays of their own, eventually cutting the lead to three late in the third. But the Bulldogs never wavered, as they outscored Tennessee 14-7 in the fourth quarter, including getting a 9-yard touchdown pass from Russell to wide receiver Malcolm Johnson with nine seconds left to seal the victory for the Bulldogs. The win made Mississippi State 6-0 to start the season.

WORST

The month of November was brutal for the Bulldogs. If the 38-7 blowout loss to Alabama to end October wasn't enough, Mississippi State ended the season winning just one of its last three games during the final month of the regular season. That group of losses included a 41-24 loss to Ole Miss, which was the first lost for the Bulldogs to the Rebels since 2008. After starting the season 7-0, the Bulldogs were outscored by a combined 93 points in their four losses. One thing that really stuck out during the Bulldogs' decent was the defense. After allowing an average of 327 yards through the first seven games, Mississippi State's defense surrendered 477 per game in the last five weeks. Mississippi State lost by an average of 23 points during its 1-4 finish and gift wrapped the Golden Egg in their loss to the Rebels to conclude the regular season.

Prior Best/Worst:

Bulldogs go out and take their respect

October, 14, 2012
10/14/12
3:42
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STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Fittingly, senior offensive guard Tobias Smith was the last player out of the Mississippi State locker room late Saturday night.

With cowbells still clanging in the distance, he limped out wearing a smile as wide as his massive barrel chest.

Talk to coaches or players, and they’ll tell you the same thing: Smith is the heart and soul of this football team. He’s fought through injuries his entire career, including a nasty knee injury a year ago.

But he just keeps chugging along, a lot like the Bulldogs, who have been fighting for respect this entire season despite rising to No. 19 in the polls.

Their 41-31 victory over Tennessee should quiet some of the doubters, at least for now.

“That’s all we’ve been hearing, who we hadn’t played and how our schedule was soft,” said Smith, who left the game in the second quarter after re-injuring his knee, but returned for both of Mississippi State’s fourth-quarter touchdown drives.

“We have a lot of faith in each other and a lot of faith in our coaches, and we know what kind of team we are. We showed it tonight.”

Something else the Bulldogs showed (and have been showing all season) is that they’re learning how to win.

When they need a play, somebody’s there to make it.

“What’s happened for us is that in years past during big times in the game, everybody kind of looked around,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “This year, everybody’s like, ‘Give me the ball. I’m going to be the one to make the play.’

“It’s not just one guy, either.”

[+] EnlargeMississippi State's Tyler Russell
Spruce Derden/US PRESSWIRE]Mississippi State's Tyler Russell completed 23 of 37 passes for 291 yards and two touchdowns against Tennessee.
Take your pick from Saturday.

There was Johnthan Banks’ strip of Tennessee running back Devrin Young on the sideline in the fourth quarter when it looked like the Vols might be putting together a drive to go ahead. The Bulldogs led 27-24 at the time and turned Banks’ big play into a touchdown three plays later.

“Hopefully, we’ll get the respect we deserve now, because our team’s for real,” Banks said.

On offense, the Bulldogs started fast, then hit a lull, but closed with a flurry.

Junior quarterback Tyler Russell passed for a career-high 291 yards and two touchdowns. He now has 12 touchdown passes this season and only one interception.

He was at his best in the game-clinching drive when he hit Chad Bumphis for 10 yards on a third-and-7 play. Russell had the presence to change the play at the line and went to his third option. Later in that same drive, he scrambled away from pressure and connected with Bumphis for 23 yards.

And on his final touchdown toss, he lofted one to the back of the end zone for a leaping Malcolm Johnson in the final seconds.

“Tyler missed some reads earlier and could have very easily gotten flustered, but he just stays calm and makes the plays he needs to,” Mullen said.

That’s been the trademark of this entire team, which is why Mullen didn’t fret during the first five games, when the Bulldogs tended to play down to their competition.

Coming into Saturday’s game, Mississippi State’s toughest test had probably come against Troy on the road. The Bulldogs’ other victims were Jackson State, South Alabama, Kentucky and Auburn, so it’s not exactly been a murderer’s row for Mississippi State.

That’s what made the Tennessee game so important.

“Our locker room was ridiculous,” Banks said. “Ya’ll can’t imagine what our locker room was like. This is the biggest win probably since I’ve been here.”

