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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 22: Mississippi State

Here’s a new one: now that the Florida ship has sailed, Dan Mullen will be the next coach at Ohio State once that program begins a national search in January. No, that can’t be right. I thought Mullen was just biding his time until Joe Paterno hung up his whistle at Penn State? Scratch that: Mullen’s next in line at Texas, clearly, once Mack Brown goes; or L.S.U., when Les Miles’ in-game shenanigans become too much for that program to bear; or Oklahoma, Alabama, U.S.C. and so on. Seems like the only place people won’t predict Mullen will be five years from now is Mississippi State. Why is that? Why couldn’t Mullen hunker down and make Starkville his home for the next five years, decade, the rest of his career? If last season is any indication, Mullen can win at Mississippi State, and there’s always the draw of finishing what one has started — being the face and name behind a program’s ascendancy.

Conference
SEC, West

Location
Starkville, Miss.

Nickname
Bulldogs

Returning starters
15 (8 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 73

2010 record
(9-4, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 16

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    at Memphis
  • Sept. 10
    at Auburn
  • Sept. 15
    L.S.U.
  • Sept. 24
    Louisiana Tech
  • Oct. 1
    at Georgia
  • Oct. 8
    at U.A.B.
  • Oct. 15
    South Carolina
  • Oct. 29
    at Kentucky
  • Nov. 5
    Tenn.-Martin
  • Nov. 12
    Alabama
  • Nov. 19
    at Arkansas
  • Nov. 26
    Mississippi

Last year’s prediction

In a slightly different way, I feel the same way about these Bulldogs as I felt about Arkansas heading into last season: by the end of the SEC season, I believe Mississippi State will be one of the hottest teams in the conference. The slight difference is that I knew Arkansas would reach bowl eligibility last fall, while I think the Bulldogs will come close, but fall short of that goal in 2010. Yet there is much to like about these Bulldogs, beginning with a young, energetic coach and continuing with an offense sure to make a sizable improvement in 2010. The defense, better than its numbers indicated in 2009, will be led by an athletic, talented defensive line. This is a better team, a deeper, more experienced team, but I don’t think we’ll see an improvement in the win column. I’m prepared for the vitriol from the M.S.U. fan base.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Yuck. My projection, not Mississippi State’s season. Yuck. Again. I didn’t just miss the boat; I went to the wrong boatyard altogether. What Mississippi State achieved in year two under Mullen seemed further along in the future, like in year three, if not four. The Bulldogs were far ahead of what most perceived to be this program’s learning curve, which seemed to entail at least a few years of steady progress before breaking through to eight or nine wins. Mullen got there in two years. The offense was ahead of schedule, even if better days await: the Bulldogs were steady but not spectacular, and you’ll see more of the big plays offensively beginning with this season. In 2010, the offense did just enough to team with a greatly improved defense to get to nine wins. The defense will also get better, but the Bulldogs did cut about a touchdown per game off its 2009 results. Improvement across the board. And yeah, Mississippi State can be better.

High point Another win over Mississippi, the second straight in the series. The antipathy between the two in-state rivals is nearing an all-time high. A 10-7 win at Florida gave the Bulldogs their first win in Gainesville since Steve Spurrier was in town. As Florida’s starting quarterback, that is. That victory was one of six straight following a 1-2 start.

Low point Outclassed in losses to Alabama and L.S.U., the Bulldogs lost in frustrating fashion to both Auburn and Arkansas. Which set hurts worse? I’d say Arkansas stings worst of all, as that loss prevented M.S.U. from a 10-win season. Auburn won by only a field goal, but that was before the Tigers hit their stride.

Tidbit Mullen is 2-0 in the Egg Bowl, which is meaningful for a handful of reasons. One, his start marks only the sixth time in M.S.U.’s modern history — since 1936 — that it has won at least two straight over the Rebels. Two, he’s in select company with Allyn McKeen as the only coaches in school history to open with consecutive Egg Bowl wins. And three, with the streak currently at 987 days, when the two rivals meet on Nov. 26 in Starkville it will have been 1,094 days — two years, 11 months and 30 days — since Ole Miss beat the Bulldogs. Not quite Ohio State over Michigan, I know. But awfully meaningful to Mississippi State and its fans.

