There haven't been many teams this season that Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz was unfamiliar with. The Bulldogs have played several teams that, just last year, his defense at Louisiana Tech went head-to-head against.
This week, the MSU DC gets into even more familiar territory as State welcomes in his former team to Davis Wade Stadium for a matchup of the Bulldogs at 11 a.m. Saturday. He knows what to expect from the visiting Bulldogs' offense, but he thinks the familiarity is a bit overrated.
"When I saw the schedule and saw that game, I knew it would be a weird week," Diaz said. "When we walked out in Sunday's practice and saw the scout team wearing the numbers of the defensive players that I coached and knew so many of them, that is a really odd moment. But beyond all that, we are playing a really good football team.
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"We are playing a team that, in my mind, will almost certainly win the Western Division in Conference USA and be in the championship game again with an SEC quarterback (Jeff Driskel) that has won games on the road in the SEC and with a tailback that has broken all kinds of NCAA records and has played in all kinds of big stadiums and against all kinds of great defenses and with wideouts that can go get the ball."
Driskel is the obvious difference from last year's team that Diaz's defense went again in every practice. MSU coach Dan Mullen believes the former Florida quarterback caught unwarranted criticism in Gainesville and is now flourishing with Louisiana Tech.
In his first season in the C-USA, Driskel is 16th nationally averaging 302 yards per game. He's thrown for 11 touchdowns and just three interceptions while piling up 1,812 yards through the air. It's helped his Bulldog team get to a top--10 mark in total offense with nearly 500 yards a game.
What hasn't changed is the fact Louisiana Tech has one of the best running backs in the country in Kenneth Dixon. The senior will break the 4,000-yard career rushing mark today and is closing in on being the 18th player in NCAA history to rush for 5,000 yards.
All-in-all, this could be the single best offense that MSU has seen to this point in the season.
"I would say it is one of the most balanced, for sure," Diaz said. "In terms of the skill they have at running back and receiver and when you put the quarterback that can make all the throws together, this is as much of a challenge we've faced all year."
Not to be outdone, Diaz's former defense is keeping up the pace that he set last year when they were one of the nation's leaders and created turnovers better than anyone in the country.
A big defensive season and renaissance for Diaz last year was a main reason that this team made a run to the C-USA Championship game and got a bowl win to close out a nine-win season.
Mullen likes what's happening for Skip Holtz's squad and it makes for a tough opponent on homecoming. It's definitely one that's capable of ruining a beautiful day in Starkville.
"They are a really well coached and disciplined team," Mullen said. "They play hard, not just hard but with a lot of confidence. You can see why they are such an excellent football team with what they've done, how they are coached and how hard they play, and you combine that with all the great talent they have, it makes it a real challenge for us."