Now, we find out what Mississippi State does with it. This is the first time the Bulldogs have been 6-0 since 1999.

Up next is Middle Tennessee at home, and then comes a wicked stretch that begins with Alabama on the road. But a victory over Middle Tennessee would ensure a third consecutive winning season for the Bulldogs, and the last time that happened was 1997-2000, when they had four straight under Jackie Sherrill.

“We’re halfway,” Mullen said. “It’s been a great first half with a lot of football to play.”

That may be, but the Bulldogs have some doors open to them that haven’t been open for a long time.

“Four years ago, we went out and sold these kids on being able to build something special here in your home state of Mississippi,” Mullen said. “We’ve had 20 straight sellouts now. The atmosphere was unbelievable, and these kids believe in what we're doing, believe in themselves and believe in each other.

“It all shows out there on the field.”

Instant analysis: Miss. State 41, Tenn. 31

October, 14, 2012
10/14/12
12:48
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STARKVILLE, Miss. -- With cowbells clanging away, Mississippi State remained unbeaten Saturday night with a 41-31 victory over Tennessee at Scott Field.

Here’s an instant analysis from the game:

It was over when: After Tennessee had pulled within 34-31 with a little more than five minutes to play, Mississippi State put together the game-clinching touchdown drive, which was capped by Malcolm Johnson’s one-handed touchdown catch in the back of the end zone. The big play in the drive was Tyler Russell’s 10-yard pass to Chad Bumphis on a third-and-7 play over the middle. Russell came back later in the drive, and was able to scramble and hit Bumphis for 23 yards down to the Tennessee 23.

Turning point: With Mississippi State leading 27-24, Tennessee running back Devrin Young was stripped of the ball on the sideline by Johnthan Banks, who pounced on it at the Vols’ 30-yard line with 9:12 remaining. Mississippi State scored three plays later to take a 10-point lead with just less than eight minutes to play.

Game ball goes to: Russell finished with a career-high 291 passing yards. He was 23-of-37 with a pair of touchdown passes and no interceptions. In three SEC games this season, he’s thrown seven touchdown passes and no interceptions.

Key stat: Mississippi State is off to its best start since 1999, when the Bulldogs played in the Cotton Bowl.

Key stat 2: Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray was held to 148 passing yards, his lowest output as a starter.

What it means: Mississippi State (6-0, 3-0) gained the legitimacy it was looking for with its biggest win of the season. The No. 19 Bulldogs likely will now go into the Alabama game Oct. 27 unbeaten; they get Middle Tennessee at home next week. The Vols (3-3, 0-3) are now looking at a long October. They get Alabama at home next week and then South Carolina on the road after that.

Lunchtime links

July, 12, 2012
7/12/12
12:30
PM ET
I still don't get how Joe Adams didn't win the ESPY for Best Play ...

Ranking the SEC tight ends

July, 11, 2012
7/11/12
5:05
PM ET
Now that we've ranked the top 10 wide receivers, it's time to check out the top tight ends.

Past rankings
Here are our top 10 SEC tight ends:

[+] EnlargePhilip Lutzenkirchen
Butch Dill/Getty ImagesPhilip Lutzenkirchen will be Auburn's go-to guy for game-winning scores this season.
1. Chris Gragg, Sr., Arkansas: Gragg is a big, fast target who can cause mismatches for defenders. He has great hands and with the loss of three NFL wide receivers he'll be one of Tyler Wilson's top targets this fall. Expect him to improve on his 41 catches and 518 yards from last year.

2. Philip Lutzenkirchen, Sr., Auburn: He only caught 24 passes last year, but seven of those catches went for touchdowns. He's a big-time threat in the red zone and is a solid blocker as well. The addition of fullback Jay Prosch will give Lutzenkirchen a chance to be even more active in the receiving game.

3. Jordan Reed, Jr., Florida: There's no doubt that Reed is extremely athletic, but he can lose focus at times on the field. Still, when he's on the ball, he can make plenty of plays. He's the Gators' top returning receiving target and with two young quarterbacks throwing this year, Reed has the chance to rack up receptions as a close-to-the-line safety net.

4. Mychal Rivera, Sr., Tennessee: Rivera is a very reliable and consistent weapon for the Vols. Even with Justin Hunter coming back and Cordarrelle Patterson jumping into the receiving mix, Rivera might not see his production drop too much if Tyler Bray can stay health. This team will throw it around as much as possible.

