*Mississippi State last opened on the road in 2011 with a win at Memphis. But the most recent season to kick off at a non-campus venue was way back in 1981, at Jackson which served as a second home field for MSU at the time.
*Oklahoma State is ranked #13 by AP. State’s last debut against a ranked opponent was in 2007 and didn’t go well against #3 LSU. Those Dogs recovered well, posting a winning season and Liberty Bowl victory.
*The last MSU opening-day win over a ranked foe was all the way back in 1958, 14-7 over #18 Florida. The Dogs were ranked #11 though.
*State has broken-even against the current lineup of Big 12 teams at 11-11-2, but that is a dubious stat since only three of those games came when the opponent was an active member of the league which debuted in 1996. Those are a split of games with Oklahoma State in 1998 and ’99 and a Cotton Bowl loss to Texas on New Years Day 1999. State did beat then-B12 member Texas A&M in the 2000 Independence Bowl but it no longer counts as such.
*This infrequent series is tied 2-2, with both OSU wins at home while the Bulldog victories (1971, ’99) came in Jackson and Starkville.
*Dan Mullen is 4-0 in opening games with wins over Jackson State (2009, ’12) and Memphis (’10, ’11).
*His four teams are 2-16 against ranked opponents. They have only played one ranked non-SEC team, losing to Georgia Tech in 2009.
*Mullen teams are otherwise 16-3 outside conference play, having had a 15-win streak snapped in the Gator Bowl by Northwestern.
The Opponent: Those outside the Big 12 are a bit surprised to know Mike Gundy is now in his ninth season. Practically though the former Cowboy quarterback has spent nigh the entire career in Stillwater save for a five-season assistant sabbatical at Baylor and Maryland. Having set passing records in his playing days, he’s directed his alma mater (if you wish to draw Steve Spurrier parallels feel free) to greater things with the same offensive mentality. The 67 wins in eight years include 11 in 2010 and 12 the next year when only a fluke missed field goal kept the Cowboys out of the national title game. Now after a restocking 2012 Oklahoma State will try for a second conference crown and, with a lot of outside luck, that one opportunity that has escaped so far.
Offense: The coordinator is new, which is no big deal (again re: 1990s Florida) as these coaches come and go and the Cowboys keep piling up the yards and points. Only Oregon has scored more often over these last three seasons. OSU even kept the pace last fall despite having to play three quarterbacks, two of which return bearing a combined 3,600 career passing yards and 33 touchdowns. State is not preparing differing defenses for either since the offense doesn’t change all that much. Clint Chelf is more proven as a passer after a 15-touchdown junior year with six picks, and he’ll run if necessary for gains. Soph J.W. Walsh netted almost six yards per carry though with seven scores, and his 13 TD to three interceptions were even better than Chelf’s. Maybe all one needs know is two staffers are designated as receivers coaches. Then again it might take two to handle this well-stocked unit. Junior Josh Stewart is the league’s returning leader in catches and gains, and senior Tracy Moore is full-health this season. They’re the outside guys while inside receiver Blake Jackson netted just under twenty yards per touch last season. He’s why Stewart can move to the outside spot in fact. Having to cover all those routes will allow more room for Jeremy Smith to run. He’s scored 25 rushing touchdowns in three seasons already and only this year becomes the first starter. Reports of the line size aren’t exaggerated, as nobody under 6-3 need apply here. A quick-throw offense helps to be sure but OSU blocking does their share in almost eliminating sacks. Guard Parker Graham, a converted tackle, is credited as unit leader. And even a knee injury costing Devin Davis the season won’t cripple the line as there are two other proven tackles. It’s cliché yet true all the same; nobody will stop this squad outright. Even slowing OSU down will be something of a triumph.
Defense: They don’t get the same outside attention, yet scouting shows a group worthy of respect. Take turnovers…which they definitely do, aided no doubt by opponents forced into playing catch-up. The interior tackles of this four-front have size but it’s the experience that counts even more with a quartet of veterans for the two positions, three of them seniors. Calvin Barnett was all-conference in ’12 with eight tackles for losses and is being pushed for all-American now. The ends are younger but promising and depth here allows for fast changeovers. The old hand in this corral is four-year starter Shaun Lewis, coming off a 58-tackle year at outside linebacker. Classmate Caleb Levy oversees everything from the middle spot and was just behind Lewis at 53 stops. Between them these ‘backers collected 14.5 tackles for losses. Soph Ryan Simmons is getting first shot at filling the open weak-side position. Rated the fastest player on the entire team, which is saying something, senior Justin Gilbert holds down one corner and will try to get back on the interceptions track. He had five picks in ’11 and none last year, but more than made up for it with nine break-ups and a lot of return-teams production. Kevin Peterson has the edge on Kansas transfer Tyler Patmon at the other corner. Free safety Daytawion Lowe is a two-time team tackles leader and had a pair of picks as a junior. Strong safety Shamiel Gary also intercepted two balls with 72 tackles himself. Eleven total picks in 13 games doesn’t seem a lot, but OSU broke up 52 other balls which is almost as good.
Specialists: As noted, Gilbert is big trouble running back kickoffs with five career touchdowns. The punt return job was split-up last season so there are veterans here too, led probably by Stewart. OSU needs a new specialist in both jobs and recruited the top high schooler of Texas in Ben Grogan. But there are two other candidates such as UCLA transfer Kip Smith or others. Stay tuned.
Bulldog Notebook: The 2012 offense set season records for: total scoring, total touchdowns, passing yards and touchdowns, completion percentage, completions, and touchdowns. In overall yardage and first downs they ranked second only to the 2010 team.
