2006 Season Preview (Game Eight): Mississippi State

My heartfelt apologies go out to my loyal readers for the light posting here at Dawg Sports over the course of the last day or so, but I have been hard at work on the latest preview of an upcoming opponent on Georgia's 2006 schedule.

My forecasts of the Bulldogs' games against Western Kentucky, South Carolina, U.A.B., Colorado, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt have been posted already, so that brings us to the Bulldogs . . . the other Bulldogs.

(Photograph from All Sports.)

The Game

Georgia v. Mississippi State
Sanford Stadium
Saturday, October 21

The Opponent

Perhaps in order to avoid any confusion that might arise from their use of the same nickname, Georgia and Mississippi State have had an abbreviated history with one another, despite having shared a conference affiliation since 1921.

There have been just 20 series meetings between the Red and Black and the Maroon and White. Through 1958, M.S.U. held a 3-1 lead over Georgia in the all-time standings, but, between the Classic City Canines' 1959 S.E.C. championship season and their 2005 S.E.C. championship season, the 'Dawgs went 14-2 against the squad from Starkville.

Georgia has won eight straight series meetings with Mississippi State. The Red and Black last lost to M.S.U. in 1974 and this year's contest between the Eastern and Western Division Bulldogs is scheduled to take place 15 days following the 50th anniversary of the last time the cowbell-wielding Magnolia State team claimed victory between the hedges.

This guy had been famous for about 15 minutes at the time of Mississippi State's most recent win in Athens. No, literally, he'd been famous for about 15 actual minutes.

A Brief History of Mississippi State University

Whatever they're paying the P.R. guy at M.S.U., it ain't enough. He's the guy who sat down and, with a straight face, wrote:  "Mississippi State University forms part of a cohesive town-university community with the growing agricultural-commercial-industrial town of Starkville. . . . Away from urban complexities, the community enjoys many intellectual, cultural, and recreational advantages."

Established in 1878 as a land-grant college, what is now Mississippi State University began its existence as the Agricultural and Mechanical College of the State of Mississippi. The state legislature charged the school with the responsibility for teaching "agriculture, horticulture and the mechanical arts . . . without excluding other scientific and classical studies, including military tactics."

They weren't kidding about the military tactics part, by the way; when the first students enrolled in 1880, the presidency of the college was held by General Stephen D. Lee, who had been the youngest lieutenant general in the Confederate Army. (The window of my law office overlooks the railroad General S.D. Lee and his colleagues fought unsuccessfully to defend at the battle of Jonesboro.)

Mississippi A&M became Mississippi State College in 1932 and achieved university status in 1958.

Georgia became a university two years before the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution. Mississippi State became a university the year before Alaska became a state.

A Brief History of Bulldog Football

Mississippi State played its first football game in November 1895 but did not claim its first football victory until October 1901. I could go into greater detail (and I will), but, really, that tells you about all you need to know.

The Bulldogs' only S.E.C. championship campaign ended with a 26-13 road win over San Francisco and, the following day, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Since Darrell Royal departed Starkville following the 1955 season, seven of the eight coaches to have served in the last half-century have posted losing ledgers.

M.S.U. enjoyed a run of success under Jackie Sherrill, attending six bowl games in his first decade on the Scott Field sideline. Since posting four straight winning seasons from 1997 to 2000, however, the Bulldogs have lost at least eight games in each of the last five years. Since the start of the new century, Mississippi State has gone 6-34 in conference play.

Strangely enough, the Gators are 0-3 in Starkville since the advent of divisional play in the S.E.C. in 1992. No, that doesn't make any sense to me, either.

Whatever its weaknesses, Mississippi State football does not need more cowbell.

Returning Starters

Half a dozen starters are back from an inconsistent offense, although some of them now find themselves at positions other than those they played for much or all of last season.

Conversely, a fairly solid defensive unit fields nine players with starting experience from 2005, including three defensive linemen and three linebackers.

