ATHENS, Ga. (AP) Who’s the best team in the Southeastern Conferences?
Once you get past top-ranked Alabama, that is?
The answer should be a bit more apparent after a Saturday night between the hedges.
In a game between unfamiliar rivals sharing little beyond a nickname, No. 11 Georgia hosts No. 17 Mississippi State in an early season showdown that will help shake out the balance of the power in the SEC.
”I really don’t think there’s anybody really clear-cut, head-and-shoulders above in the SEC, probably outside of Alabama,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. ”So we’re going to find out.”
Mississippi State (3-0, 1-0) is coming off a 30-point blowout of then-No. 12 LSU , a dynamic performance that suddenly stamped coach Dan Mullen’s team as a potential threat in the conference race.
That one was in Starkville.
A victory at Georgia (3-0) would be even more impressive.
”One of the great things about the SEC, unlike just about every other conference, is usually when you get a big-time win over a top 15 team, you load up and play a team ranked even higher the next week,” Mullen said. ”We get to do that this week, going on the road to Georgia and playing a top team in the SEC East.”
The teams, both known as the Bulldogs, will be meeting for the first time since 2011 and only the 24th time in their history.
This is the first time they’ve faced off with both were ranked in the Top 25.
”We don’t play Georgia very often,” Mullen said. ”There’s some uniqueness in it.”
Some things to watch for when the Dawgs take on the Dawgs:
FITZGERALD’S HOMECOMING: Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald will be returning to his home state, to go against a school that didn’t recruit him out of high school.
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior is coming off a breakout night against LSU, rushing for a pair of touchdowns and passing for two more.
He doesn’t view this game as a chance for payback against Georgia.
”It’s just another game and just another opponent we’ve got to beat,” Fitzgerald said. ”I don’t really have a chip on my shoulder or anything like that. I know the reasons why people were not looking at me. It’s hard to take a chance on a guy that hadn’t started at quarterback until his senior year. Mississippi State did, glad I’m here and it couldn’t have worked out better for me.”
NOT YOUR TYPICAL FRESHMAN: Jake Fromm will be making his third straight start as Georgia’s quarterback while Jacob Eason continues his recovery from a knee injury.
When Eason returns – and he was back at practice this week, though in a limited role – there’s no guarantee he’ll reclaim the No. 1 job. Fromm has played like a veteran since stepping in during first quarter of the season-opening game .
The freshman has completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 449 yards, with five touchdowns and just one interception. This will be his first chance to show the home folks what he’s made of against a ranked opponent, but he’s already guided Georgia to an impressive victory at Notre Dame .
”He continues to improve,” Smart said. ”He’s making better decisions more consistently, which for us, the quarterback position is a decision-making position. We’re not asking the guy to go out there and scramble around and make runs. We have to get him to make good decisions. As long as he does that, we can play winning football.”
DYNAMIC DUO: Georgia has perhaps the best 1-2 punch in the country at running back.
Nick Chubb and Sony Michel have combined for 450 yards and six touchdowns over the first three games, averaging nearly 6.2 yards every time they take a handoff.
Chubb is more of a power runner, picking up most of his yards between the tackles, while Michel is a slashing, outside threat.
Michel didn’t play last week against FCS school Samford because of an ankle injury, but that was more of a precautionary measure. He should be ready to go in this one.
CREATING HAVOC: Both teams have defensive standouts capable of making game-changing plays.
Mississippi State nose guard Jeffery Simmons has blocked two kicks and became the first defensive player at Mississippi State to score two touchdowns in a game since 2009. The sophomore has 2.5 tackles for losses, 2.5 sacks, two quarterback hurries and one fumble recovery
”We have to be aware of where he is always,” Georgia fullback Christian Payne said. ”He’s got a lot of moves.”
Ditto for Georgia outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter, who had a huge game at Notre Dame with two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and a sack.
GRANTHAM’S D: Mississippi State defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is returning to the school where he held the same position under former Georgia coach Mark Richt from 2010-13.
State is off to a brilliant start on that side of the line , ranking sixth nationally in points allowed (9.3 per game) and among the top 10 in total yards, passing yards and pass efficiency defense.
This will be their toughest test yet.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry
For more AP college football coverage: www.collegefootball.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-Top25