KNOXVILLE – Tennessee holds its longest current SEC winning streak over Mississippi State, a team the Vols haven’t lost to since 1994.
This Mississippi State team has a much different look than many the Vols have seen during that span of six games.
The Bulldogs head into Saturday’s matchup in Starkville at 5-0 and ranked No. 19 in the AP Poll. They’ve won seven consecutive games dating back to 2011, and they’re off to a 2-0 start in the conference this season.
“They know how to win and they are playing with a lot of confidence,” coach Derek Dooley said. “They have a lot of good players on both sides of the football, but the thing that kind of sticks out the most is that they play with great effort and toughness every snap, and they are very sound.”
The Bulldogs are ranked No. 11 nationally in scoring defense, allowing only 13.4 points per game. Turnover margin has been the key for coach Dan Mullen and his defense. The Bulldogs have created 15 turnovers while giving up only four. That averages out to a plus-2.2 turnover margin per game, second nationally.
Mississippi State cornerbacks Darius Slay and Johnthan Banks have a lot to do with that figure. Slay has four interceptions and a fumble recovery, while Banks has three interceptions and five passes deflections.
“They protect the football on offense; they prey on the mistakes of their opponents and they capitalize on them,” Dooley said. “It is going to be a big step for our team to go down there.”
Mississippi State junior quarterback Tyler Russell has stabilized the position for the Bulldogs. After rotating quarterbacks the last few years, Russell has taken all of the meaningful snaps in 2012 and has responded by completing 82-of-145 passes (56.6 percent) for 1,091 yards and 10 touchdowns.
His decision making has been nearly flawless, as evidenced by the fact that he’s thrown only one interception and has only taken three sacks on the season.
“He manages the game really well and philosophically with what they do on offense, it plays into his hands,” Dooley said. “They don’t put him in a lot of positions to make bad decisions and then he just waits for somebody to have a breakdown and they hit a big play. He is a good, accurate thrower, he manages the game really well.”
Palardy to kick: Junior kicker Michael Palardy will return to the starting lineup as the placekicker after walk-on Derrick Brodus started the last three games against Florida, Akron and Georgia.
Brodus hit five of his six field goals in his time as the starter, but a costly missed 28-yard field goal and a missed extra point against Georgia triggered the change.
Dooley said Palardy had an excellent day at practice Monday. The junior has hit two of his three field-goal attempts on the season, but he has missed two extra-point attempts.
Praise for Ja’Wuan James: Right tackle Ja’Wuan James has been praised for his strong game at Georgia. The junior helped hold Georgia’s defense to just one sack.
“He probably played his best game last week,” Dooley said. “It’s only a matter of time, so what he has to do is start stacking that kind of play on top of each other week after week. He obviously has a lot of potential, and I think his decision to play with a little more physicality and consistency is up to him. When he does it, he is a good football player.”
James has been getting more attention recently as a potential NFL Draft selection in either 2013 or 2014. He has moved up to the No. 11 ranked offensive tackle for the 2014 draft, according to NFLDraftScout.com.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.