5. Michael Williams, Sr., Alabama: Williams only caught 17 passes last year, but there were a couple more proven players around him. This time around, his experience will be valued more by quarterback AJ McCarron. He's a solid player and can be a beast on the field, so the coaches are expecting to get a lot more out of him this fall.

6. Malcolm Johnson, So., Mississippi State: He was once a receiver, but has now found a home at tight end. He averaged 18.7 yards on his 11 catches last year and scored three touchdowns. The Bulldogs have a lot of receiving options, but Johnson should have plenty of chances to improve on last year's production.

7. Justice Cunningham, Sr., South Carolina: He'll continue to have Rory Anderson playing on the other side of him, but Cunningham's a bigger, more experienced target in the Gamecocks' passing game and will likely get more looks this fall with Alshon Jeffery gone. He's a solid blocker and will even line up as a fullback in two-back sets.

8. Chase Clement, Sr., LSU: He's on the John Mackey watch list, but has just nine career catches, with seven coming last season as a backup. Clement will be used to block often, which is needed with a team that runs the ball as much as LSU does. And with an offense that's expected to be more pass-friendly, Clement could see the ball thrown his way more often.

9. Nehemiah Hicks, Jr., Texas A&M: The Aggies have three tight ends they can use in their offense, but Hicks might be the most gifted of the bunch. He started seven games last year and is coming off of shoulder surgery, but if he's healthy he'll be a nice looking target for whichever quarterback takes the field for A&M this fall.

10. Jamal Mosley, Sr., Ole Miss: While he only caught 12 passes last year, Mosley is expected to be used more often in Ole Miss' new spread offense. He's another one of those more athletic tight ends and should help the Rebels with their depth issues in the passing game.
Justin Hunter and Da'Rick RogersAP Photo/Wade PayneJustin Hunter (11) and Da'Rick Rogers (21) are considered to be the best receiving duo in the SEC.
Our SEC position rankings continue with a look at schools' wide receiver and tight end groups.

Past rankings:
On to the league's wide receiver/tight end groups:

1. Tennessee: The Vols are equipped with two of the top wideouts in the league with Da'Rick Rogers, who was second in the SEC in receiving last year, and Justin Hunter, who might be the SEC's top deep threat. It sounds like Hunter will be 100 percent this fall after his ACL injury last year. Junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson is big, fast and possesses the big-play gene. The speedy Zach Rogers is back and is so is talented tight end Mychal Rivera.

2. Arkansas: Cobi Hamilton is now Arkansas' primary receiver, and he might be the league's most complete wideout. He can make the big-play and elude defenders along the way. While Marquel Wade's status is still unclear, if he does return, he'll be a major lift for this offense because of his playmaking ability in the slot. Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon have always impressed coaches in practice and now will get their chances to in games. Tight end Chris Gragg should be even more involved and is the league's top tight end.

3. Georgia: While Malcolm Mitchell could go back and forth between receiver and corner, when he's at receiver he's Georgia's top offensive threat and was one of the league's best as a rookie. There are vets behind him, starting with reliable senior Tavarres King, who had a very good spring, senior Marlon Brown, who seemed to take a big step in his game this spring. Sophomores Michael Bennett and Chris Conley combined for 48 catches for 608 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Unproven tight ends Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome will replace Orson Charles and Aron White.

4. Texas A&M: This isn't the fastest group out there, but there are some pretty reliable weapons, starting with star Ryan Swope, who could have left for the NFL after catching 89 passes for 1,207 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. Uzoma Nwachukwu was third on the team with 50 catches for 639 yards and three tight ends -- Nehemiah Hicks, Michael Lamothe and Hutson Prioleau -- return. Keep an eye on junior Nate Askew, who could be a downfield threat this fall.

5. LSU: Odell Beckham Jr. was one of the top rookies last year and could be even better in Year 2. He'll be joined by potential deep threat and big-play target Jarvis Landry, who developed some good chemistry with quarterback Zach Mettenberger this spring. Russell Shepard is talented, but he's been wildly inconsistent. Keep an eye on junior James Wright and incoming frosh Avery Johnson, who is the younger brother of Patrick Peterson. Also, tight end Chase Clement is on the John Mackey watch list.

