By David Brandt/The Associated Press
STARKVILLE – There is little doubt Mississippi State’s football program has improved tremendously during coach Dan Mullen’s two-plus years.
A punch line in the Southeastern Conference just three years ago, the Bulldogs have been nationally ranked nine straight weeks. It’s the first time since 1999 they can claim such a streak.
But one nagging stat keeps coming up: Mississippi State has just a 2-9 record against SEC Western division foes since Mullen arrived. Both of those wins are against rival Mississippi.
And considering Mullen and the Bulldogs want to win the division and advance to the SEC championship game for the second time in school history, they must start winning some of those games. The next chance comes Thursday night, when No. 25 Mississippi State (1-1) hosts No. 3 LSU (2-0) at Davis Wade Stadium.
It’s a quick turnaround for the Bulldogs, who play just five days after a 41-34 loss at Auburn. Mullen called the loss “devastating” in the aftermath but was also encouraged by the MSU fanbase’s response — hate mail.
“The last time we lost a game on a goal-line stand, I got a lot of praise in emails from people all really excited,” Mullen said. “I’ve gotten a lot of hate emails in the last couple of days. I guess that’s a very positive culture change. Our people expect us to win games now. Before, they were just impressed maybe we competed. Now, they expect us to win, and I think that’s good.”
LSU has had just five days’ rest, too, but the Tigers had a considerably easier game, pounding FCS opponent Northwestern State 49-3.
LSU has won 11 games in a row against Mississippi State dating back to 1999. But the Bulldogs have possibly their best team in years, led by quarterback Chris Relf and running backs Vick Ballard and LaDarius Perkins. The trio was largely responsible for MSU gaining 333 rushing yards against Auburn, and the ground-based plan will be the same against LSU.
The Tigers’ defense already has played quite well against one spread offense this season, beating Oregon 40-27 in the season opener. But cornerback Tyrann Mathieu said Mississippi State’s spread is much different.
“Mississippi State’s version of the spread is really just downhill,” Mathieu said. “Those guys are not really trying to get to the sidelines, so it’ll start up front with our front seven. In our secondary we don’t want to let anything get by us.”
LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers said he expects MSU’s ubiquitous cowbells to be out in full force for the nationally-televised game. Tight end DeAngelo Peterson said the Tigers are well aware that Mississippi State will be desperate to stay in the Western division race.
“I think they’ll come out there 100 percent because they know they can’t lose another SEC game,” Peterson said. “That’ll put them out of it. So we know they’re going to come in and give us their all, so we’ve got to come give them our all.”
Mississippi State has stopped short of calling this a must-win game, but two losses to start the SEC schedule certainly isn’t a textbook way to win the division. Mullen joked earlier in the week that LSU might be able to “win the NFC East,” but MSU’s players take LSU’s talent seriously.
“(Mullen) might be right — they’re really good,” Perkins said. They got a lot of talent over there — lot of speed and they’re strong. LSU is a great team. If you can run against them, you can run against anybody in the United States.”
Though the NFC East talk is hyperbole, LSU doesn’t have many apparent weaknesses. The only real question was how senior Jarrett Lee would perform at quarterback after Jordan Jefferson was suspended. But the Tigers’ offense has been fine, with Lee completing 19 of 32 passes for 231 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s an experienced game manager for a team that relies mainly on its running game and defense.
Miles is 6-0 against Mississippi State during his LSU tenure, a stat he credits to good preparation.
“I think the reason is because we give great respect to our opponents,” Miles said. “We prepare very sincerely. When you look at them on film, the coach doesn’t have to do any convincing. Everyone see that they are a very talented and capable team. We’re going to have to play well to win.”
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel contributed to this story.
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