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Georgia-Mississippi State Preview: When The (Bizarro) Bulldogs Have The Ball

If you even skimmed the box score of Mississippi State's loss to LSU, you probably already know the first critical thing about MSU's offense -- it's sort of, you know, not all that "good" by commonly accepted standards of "good"-ness. Against a regrouping Georgia defense, though, could they have a chance? Let's find out! The thrill of discovery!

MISSISSIPPI STATE'S OFFENSE, BY THE NUMBERS
Passing: 144.3 yards per game in 2009 (113th nationally); averaging 205.7 yards per game so far this season (72nd).
Rushing: 227.6 yards per game in 2009 (9th); averaging 155.3 per game this season (63rd).

REASONS TO BE EXCITED
So here's how things went for Mississippi State this past Saturday night: Starting QB Chris Relf threw two picks in the first half and was shaken up on the opening drive of the second, so Dan Mullen pulled him and put in backup Tyler Russell . . . who threw three more picks, all of them deep in Bulldog territory. So now not only does Mullen have a potential QB controversy on his hands, he's got the added problem of neither option being particularly desirable at the moment. MSU is now tied with Idaho for most interceptions thrown in D-IAA, and their aggregate passing efficiency is ranked ninth in the SEC.

That wouldn't be a problem if the Bizarro Bulldogs had a potent rushing attack to keep the heat off Relf and Russell, but Anthony Dixon -- who led the SEC in rushing last season, yup, even ahead of Heisman winner Mark Ingram -- is long gone. Their leading rusher so far in 2010: freshman Vick Ballard, who just barely cracked 100 yards last week against LSU. No, not 100 yards in one game, 100 yards for the season. (And he's only 9 yards ahead of Relf.) 

Finally, there's special teams: State is languishing near the bottom of D-IA in kickoff returns with a shade under 20 yards per KO. Georgia, meanwhile, has dramatically improved its kickoff coverage relative to last year, when excitement over any given UGA touchdown was immediately muted by the fact that they were almost certain to give up a big play on the ensuing kick; they're ranked 16th in the country in that category. And Mississippi State will be fielding a placekicker who was just 2-of-5 on field goals longer than 30 yards last season, and who's missed his one FG opportunity in 2010 (a 38-yarder against Memphis).

REASONS TO WORRY
State may not have much of an offense, but the Georgia defense has struggled to adapt to new schemes and formations in the first few outings of their revamped 3-4 front. MSU obviously doesn't have a running back anywhere near as talented as Marcus Lattimore, nor a quarterback in the same galaxy as Ryan Mallett, but they do have a receiving corps that managed to get open on more than a few occasions against Auburn a couple of Thursday nights ago; had those receivers done a better job holding on to Relf's passes, they could very well have triggered the upset in what was already a very close game. Together, Chad Bumphis, Leon Berry and Alabama transfer Patrick Hanrahan comprise a group of WRs just dangerous enough that Georgia won't be able to simply stack the box on every single down.

The Dawgs in red and black will need to do a better job of getting to the QB, though. They only managed one sack against Ryan Mallett last week, and Justin Anderson's lingering injuries at the nose tackle spot mean that State could find opportunities up the middle behind an experienced (and big) offensive line.

MATCHUP TO WATCH
Georgia LB Justin Houston vs. Mississippi State LT Derek SherrodHouston was kept mostly in check by the Arkansas offensive front last week; this weekend Georgia's QB-pressure specialist will be pitted against a senior lineman who checks in at 6'6", 305 and was named an All-SEC second teamer last year. Getting past Sherrod and getting to Relf (or Russell, or whoever else they put back there) will be critical in forcing the kinds of bad decisions we saw the Bizarro Bulldogs make against LSU.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.