Texas A&M-Mississippi St. Preview
(AP) -- While their division's two perennial heavyweights go toe-to-toe this weekend, two teams a bit less familiar with SEC West success are looking to keep their hopes of appearing in Atlanta alive.
Seventeenth-ranked Mississippi State hopes to bounce back from its first loss Saturday when it hosts Johnny Manziel and No. 16 Texas A&M, who bring one of the nation's top offenses to Starkville in the middle leg of an increasingly difficult three-game road stretch.
The Bulldogs (7-1, 3-1) have represented the West in Atlanta once - in 1998 - and the Aggies (6-2, 3-2) are just getting their feet wet in their first SEC season.
Should No. 5 LSU knock off top-ranked Alabama on Saturday night in Baton Rouge, the winner of this contest will still find itself in contention to win the West. Texas A&M visits the Crimson Tide next week to wrap up a road swing that got off to an outstanding start with a 63-21 rout of Auburn last Saturday, with Manziel and the offense piling up 671 yards to bounce back from a loss to LSU a week earlier.
"It was important, but we don't pay attention to the stretch, we paid attention to this one week," linebacker Jonathan Stewart said. "We have the 24-hour rule. We'll enjoy this win for the plane ride back, and when we wake up in the morning we'll get ready for a very good Mississippi State team."
The Bulldogs surely didn't have a very enjoyable ride back from Tuscaloosa last Saturday after getting dismantled by the Crimson Tide 38-7. Now coach Dan Mullen is trying to make sure a bad day against Alabama doesn't turn into a bad month.
"You always define yourself in November," Mullen said. "And we've put ourselves in great position during the month of November. Now this is what separates a good season from a great season and a great season from a championship season."
Mississippi State defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said he's confident the Bulldogs' veteran defense, which is led by linebacker Cameron Lawrence and cornerback Johnthan Banks, will bounce back quickly.
"We're second right now in the league, and we've got a chance to be 8-1 if we go out and play at a higher level and execute at a higher level," Wilson said. "I don't think we put as much into (one loss) as maybe the outside world. We've got to go play better. We've got to go fix our issues. We do that and we'll be ready to go."
While Alabama presents a bevy of problems to any defense, the same could be said for Manziel. The dynamic freshman threw for 260 yards and two TDs and ran for 90 yards and three other scores in just over a half at Auburn.
"He's just one of those guys who can go out and perform at a high level," said receiver Ryan Swope, who caught both touchdowns and finished with 140 receiving yards. "He's getting better and better. His leadership really stood out tonight."
Texas A&M is tied for fifth nationally in total offense (542.9 yards per game) and is third in scoring offense (45.5 points per game).
The Aggies have been a bit turnover-prone, however, with 13 of their 14 giveaways occurring in a three-week stretch before they hung onto the ball against Auburn.
"I think we've been close the last couple of weeks," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "We've been having penalties on offense and defense. Offensively, we had turned the ball over too much. There are a lot more things that we control than people believe. Every week we need to deal with ourselves before we deal with the opponent."
Texas A&M's defense hasn't forced a turnover in three games, and it seems unlikely to come away with many Saturday. Mississippi State has only given it away seven times - quarterback Tyler Russell has 15 TDs to just two INTs - though three of its turnovers came against the Crimson Tide.
"We have to be a better football team this week than we were last week," Mullen said.
Texas A&M and Mississippi State last met in the 2000 Independence Bowl, a 43-41 Bulldogs win in overtime during a freak snow storm in Shreveport.
This is the first matchup of two ranked teams in Starkville since 2001.
Updated October 31, 2012