Coaching

Sylvester Croom is sick and tired of losing. Never one to mince words, the Mississippi State coach laid it on the line:

People think I've been intolerant before. Be prepared. I'm fixing to coach like I used to coach when I was young. The mellowing is over.

Two years of 3-8, this is the last time for that. I've been patient, and my patience has worn out. When I came here, I knew it was going to take time to build a positive attitude. Now, I'm tolerating nothing. Anybody or anything that gets in the way of us winning is going to get eliminated.


As noted by Orson Swindle, Coach Croom went so far as to show up at practice in uniform, complete with pads, and get down in the trenches with his players. To the extent that character and commitment can overcome deficiencies in talent and depth, Coach Croom will mold a winning program, but he has voiced dissatisfaction with the senior leadership on his team.

Sylvester Croom . . . intolerant, impatient, and ready to do some eliminating!

Melvin Smith, a former M.S.U. assistant under Coach Sherrill, returned to Starkville in the offseason following stints with Dennis Franchione in Tuscaloosa and in College Station. Coach Smith will handle the secondary, which frees up Frank Beamer's son, Shane, to coach the running backs.

Offense

Jerious Norwood, an all-S.E.C. tailback who rushed for 1,136 yards last season and departed Starkville as the school's all-time leading rusher, is playing in the N.F.L. Chris McNeil, a two-year starter at center, is no longer on campus. Omarr Conner, whom Bill Curry praised as a standout quarterback, now lines up at wide receiver.

In their last 28 games, the Bulldogs have scored 14 or fewer points 18 times and, in 11 outings, they were held to a single-digit scoring total. During that same span, M.S.U. has scored more than 21 points just five times . . . the same number of times that Mississippi State has been shut out by the opposition.

The Starkville squad has scored more than 19 points against Georgia just three times in 20 series meetings, with all three of those contests being played within the borders of the Magnolia State. In the last six Georgia-Mississippi State games played in Athens, the Red and Black have scored 30.5 points per game while the Maroon and White have been held to seven or fewer points all six times, including a pair of shutouts.

In 2005, M.S.U. stood at or near the bottom of the conference standings in most offensive categories, ranking 10th in sacks allowed (36), 10th in field goals (58.3%), 11th in scoring offense (13.9 points per game), 11th in first downs (161), 11th in red zone offense (57.7%), 11th in third-down conversions (31.9%), 12th in passing offense (138.5 yards per game), and 12th in total offense (276.2 yards per game).

Do you get the idea that the Bulldogs have problems on offense?

Mississippi State's offense was bad even when they had Jerious Norwood. (Photograph from Senior Bowl.)

Michael Henig came on in relief of the ineffectual Conner last season and, although he has solidified his hold on the starter's role, M.S.U.'s quarterback remained in need of improvement following the 2005 campaign, in which Henig threw two touchdown passes and five interceptions despite having his best outing in the autumn-ending Egg Bowl.

Offensive lineman Michael Gates, one of six Mississippi State football players who pled guilty to a misdemeanor assault on an off-duty police officer, was reinstated this summer and the latest reshuffling of the depth chart has him starting at right guard. Brian Anderson, the returning starter at that position, has been moved to right tackle . . . at least for now . . . and fellow linemen J.D. Hamilton and Calvin Johnson have missed time in fall practice due to injury. Anthony Strauder may turn out to be the only lineman playing the same position in 2006 that he played in 2005.

Nevertheless, there are some bright spots on offense for the Bulldogs. Conner has warmed to the role of receiver, catching nine passes for 116 yards in last season's final two outings. Tight end Eric Butler has been productive, turning his 29 career catches into seven T.D.s, and the addition of junior college transfers Tony Burks and Ryan Mason to the mix gives Mississippi State a fairly formidable receiving corps.

