Bulldog Flashback: Despite ties, MSU focused on present in Georgia

MSU defensive coordinator Todd Grantham
MSU safety Johnathan Abram (38)
Staff Writer

When Mississippi State pulls up to Sanford Stadium for its 6 p.m. game against Georgia in Athens later Saturday, several on MSU’s bus might have flashbacks.

State defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was Georgia’s defensive coordinator earlier this decade. Tight ends coach D.J. Looney was a graduate assistant with the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division Bulldogs just a season ago.

MSU safety Johnathan Abram played for Georgia as a true freshman in 2015 before transferring. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was a big Georgia fan as a kid and attended games.

Despite all the ties, No. 17 Mississippi State (3-0, 1-0) insists it won’t get caught up in reliving the past today. When MSU takes the field against No. 11 Georgia (3-0, 0-0), the maroon and white Bulldogs insist it’ll be all business.

“I mean, it’s another SEC game for us,” Grantham said. “It’s a road game and it’s our second conference game, which is the most important thing. I just want to make sure we prepare the right way and go out and play a talented Georgia team.”

No one can really blame MSU for trying to stay in the here and now. Suddenly, this year’s Starkville-based Bulldogs are emerging as one of the SEC’s top teams in 2017. Mississippi State rolled past a pair of non-conference foes in the season’s first two weeks. MSU followed that up with the school’s largest-ever win over LSU last week to begin conference play with a bang.

Some have already declared Mississippi State is the biggest threat to Alabama’s traditional crown as the king of the league. MSU head coach Dan Mullen isn’t ready to go that far yet. He insists there is still plenty of work to be done.

Yes, MSU leads the SEC in scoring, averaging 47.7 points per game. Yes, State’s defense is ranked in the top six nationally in total defense, scoring defense and passing defense, but there’s little time to look ahead or revel in that success.

“I’d feel great about it if we’d played 12 games already, but after three, we’ll have to see,” Mullen said. “Statistics are hard to measure through three games in a season. There’s a lot of different variables with who everybody plays within the schedule. If we can be near the top (in scoring and scoring defense) at the end of the season, I think we’ll be good.”

MSU has quite the challenge in front of it today as it seeks to keep up its current stretch of outstanding play. Maybe State’s biggest test will be to see if it can slow down the Georgia rushing attack powered by seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Chubb ranks fifth nationally in career rushing yards by active players. Michel is 16th on that list. Georgia is the only school in the country with two players inside the top 16.

Led by Chubb and Michel, Georgia is averaging 230 rushing yards per game this season.

“They have two of the top running backs in the country and both of them have a little different style,” Mullen said of Georgia. “I’ve always been a big believer in saying, ‘Ok, how does one running back compare to another?’ Those two guys can run the same play, but it’s going to be very different depending on who runs it just because of the style of the backs.”

Grantham is anticipating having a hard time slowing down Chubb and Michel.

“Both of those guys will be playing on Sundays next year,” Grantham said. “I think both of those guys are dynamic in the way they run. They have the ability to get double-digit runs and make home-run plays. They can run through guys and have good vision and balance, so they are going to test your run fits and gap control from that standpoint.”

Managing the offense for Georgia will be true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm. Fromm has manned the role of starting signal caller since sophomore Jacob Eason’s knee was hurt in the first quarter of Georgia’s season opener.

Fromm has responded by completing 34 of his 57 pass attempts for 449 yards and five touchdowns. He has thrown only one interception.

“I’ve been really impressed with (Fromm) when you look at him being able to go to Notre Dame (earlier this season) and win a game like that,” Grantham said. “You obviously have something to you to do that and have that ‘it’ factor to you.”

Georgia is no slouch defensively either. The team is giving up only 14.3 points per contest so far this year.

“They’ve got big, athletic guys on defense,” Mullen said of Georgia. “They can play in multiple fronts on the defensive line and play you with personnel that fits each of those fronts. They can play in 3-4 with 3-4 personnel, 4-3 with 4-3 personnel or nickel with nickel personnel with a five-star player at each of those positions. They’re pretty darn good.”

With Georgia’s skill level, it’s no surprise that the MSU personnel with Georgia ties aren’t exactly focused on days gone by. State has SEC glory in its sights. For MSU, a stop in Athens isn’t a chance to reminisce. Instead, it’s a chance to take another step up the ladder.

“It’s just another game,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s still a team we’ve got to go face and got to go beat.”