[+] EnlargeJordan Matthews
Don McPeak/US PresswireWide receiver Jordan Matthews is one player the Commodores will be counting on this fall.
6. Vanderbilt: This group surprised last year and returns most of its components, starting with Jordan Matthews, who was fourth in the SEC in receiving last year. Sophomore Chris Boyd was solid last year, hauling in 31 catches and eight touchdowns. Jonathan Krause is very good in space and should see his role increase this fall after a solid spring. The coaches are excited about former QB Josh Grady moving to receiver. Replacing tight end Brandon Barden won't be easy.

7. Alabama: There is more speed out wide in Tuscaloosa, but there's a lot more youth. The Tide could turn to freshmen Chris Black, Amari Cooper and Eddie Williams to help develop a more downfield passing game. More will be expected from veterans Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood, while sophomore DeAndrew White possesses a ton of speed. Still no word on Duron Carter. Tight end Michael Williams was solid last year, but will be used even more this fall.

8. Mississippi State: There is a lot of experience here, but this group has still underperformed at times, especially senior Chad Bumphis, who has yet to live up to all the hype that followed him from high school. Seniors Chris Smith and Arceto Clark combined for 65 catches last year, while the staff is very excited about the big-play potential redshirt freshman Joe Morrow possesses. Tight end Malcolm Johnson serves as a very reliable tight end target, as well.

9. Missouri: The Tigers lost two starting receivers and stud tight end Michael Egnew, but three of the top five pass catchers are back, including inside threat T.J. Moe, who led Mizzou in receiving last year. Big things are expected from Marcus Lucas, who can stretch the field with his speed and physicality, and the coaches think L'Damian Washington can also be a downfield threat. Also, Dorial Green-Beckham, last year's top recruit, should make an immediate impact. Eric Waters is replacing Egnew, but has just two career catches and suffered a knee injury this spring.

10. Auburn: Emory Blake is one of the league's top downfield threats and has been one of Auburn's most consistent offensive weapons. So has tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, who should be more of a passing threat with the addition of transfer fullback Jay Prosch. There is a lot of depth, but it's unproven. Trovon Reed was supposed to be a star, but had a lackluster second year. Seniors Travante Stallworth and DeAngelo Benton have 15 and 14 career catches, respectively. Quan Bray has shown potential and could have a bigger role this season and keep an eye on freshman Ricardo Louis.

11. Florida: The Gators have struggled here since 2009 and still lack proven playmakers. Andre Debose is probably the best bet to be one, but he's been very inconsistent. Quinton Dunbar has the speed to be an outside threat, but caught just 14 passes last year. And the coaches are still waiting for senior Frankie Hammond Jr. to turn things up. True freshman Latroy Pittman had a great spring and the coaches are excited about his potential. Tight end Jordan Reed is one of the most athletic players in the league and will be a bigger target with two young quarterbacks throwing the ball.

12. South Carolina: Now that Alshon Jeffery is gone, the Gamecocks have questions and inexperience here. The fast, athletic Ace Sanders is the only returning pass catcher with at least 20 catches from last year (29). The hope is Bruce Ellington will be more of a factor this fall. Tight ends Justice Cunningham and Rory Anderson combined for 26 catches and four touchdowns. Damiere Byrd has blazing speed, but caught just one pass last year. DeAngelo Smith had a solid spring, and the coaches hope he can be a downfield threat. A lot will be expected from incoming freshman Shaq Roland.

13. Ole Miss: Sophomore Donte Moncrief is a budding star in this league and thinks he'll be even better in Hugh Freeze's spread offense. Ja-Mes Logan caught 20 passes last year, but had a very good spring. But Nickolas Brassell was an academic casualty and Randall Mackey had to move over from quarterback. The coaches are looking for consistency from Terrell Grant and Vince Sanders, who are both pretty unproven. Tight end Jamal Mosley is expected to do more in the spread and averaged 13.8 yards per catch last year.

14. Kentucky: Joker Phillips' goal this spring was to find more playmakers and he thinks he did with sophomore Demarco Robinson, who had five receptions last year, and redshirt freshman Daryl Collins. The hope is that they'll take some pressure off of La'Rod King, who is really the only proven receiving threat on the team. Tight ends Ronnie Shields and Tyler Robinson did well this spring, but combined for just 10 catches last year.

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