*After leading the country for the regular season, Mississippi State finished tied for second nationally in 2012 in punt return yards allowed, at just six for the entire season. Ball State also allowed six yards of returns. Auburn was first with four yards.
*Thanks to such coverage and his own fine hang time and placement, P Baker Swedenburg punted 57 times with only 13 attempted returns and 33 fair-catches. Swedenburg is fifth-best in career average at 41.48 yards, and 10th in both punts and total yards.
*WR Jameon Lewis scored State’s first kickoff return in three years when he ran it back in last season’s Egg Bowl. Out of 120 FBS teams last year 71 did not return a kickoff touchdown and 31 others had just one.
*PK Devon Bell set the all-time season records for both point-after kicks made and attempted when he went 43-of-44 as a true freshman. His 14 made field goals fell one short of a top-five season.
*The Bulldog defense is looking for big progress in making stops at and behind the line of scrimmage. Last year’s unit was 90th in NCAA tackles for losses and 100th in sacks.
*But improving the turnover ratio will be tough, as State finished fifth-best in the country there and was 9th-best in interceptions. And players who accounted for 36 career interceptions have graduated.
*State blocking was consistent at protection, ranking 36th in sacks allowed and 35th in TFLs allowed out of 120 teams.
*Four of the five best passing-percentage seasons by a Bulldog quarterback, and all the top three, have been under Mullen’s management.
*And in statistical terms QB Tyler Russell is the best of the bunch. In fact barring injury he will rewrite every meaningful program passing record before graduating…quite possibly with national honors as the senior is on watch lists for the Maxwell, O’Brien, Camp, and Unitas Golden Arm awards.
*Russell is coming off setting season records for touchdown passes (24), completions (231), yards (2,897).
*In essentially 1-1/2 seasons now, Russell is second in touchdowns tossed with 37 and his first scoring throw this weekend will tie Derrick Taite’s (1993-96) career mark. Some will point to longer seasons, but Russell has done it on 590 attempts in 31 career games (17 starts) compared to Taite’s 734 throws.
*Russell is second-best in interception ratio with 20 picks out of his 590 passes; and is third in completions percentage despite throwing it over 100 more times than the two leaders.
*Russell was almost as accurate throwing in wins or losses last year. In the eight victories he was 141-of-235 or 60% even; in the four losses he was 90-of-159 or 56.6%. The difference? In wins he had 19 touchdowns and one interception; in losses nine picks and five scores.
*One record might be out of reach though, Don Smith’s career total offense mark of 7,097 yards (1983-86). Russell has 4,691 going into the season, all but 125 of it off passes.
*By contrast, RB LaDarius Perkins can aim at the career all-purpose offense record of 4,443 set by Anthony Dixon (2006-09). Perkins has 3,463 through three seasons and between his rushing and potential kick returning ought to easily top 1,000 A-P yards this year.
*Perkins became just the ninth Bulldog to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, doing it for the 12th time in program history. He had 1,024 last year, despite missing one game (LSU) with injury.
*Mullen has had a 1,000-yard rusher in three of four seasons.
*But all of Perkins’ eight touchdown rushes last year came in the first seven games, as he did not score after October 20. That was also the last of his four 100-yard rushing games.
*He did catch two touchdowns in the Arkansas game though, his first scoring receptions of the season. Perkins had five TD catches the previous two years, and has scored 20 total times as a Bulldog. He is looking for that first kick-return touchdown.
*State returns just six of the 28 touchdown catches from 2012; and only 556 yards out of 3091 (18%) caught by anyone last season is back.
*WR Robert Johnson is the top returning split end at 17 catches for 164 yards with a pair of touchdowns.
*TE Malcolm Johnson tops his position group with 10 catches and 171 yards with two touchdowns, though he missed much of the 2012 first half with injury. Johnson has also been hobbled this preseason by an unspecified injury.
*QB Dak Prescott had a better passing percentage than Russell last year at 62.1% off the bench. He only completed 18 throws but four went for touchdowns, with no interceptions.
*Prescott rushed for four touchdowns too, in just 32 carries.
*FS Nickoe Whitley accounts for most of the returning interceptions. The senior has picked ten passes in his three seasons, two of them in the Gator Bowl.
*Whitley has 174 career tackles and has started 31 of his 35 games. He has forced one fumble every season so far.
*MLB Benardrick McKinney was a freshman sensation, the leading SEC tackler in his rookie class last year with 102 total stops. That was also fifth-best among all NCAA freshmen.
*McKinney can improve on his single rookie-year sack.
*DE Preston Smith was the sacks leader last year at 4.5.
*That was a half-sack ahead of fellow DE Denico Autry, but the older Dog had 9.5 total tackles for losses. Autry also had seven credited hurries and two forced fumbles.
*State recovered 14 fumbles last year, but returned none of them for a gain of any sort.
*None of the current Dogs has credit for blocking a kick, so far.
*With the graduation of his first ‘class’ there are no more Dogs who will have played every Mullen game. There were five on the ’12 team who’d played in all 51 games.
*But OG Gabe Jackson should claim the Mullen-era starts mark soon. He has opened 39 games under this coach, consecutively in fact. John Banks started 44 times under Mullen.
*Jackson’s 39 games-played are also most on this ’13 roster.
*Five true freshmen played in 2012: PK Devon Bell, DT Nick James, DT Quay Evans, DE Ryan Brown, and CB Cedric Jiles. Mullen played three true freshmen in both 2011 and 2010.