JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi State fans will get to see some of the best football teams in the country this season.
"You've got five games ranked in the Top 15, you have a historic home opener and another team that's picked to win their conference," said new coach Dan Mullen, the former Florida offensive coordinator.
The new-look Bulldogs will host No. 1 Florida, No. 5 Alabama, No. 8 Mississippi, No. 11 LSU and No. 15 Georgia Tech in Mullen's first season.
"It's great for fans, bad for coaches, maybe, for getting sleep and feeling good about things," Mullen said.
Mississippi State kicks off the season against Jackson State, an historically black university. It will be the first matchup between teams from the Southwestern Athletic Conference and Southeastern Conference.
The other home game is against Houston, a contender for the Conference USA title that's beaten the Bulldogs twice this decade.
Players view the schedule as more opportunity than obstacle.
"No matter who comes out here to play, whether you're the No. 1 team or the No. 116 team, you better come out here and show you belong," middle linebacker Jamar Chaney said. "They picked us to finish last in the West and last in the whole SEC. But I know one thing: When you come to Mississippi State, you better be prepared to play."
BIG 12 MEMORIES
Growing up in Columbia, Mo., Georgia's Aron White dreamed of playing in the Big 12 Conference. He'll get his chance Saturday.
Well, sort of.
White is a sophomore tight end for the No. 13 Bulldogs, who open the season against No. 9 Oklahoma State.
"I was definitely a Big 12 fan growing up," White said. "I remember seeing all those classic battles: Oklahoma-Texas, Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, Missouri-Kansas, Missouri-Nebraska."
But when it came time to pick a school, White looked elsewhere. His first choice was Miami, a school known for developing top tight ends, but the Hurricanes didn't offer a scholarship. So he turned to Georgia, which sent Randy McMichael, Ben Watson, Leonard Pope and Martrez Milner to the NFL.
"It just came down to Tight End U," White said. "I just felt at home."
Tennessee safety Eric Berry needs just 15 yards to set the career NCAA interception return yardage record.
The junior posted a Football Bowl Subdivision-best seven interceptions in his 2008 all-American season, returning them for a single-season Southeastern Conference record 265 yards. He holds the SEC career record with 487 return yards on 12 interceptions.
Berry says he wouldn't mind if those 15 yards came Saturday against Western Kentucky.
"That would be nice to just go ahead and get it out of the way, so I can't think about it anymore," Berry said.
Kentucky's recent run of three straight bowl games can be traced not to what they've done in the SEC — they're just 9-15 in conference play — but what they've been able to do out of conference.
Kentucky enters Saturday's opener against Miami (Ohio) in Cincinnati with a 14-game nonconference winning streak, the second-longest in the nation. Kentucky's last nonconference loss was against Louisville in 2006.
Though the nonconference schedule hasn't been exactly daunting — only one of those 14 wins has come over a ranked opponent — coach Rich Brooks attributes the success to the improved talent on the roster.
"You get 12 chances and whether it's Squawhaukee Canyon Institute of Technology, Alabama or Miami of Ohio, they're all very, very important games," he said.
BARRON SETTLES IN
Mark Barron might have been too versatile for his own good.
No. 5 Alabama's new starting strong safety has apparently settled at a position in time for the opener Saturday night against No. 7 Virginia Tech after playing all over the field in high school.
"He really hadn't played that much safety before," coach Nick Saban said. "As he learned, we knew that he was going to be a very good player because the guy was such a good athlete. Sometimes those guys get penalized because you want to use them in so many different ways, maybe you cause more confusion than you need to especially when they're young players."
Barron played running back, wide receiver and linebacker at St. Paul's High School in Mobile, as well as some safety.
The 6-foot-2, 214-pound sophomore saw action in the secondary in about half of the Tide's games last season and was a force in kickoff coverage.
Vanderbilt starts a run Saturday against Western Carolina that no other SEC team has to deal with in 2009: Playing 12 straight weeks.
And that means they close the season Nov. 21 — a full week ahead of the rest of the conference. But coach Bobby Johnson said it's not a topic up for discussion inside his team and only comes up when reporters ask.
"Our coaching staff is going to do a good job of making sure our guys don't get worn out. We can't change the schedule," he said.
Well, maybe Vanderbilt can learn from the past. This is the second time in four years the Commodores have gone 12 weeks without a break, and they went 4-8 in 2006. This team is coming off a 7-6 season, the school's first winning record since 1982.