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July 19, 2011
OVERVIEW: Dan Mullen is headed into his third season as coach, and he brought Urban Meyer's version of the spread option with him from Florida. Mullen's Bulldogs have relied heavily on the run in his two seasons and that shouldn't change this season, even though the Bulldogs lost their two best linemen from last season. While there are a lot of three- and four-receiver sets, the Bulldogs sometimes line up with a fullback and a tight end and try to blow folks off the ball.
BACKFIELD: QB Chris Relf threw for 1,789 yards and 13 TDs last season; he completed 58.6 percent of his passes and tossed six picks. He threw for at least 200 yards in each of the final three games. Those numbers are modest in today's college football, but they're actually quite robust for the Bulldogs. Mississippi State averaged 186.5 passing yards per game, not bad for a team that has averaged 200 yards just once in the past 15 seasons. As for Relf's 58.6 percent completion rate? No Bulldogs quarterback has completed 60 percent of his passes since 1951, when Frank Branch was 24-of-40 on the season. Relf has a shot at 2,000 yards through the air this season, and he's a good bet to run for at least 700 yards. He ran for 713 last season, and he really can hurt opposing defenses when he gets out of the pocket. TB Vick Ballard is back after leading the SEC with 20 TDs in his first season after transferring from a junior college; 19 of those came via the run, and he rushed for 968 yards. Ballard lacks top-end speed, but he's tough and runs people over. Backup LaDarius Perkins has more speed and offers a change of pace; he rushed for 566 yards last season.
RECEIVERS: All three starting receivers are back, but, truthfully, these guys don't scare anybody. Starters Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark and Chris Smith combined for 93 receptions for 1,260 yards and nine TDs last season. Bumphis has the speed to be a deep threat and can be effective on wide receiver reverses. Smith has the size to be a solid possession receiver.
LINE: T Derek Sherrod was one of the best in the nation at his position, but he's gone. So is underrated C J.C. Brignone. Quentin Saulsberry has moved from guard to center and should be a steadying influence in the middle. G Gabe Jackson did a solid job as a redshirt freshman starter last season and has the potential to develop into an All-SEC player. RT Addison Lawrence returns, but keep an eye on projected starting LT James Carmon. He was a defensive tackle last season and is being asked to replace Sherrod this season, which makes the position a potential trouble spot. Carmon is a big guy (6-7/330) with a physical nature, but does he have the footwork to play left tackle in the SEC? Redshirt freshman Blaine Clausell is the other candidate for the job. The rest of the offense should be better than it was last season, but this unit could take a step back without Sherrod and Brignone.
OVERVIEW: The Bulldogs were aggressive and stingy on defense last season. But they lost their best defensive lineman (E Pernell McPhee), all three starting linebackers (including stars K.J. Wright and Chris White) and coordinator Manny Diaz, a rising star in the coaching ranks who left for Texas. Mullen hired Geoff Collins, who had been coordinator at Florida International, to team with holdover Chris Wilson to run the defense. Wilson had been defensive line coach at Oklahoma before Mullen hired him before the 2010 season. Expect a few tweaks to the base 4-3 set, nothing more.
LINE: McPhee will be missed, but the Bulldogs will be strong in the interior with returning starters Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox. Both are sturdy against the run and have some pass-rushing ability, too. Each has the potential to contend for All-SEC honors. Sean Ferguson returns as a starter at one end spot, while McPhee's spot on the other side likely won't be filled until fall drills. Junior Trevor Stigers is the front-runner.
LINEBACKERS: While the line and secondary look good, this unit is a huge question. White and Wright combined for 208 tackles, nine sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss, two picks, 10 pass breakups and six quarterback hurries last season. That kind of production is going to be impossible to replace with the guys on the roster. The Bulldogs are counting on Clemson transfer Brandon Maye - who is eligible immediately - to make a big impact in the middle; though he was a three-year starter with the Tigers, Clemson coaches really didn't seem all that worried about his departure. He will vie with senior Brandon Wilson for the starting job in fall drills; Wilson made 17 tackles last season. Junior Cameron Lawrence and sophomore Chris Hughes are the likely starters on the outside. Depth is unproven.
SECONDARY: This is an underrated unit, both nationally and within the SEC. All four starters return, and CB Johnthan Banks and SS Charles Mitchell should contend for All-SEC honors. Banks has seven interceptions and 10 pass breakups in his first two seasons, and Mitchell is the Bulldogs' leading returning tackler with 93. He's aggressive in run support. CB Corey Broomfield and FS Nickoe Whitley are the other returning starters, and depth looks good at corner and both safety spots. Whitley, in fact, will have to fend off senior Wade Bonner to keep his starting spot.
K Derek DePasquale returns after going 10-of-12 last season; while accurate, DePasquale doesn't have that much range, as his longest field goal last season was 43 yards. Sophomore Baker Swedenburg is the new punter. Bumphis (punts) and Perkins (kickoffs) will be the return men again, though neither really flashed in that role last season. The punt coverage was good in 2010, while the kickoff coverage was mediocre.
Maye better make a big impact at middle linebacker. The Bulldogs' linebackers were good last season, especially White and Wright, and there's no way the group this season will be as productive as the group last season. The key is making sure the gap isn't that wide, and Maye - who made 231 tackles in there seasons at Clemson - is going to be an important part of that.
Everyone will know quickly whether to take the Bulldogs seriously in the SEC West. After what should be an easy opener at Memphis, the Bulldogs face Auburn and LSU back-to-back; to make things tougher, the LSU game is on a Thursday night, five days after the visit to Auburn. In October, there are games at Georgia and at home against South Carolina, and the regular season ends with consecutive games against Alabama, Arkansas and archrival Ole Miss. The good news: The non-conference schedule is a breeze, which means four wins. To get to a bowl again, then, the Bulldogs are only going to have to win two league games.
Mississippi State is coming off a nine-victory season, but the Bulldogs never have had back-to-back seasons with at least nine wins in their 116-year history of football. There is potential on both sides of the ball, but the passing attack and a rebuilt line cause pause on offense and a rebuilt linebacker corps is a huge question on defense. Mullen has shown he knows what he is doing, but the schedule is daunting. Given the schedule, a fourth-place finish in the SEC West is a legit goal, and a third-place finish would be cause for celebration.
For more on Mississippi State now and throughout the season, check out BulldogBlitz.com
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.