Tidbit (four-way edition) Last fall marked the first time in program history that Mississippi State beat Florida and Georgia in the same season. It was also the first season that State posted wins over Florida, Georgia and Kentucky. It was also the first time the Bulldogs posted wins over Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and Mississippi in the same season. Follow? The Bulldogs had never taken down more than two of that quartet in the same season prior to last fall. State posted wins over both the Wildcats and Rebels in 2009, 2007, 2001, 1999, 1994, 1991 and 1917. There were wins over both the Rebels and Georgia in 1974 and 1970 and wins over Florida and the Rebels from 1936-47 and from 1939-42.

Former players in the N.F.L.

18 C J.C. Brignone (Chicago), LB Titus Brown (Cleveland), LB Jamar Chaney (Philadelphia), RB Anthony Dixon (San Francisco), DT Ronald Fields (Miami), DE Mario Haggan (Denver), DT Antonio Johnson (Indianapolis), DT Tommy Kelly (Oakland), TE Donald Lee (Philadelphia), WR Lance Long (San Francisco), DT Kyle Love (New England), DE Pernell McPhee (Baltimore), RB Jerious Norwood (St. Louis), OT Derek Sherrod (Green Bay), OT David Stewart (Tennessee), LB Chris White (Buffalo), OG Floyd Womack (Seattle), LB K.J. Wright (Seattle).

Arbitrary top five list

Active head coaches on Urban Meyer’s coaching tree
1. Kyle Whittingham, Utah.
2. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State.
3. Dan McCarney, North Texas.
4. Charlie Strong, Louisville.
5. Tim Beckman, Toledo.

Coaching

Dan Mullen (Ursinus ’94), 14-11 after two seasons in Starkville. I said the following about Mullen last summer: “No, it’s not easy to win in Starkville. Yet that is precisely what Dan Mullen is going to do, and perhaps sooner rather than later.” Yeah, sooner rather than later — though I still had the Bulldogs barely reaching bowl play. He’s a rising star in the profession. Mississippi State marks Mullen’s first head coaching job on any level. Mullen is most closely tied to Florida’s Urban Meyer, who he served under for eight seasons, from 2001-8. If you count Mullen’s time as a graduate assistant at Notre Dame (1999-2000), when Meyer was the wide receivers coach, Mullen worked alongside Meyer for nearly the entirety of his F.B.S. coaching career. His career as a position coach began in 2001, when Mullen was hired to coach the quarterbacks at Bowling Green (2001-2). Under his watch, former Bowling Green quarterback Josh Harris set school records for passing in a season and a MAC record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a season. That individual success continued at Utah, where Mullen tutored Alex Smith to an all-American 2004 season and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 N.F.L. draft. After the Utes finished 12-0 in that 2004 season, Mullen followed Meyer to Florida; he also took on offensive coordinator duties, his first coordinator position at any level. Though Meyer’s fingerprints were all over both the team’s game-planning and play-calling, Mullen deserves plenty of credit for the success of the Florida offense over his final two seasons. Mullen has also earned recognition for the job he has done with Florida’s quarterbacks, not only in terms of Tim Tebow but also with Chris Leak, a more prototypical passer for whom Mullen tailored the offense. Of course, Florida’s tremendous play over the his last four seasons included a pair of national championships (2006 and 2008). Any questions about whether Mullen could win where others had failed — winning at M.S.U. — were answered last fall. The sky is limit.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Losing one-year defensive coordinator Manny Diaz hurts, but here are two things to help M.S.U. get over the pain. Firstly, Texas was going to get its guy, especially after a hyped assistant search stumbled out of the gate. Secondly, Mullen inked a very intriguing replacement in former Florida International coordinator Geoff Collins, who will share those same duties with a holdover, Chris Wilson. Collins’ rise through the coaching ranks over the last three seasons mirrors that of his new boss: first as the linebackers coach at U.C.F., where he was noted for his recruiting acumen, then in a single season at F.I.U., helping to turn the Sun Belt’s worst defense into its best, Collins’ stock is on an upward trajectory. He’s absolutely a B.C.S. conference assistant to watch over the next few years.

