Mississippi State's 5-0 start is the program's best since 1999, when the Bulldogs won their first eight games. Just how good are the Bulldogs, though? Fourth-year coach Dan Mullen's team is tied for the Southeastern Conference lead with Tennessee for fewest sacks allowed (three) with Alabama in turnover margin (plus-13), and the Bulldogs are between fourth and eighth in the league in the other major statistical categories against three Bowl Subdivision opponents with a combined record of 5-11, one Championship Subdivision opponent (Jackson State) and one program in its transition to FBS (South Alabama).
Total Offense // Scoring Offense // Total Defense // Scoring Defense
Opponent // YPG (NCAA rank) // PPG (NCAA Rank) // YPG (NCAA Rank) // PPG (NCAA Rank)
Auburn // 302.4 (113th) // 15.4 (t-117th) // 409.8 (75th) // 23.6 (48th)
Troy // 498.0 (19th) // 26.4 (t-74th) // 395.8 (68th) // 22.6 (44th)
Kentucky // 329.2 (104th) // 20.5 (105th) // 396.0 (69th) // 30.2 (89th)
Tennessee // 506.6 (17th) // 39.4 (20th) // 425.8 (t-87th) // 29.6 (t-84th)
Mississippi State // 404.6 (64th) // 34.2 (35th) // 325.6 (25th) // 13.4 (11th)
KNOXVILLE - Jim Chaney probably spent Tennessee's open date looking for ways his offense can exploit Mississippi State's defense.
Another week, another Southeastern Conference defense for the Volunteers' offensive coordinator to study and break down. While most SEC defenses are similar productive blends of speed, schemes and physicality, they're all the different and feature different styles and approaches.
Chaney feels he has enough options in number and variation to attack those different styles.
"It's important to be ready for all of that stuff," he said last week. "From my perspective, it's fun that I don't feel I've got a [place] there anywhere that I can't throw the ball to. All our players are playing hard, and when they're getting a chance to make a play, for the most part they're doing it.
"They're executing the play the way we like for them to do."
Expect the unbeaten and 19th-ranked Bulldogs to play Tennessee's offense differently from how Georgia did last week. The red-and-black Bulldogs played their safeties well off the line of scrimmage with the intention of prohibiting any big pass plays down the field. Georgia had the Vols' few deep throws to Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson covered by design.
"They just stayed back there," Hunter said. "I played with that all the time [in high school]. I already knew how it was going to be, and I know my other receivers were going to be open just because of that."
With Georgia gearing its coverage to its two big guns, Tennessee went elsewhere for production. The Vols created running lanes up front and found success there with 197 rushing yards. Third receiver Zach Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera led Tennessee in catches and yards, respectively.
Quarterback Tyler Bray targeted tailback Rajion Neal seven times, the identical count for Hunter, Patterson and Rogers. Tennessee threw 25 times at receivers and 17 times to backs and tight ends. Against Akron a week earlier, Vols receivers were targeted on 33 of Bray's 45 attempts.
Rogers already has matched his reception total (14) from each of the past two seasons, and Rivera has maintained his role as Bray's third option.
"It's very valuable, and I think that Tyler and Mychal have got a rapport," tight ends coach Charlie Coiner said. "Sometimes it's what are they giving you at the time. I think Mychal's a very effective underneath guy, but sometimes you've just got to go with the flow of the game.
"It's hard to script out. Can you just say, 'We're just going to pound the ball here?' You can, but we don't do that a whole lot. We make sure that we take what the coverage gives us."
The Vols still will try to get Hunter and Patterson as many touches as possible, and defenses will still gear its game plan to stop that duo. Florida chose to press Tennessee's receivers at the line of scrimmage all game, an approach Alabama and South Carolina likely will take later this month. Georgia chose to eliminate the possibility of any big plays over the top.
Mississippi State will leave the matchups with Hunter and Patterson to its talented cornerback tandem of Darius Slay and Johnthan Banks. Slay, a senior who transferred to Mississippi State from junior college, is tied with Tennessee's Byron Moore for the SEC lead with four interceptions. Banks was a preseason All-SEC first-team selection, and his three interceptions have him one pick away from tying the program's career record of 16.
"They're going to look at the film just like every other team," Hunter said.
Chaney will do the same feeling he has plenty of adequate options beyond his two primary playmakers at his disposal.
"Everybody wants their players to catch as many balls as they can," Coiner said. "I'm no different. We all have an element of selfishness in us. But ... we'd all have given up our catches and we'd all have given up all our yards and we'd all have given up all our stats had that scoreboard looked differently [against Georgia].
"You have to find a way to get the win."