With four wins the past four weeks and an open date this Saturday, the Mississippi State Bulldogs are assured of their first undefeated September since 1999.
Coach Dan Mullen wants a lot more when his team returns to action.
"We're going to grind on the guys a little bit and make some adjustments," said Mullen, who is 25-17 in his fourth season in Starkville. "The nice part is when you go to make adjustments and you're 4-0, it's an easier feeling for the guys. They understand that if we can go undefeated through the month of October, then we're going to be in a great position."
Undefeated through October would mean wins over Kentucky in Lexington and Tennessee and Middle Tennessee State at home, but it also would mean toppling Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The Bulldogs have been outscored 117-27 in their last four meetings against the Crimson Tide, but they have fared well against teams from Alabama so far in 2012, having defeated Auburn, Troy and South Alabama.
Mississippi State's 28-10 surprise thumping of Auburn on Sept. 8 was just its second conquest of the Tigers in 12 years.
"You can just see that they've been in the same system and that there has been a lot of carryover," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "They've got some guys who have been around there a long time. When you combine all of that together with a quarterback who has a decent amount of experience and a defense that has been doing the same thing virtually for four years even though the coordinators may have changed -- it's just real evident that they've got a lot of consistency right now in their program."
The last time the Bulldogs started 4-0 was '99, and the last time before that was 1965. They have racked up 144 points, the highest four-game total since the 1944 team scored 159.
Redshirt junior quarterback Tyler Russell has emerged after splitting time with Chris Relf the previous two seasons to complete 59 of 106 passes for 822 yards with eight touchdowns and only one interception. Redshirt junior tailback LaDarius Perkins has shed his two-year role as Vick Ballard's backup to rush 57 times for 389 yards (6.8 per carry) and five scores.
Mississippi State has just two turnovers this season.
"When it's time to make a play, our guys are stepping up and making plays to win football games for us," Mullen said. "In the past, a lot of times when adversity hit, people would look around and wonder, 'Who's going to make the play?' Now when adversity seems to hit, a lot of our star players are stepping up and making the plays."
The Bulldogs have been led defensively by the senior cornerback tandem of Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay.
Banks has lived up to his preseason All-SEC billing and has three interceptions despite opposing quarterbacks rarely throwing his way. Slay has capitalized with four interceptions, which is tied for the most nationally.
"I don't know what other teams can do," Slay said. "We've got a lot of playmakers back there."
The Bulldogs should be decided favorites against Kentucky and MTSU and should be favored to defeat Tennessee as well. How a 7-0 start would stack up against Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium is another matter, but what's certain is that Mississippi State seems destined for a far better season than its projected sixth-place finish in the SEC West.
"We still haven't played our complete game yet in all three phases," Mullen said. "Fortunately every time we've stepped on the field we've played two of three, and that's been enough for us to win."
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...