Players to watch

One JUCO addition made a huge impact in the SEC, stepping right onto this high level and exceeding any of the expectations surrounding his arrival. Yes, Vick Ballard was everything Mississippi State thought he’d be and more, missing out on a 1,000-yard season only because of a midseason game missed due to injury. Wait, which JUCO transfer did you think I was talking about? Ballard was actually quite overlooked on the recruiting trail, landing only one other F.B.S. offer, Troy, coming off the JUCO ranks; par for the course for Ballard, who was not recruited heavily at all coming out of high school. Once he learned the offense and distanced himself from the competition, Ballard rolled off solid performance after solid performance, ending the year with a team-best 981 yards and a school-record 20 touchdowns.

And those numbers came with that one game lost to injury and with only a slight impact over the year’s first three games, when he split time with sophomore LaDarius Perkins and senior Robert Elliott. The whole trio is back in 2010, with Ballard’s hefty totals joined by 566 yards from Perkins and a 221-yard showing from Elliott. There will be some retooling up front, but M.S.U. should experience even greater success on the ground in 2011. What can Ballard do for an encore? It’s not just about the rushing total, though the senior should crack the 1,000-yard mark with relative ease. It’s about how Ballard sniffs out the end zone, scoring 12 times over his first six games and three more times against both Arkansas and rival Mississippi. He’ll get lost in the shuffle playing in a conference loaded with backs, but Ballard is one of the SEC’s best.

Chris Relf earned the starting spot with a solid finish to 2009, a strong series of spring practices in 2010 and with steady play for much of last season. The big-bodied, athletic senior is a nice fit for what Mullen wants to achieve offensively, though you can’t help but think that the Bulldogs can get at least a bit more from the position. I think they’ll get more from Relf in 2011, based on how he finished last season: 51 of 73 for 793 yards and 6 scores in games against Arkansas, the Rebels and Michigan. If Relf can only play for an entire year how he’s fared in November and December in both 2009 and 2010 the Bulldogs would really have something. He’ll do plenty of work on the ground (701 yards, 5 scores) and keep teams honest through the air, and that’s enough, I guess. Look for sophomore Tyler Russell to continue to get snaps behind Relf in certain situations as Mullen looks ahead to 2012 and beyond.

In a perfect world, Mullen would have six or seven gifted receivers to work with in the passing game. It doesn’t seem like State is quite there just yet, though this is the best, most talented, most experienced group Mullen’s had thus far. All four of last year’s top receivers are back, led by junior Chad Bumphis (44 receptions for 634 yards and 5 scores). He’s been a fixture in the starting lineup in each of his first two years, leading the Bulldogs in receptions each season and showing flashes of the big-play ability that made him a much-desired recruit in Mullen’s first class. Fellow juniors Arceto Clark (25 for 362) and Chris Smith (24 for 264) round out the starting trio, with another junior, Brandon Heavens (22 for 316) the first receiver off the bench. What the Bulldogs really need is another three or four receivers to step up for depth purposes, so hopes are high that sophomores Ricco Sanders and Michael Carr, especially Carr, can develop into legitimate options. Could a true freshman make a run at playing time? There will be opportunities to do so, and rookie Joseph Morrow’s size, at 6’5, makes him an intriguing possibility.

The most important piece on this defense is a fresh face: Clemson transfer Brandon Maye is eligible to play immediately, thanks to an N.C.A.A. transfer loophole, and he’s desperately needed in a linebacker corps replacing all three of last season’s starters. Maye was looked at as an immediate starter — he wouldn’t have chosen M.S.U. if not — in the middle of the defense, where he’ll bring 33 career starts to the table. He’s one of two big additions to the linebacker corps, joining Collins, who has done a fine job with this position at both U.C.F. and Florida International. First things first, however: Maye needs to out-duel fellow seniors Brandon Wilson (17 tackles) and Jamie Jones to earn the starting nod. Running third at the start of fall camp, Maye will be atop the depth chart by September.

He’ll be flanked on one side by junior Cameron Lawrence (34 tackles), a converted safety. On the bigger side as a defensive back, Lawrence might end up being the breakout star on this defense. He’s well-suited for linebacker at around 225 pounds, has good ball skills thanks to his time as a safety and the speed to make plays in space. In short: Lawrence might be a really good outside linebacker. As of today, sophomore Chris Hughes will join him in the starting lineup. Depth is a concern, if not in the middle then on the outside.