Even without Norwood, the Bulldogs are deep at tailback, as well . . . although M.S.U.'s depth at the running back position took a hit when Courtney Jones failed to become eligible. Brandon Thornton averaged 4.8 yards per carry in 2005 and, with Jones no longer among the contenders, true freshman Anthony Dixon will compete for playing time, as well.

Defense

The bad news for Mississippi State fans is that defensive end Willie Evans, whose 15 sacks last season led the league, and linebacker Clarence McDougal are gone. Those personnel losses aside, things are looking up for the Bulldog D.

The Maroon and White finished a respectable seventh in the league standings in rushing defense last season, surrendering just 141.2 yards per game on the ground and allowing fewer rushing touchdowns (13) than Georgia (17). Defensive end Michael Heard, nose tackle Andrew Powell, and defensive tackle Deljuan Robinson---seniors all---are back to anchor the line.

Last year, Quinton Culberson was moved from outside linebacker to middle linebacker. Culberson responded well to the change of position, earning a spot on the sportswriters' preseason second-team all-S.E.C. roster. Depth is something of a concern, however, especially since Jimmy Miller elected to transfer.

The depth issues that plague the front seven are not a problem for the secondary. Seniors David Heard and Jeramie Johnson started all 11 games at cornerback and free safety, respectively, a year ago. While not a returning starter, Derek Pegues saw significant playing time at the opposite corner and Keith Fitzhugh started one game at strong safety following Demario Bobo's knee injury.

Not that Bobo.

Special Teams

The good news is that Blake McAdams got lots of experience last season. The bad news is that he's the punter. McAdams took the field to do his duty 69 times in 2005, averaging 41.9 yards per punt.

The contenders for the placekicking role, Keith Andrews and Adam Carlson, somehow managed to get through last autumn without a great deal of live game action. Andrews attempted eight field goals and made five of them, including a 49-yarder, whereas Carlson was two of four on his three-point tries.

Dawg Food

As the importance of the pregame meal cannot be underestimated, each of my game-by-game forecasts includes a recommended staple food for consumption at your tailgate. This is intended to aid the Red and Black in their pursuit of victory through the ceremonial act of feasting on the flesh of the enemy.

They say it's a dog-eat-dog world out there, and that is never more true than it will be on the third Saturday in October. In light of the fact that it will be the Georgia Bulldogs against the Mississippi State Bulldogs, I believe the appropriate pregame fare for fans of the Classic City Canines would be---what else?---hot dogs.

I recommend tailgating for endurance, not for speed.

What Worries Me Most

This team is improving. All right, maybe the Western Division Bulldogs had nowhere to go but up, but they're getting better.

M.S.U.'s defense should be fairly stout and the Maroon and White stymied Mark Richt's offense at Scott Field last September, limiting the Red and Black to three second-half field goals and provoking a rare sideline outburst from the Georgia head coach, who gathered his offense around him and read the players the riot act after they failed to score the touchdown that would have put the game away.

If this game was slated to take place a month earlier, I'd be considerably less concerned, but, by the time the leaves have begun to turn, this Mississippi State unit will have had time to gel into a competitive team. While I don't doubt that the home team will win, I believe the visitors have the grit to keep it close.

What Will Happen on Saturday

I foresee an old-school exhibition of Southeastern Conference football suitable for broadcasting on Jefferson Pilot Sports, a showcase of slobberknockers made competitive by the underdog's determination and won by a favored team that rises to the occasion and guts out a victory in a tough contest.

Never bet against the long-term success of a man who traces his coaching lineage back to Bear Bryant.

I expect Georgia to pull away at the end because of home field advantage and halftime adjustments; rather than stalling on the road, the Red and Black offense will sustain drives at home and require the 'Dawgs to kick extra points rather than field goals. Nevertheless, I believe the contest will be closer than the final score indicates and the victorious home team will come away pleased with the win but knowing they've been in a fight.

Coming soon: Florida.

Go 'Dawgs!

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