Associated Press Photo
STARKVILLE, Miss. (Sports Network) - The 16th-ranked Texas A&M Aggies and the 17th-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs are set for an SEC showdown in Starkville, with the winner joining the conference's elite.
Texas A&M's inaugural season in the SEC has been a great success, with its only two losses coming by a combined eight points to two of the best teams in the nation -- Florida (20-17) and LSU (24-19). The Aggies proved last week that when they are on, few teams are more explosive, dismantling Auburn on the road, 63-21 -- a feat it would like to repeat this week.
"Anytime you're on the road, (a win) is important," head coach Kevin Sumlin said following the Auburn game. "I think coming off (the loss to LSU), which was really taxing for us physically and mentally, to come out and play with that kind of energy and excitement on the road is extremely important."
Mississippi State could not have started the season any better, getting off to seven straight wins, with six of those wins coming by 10 or more points. The Bulldogs ran into a buzzsaw last week however, falling to No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa, 38-7. Head coach Dan Mullen knows that his team is entering crunch time and needs to play their best football when it matters most.
"You always define yourself in November," Mullen said. "To me, it is a thing of how you are going to close out the season. We put ourselves in great position for the month of November right now. Now, you have to see what separates a good season from a great season to a championship season."
Mississippi State has a 3-2 advantage in the all-time series with Texas A&M, although four of those five matchups came prior to 1940.
Texas A&M's offense has been a well-oiled machine, ranking third nationally in points per game (45.5) and fifth in yards per game (542.9). It is one of just three teams in the country to rank in the top 20 statistically in both rushing and passing (Louisiana Tech and Oklahoma State being the others), and it has gained 400 total yards is seven straight games for the first time in school history.
Johnny Manziel has played better than anyone could have expected, and by gaining more than 376 total yards per game and accounting for 29 touchdowns (16 passing, 13 rushing), he's well on his way to one of the greatest freshman campaigns in SEC history. He played less than three quarters in last week's win over Auburn and still put up impressive numbers (260 passing yards, 90 rushing yards, five TDs).
Although Manziel is the team's leading rusher with 793 yards, Ben Malena (525 yards, five TDs), Christine Michael (271 yards, six TDs), and Trey Williams (216 yards, three TDs) have all been solid out of the backfield.
Mike Evans is about as sure-handed as they come at receiver, ranking third in the conference in both catches (47) and yards (705). Ryan Swope (36 receptions, 530 yards, five TDs) and Uzoma Nwachukwu (15 receptions, 217 yards, four TDs) have been Manziel's favorite targets in the red zone.
The Texas A&M defense has made the necessary transitions coming from the offensive-minded Big 12 to the hard-nosed SEC, allowing just 22 ppg. It also tightens up on third down, holding opponents to just a 28 percent success rate. Despite its impressive play, the team has gone three straight games without forcing a turnover.
Damontre Moore (65 tackles) is one of the best pass-rushers in the nation with 10.5 sacks, and his 1.3 sacks per game is more than 19 other FBS teams.
After scoring 27 points or more in each of its first seven games, the Mississippi State offense (33.0 ppg, 396.8 ypg) could not get anything going last week against the dominant Alabama defense, with its only touchdown coming late in the fourth quarter when the game was well out of reach.
In terms of completion percentage (.588) and yards per game (217.8), Tyler Russell has been rather ordinary under center, but when it comes to his touchdown-to-interception ratio (15-to-2), he's been nothing short of spectacular. Only Colby Cameron, A.J. McCarron and Geno Smith have more touchdown passes while throwing two interceptions or less.
LaDarius Perkins is a true featured back with 768 rushing yards, 101 receiving yards, and eight touchdowns. He had rushed for 100 yards or more in three straight before struggling against Alabama (15 carries, 38 yards).
Chad Bumphis (30 receptions, 486 yards, six TDs) already broke the school record for touchdown catches earlier this season, and while he'll need to pick up his current pace down the stretch, he's just 31 receptions away from the program record of 162 set by Dan Smith in 1970.
The Bulldogs defense (17.4 ppg) is one of the nation's best in turnover margin (+13) and takeaways (20), but it did not force Alabama into any giveaways last week.
With a conference-best four interceptions, Johnthan Banks (37 tackles, nine passes defended) is well on his way to another All-America season. Darius Slay (25 tackles) also has four picks.