While strong along the interior, the M.S.U. defensive line needs a strong showing from senior end Sean Ferguson (23 tackles, 5 for loss) to help offset Pernell McPhee’s departure. In the big picture, the Bulldogs simply need to do a better job getting to the quarterback altogether; Ferguson’s a big part of any improvement State may find in that regard. He’s also the lone senior poised to hold a substantial role up front, further increasing his importance. Chris Wilson will need to work some magic with this group, as while juniors Trevor Stigers and Shane McCardell are at least somewhat experienced the end crop as a whole is the weakest link on the defense.

The Bulldogs can rest easy with juniors Josh Boyd (24 tackles, 7.5 for loss) and Fletcher Cox (29 tackles, 6.5 for loss) anchoring the middle of the line. Overshadowed within the SEC, this pair is more than steady: they can make plays on occasion, as those numbers show, and have flashed an ability to get to the quarterback. There’s size but little depth behind the top pair — depth is an issue throughout the line — so the Bulldogs may need to find snaps from a pair of redshirt freshmen, Curtis Verges and Kaleb Eulls. The latter could also play end in certain alignments.

Any questions surrounding the front seven do not extend to the secondary. This group has the potential to be great: good but not terrific last fall, enough of last year’s group returns to expect a sizable improvement. It’s all about experience: all four starters are back in the fold, and there’s ample depth behind this quartet. The leader is senior strong safety Charles Mitchell (93 tackles), who’s always willing to lend support against the run. It’ll be either senior Wade Bonner or sophomore Nickoe Whitley at free safety: Whitley was the starter last fall, tying for the team lead with three interceptions, but entered August behind Bonner on the depth chart. Both will play, regardless of which earns the starting nod. Once again, juniors Corey Broomfield (52 tackles, 3 picks) and Johnthan Banks (54 tackles, 3 picks) will start at cornerback. Seniors Damein Anderson and Marvin Bure lie behind this pair.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line Mississippi State’s continued growth up front takes a hit without two of last year’s stalwarts, left tackle Derek Sherrod and center J.C. Brignone. Replacing that pair won’t be easy, especially Sherrod on the blind side: the Bulldogs still don’t have an answer at that key spot. Finding a new starting center, on the other hand, was as simple as moving senior Quentin Saulsberry inside from guard. His transition will be sped up by his two-game stint as Brignone’s replacement last fall, in wins over Florida and U.A.B., which will help Saulsberry break through the learning curve. He’s one of two returning starters, joining sophomore left guard Gabe Jackson and senior right tackle Addison Lawrence. Junior Tobias Smith takes over after making a single start in 2010, against the Gators, and serving as a key reserve throughout the year. That’s a nice quartet, especially if Smith takes to a full-time starting role and Saulsberry has little trouble grasping the intricacies of the center position. So what’s the problem? There are absolutely enormous shoes to fill at left tackle, replacing those worn by a four-year starter, all-SEC honoree and major factor behind Mississippi State’s successful run offensively a season ago. Making matters worse is a very unsettled competition featuring two unknowns: senior James Carmon was moved over to offense prior to last winter’s Gator Bowl after beginning his career on the defensive side of the ball, while redshirt freshman Blaine Causell is, well, a redshirt freshman. They’re neck-and-neck heading into the heart of fall camp, though Carmon seems to hold a slight edge over his younger competition. Perhaps the pair will rotate until one separates himself from the other, but this isn’t running back — this is the blind side, and a team needs consistency here more than anywhere else.

Game(s) to watch

Meaningful games abound. You just won’t find them in non-conference play, as State’s schedule outside the SEC is shockingly weak. In terms of importance: Mississippi, L.S.U., Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn and Georgia. The Bulldogs will play six games at home, six games on the road.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I expect further improvement from Mississippi State in its third season under Dan Mullen. Anything else would be surprising: most of last year’s contributors are back in the fold, especially on offense, and last year’s somewhat pedestrian offensive attack should be more explosive in 2011. Will further progression lead to an improvement in the win column? It’s going to be hard to top last year’s nine-win total, especially with an SEC slate that lands L.S.U., South Carolina and Alabama at home, not to mention some tough games on the road. I’d think that with this conference schedule and a deadly SEC West the Bulldogs would not feel any disappointment in another nine-win season. Why could M.S.U. disappoint? Because there are holes to address on both sides of the ball: left tackle on offense, most notably, but also defensive end and linebacker, though Maye could provide the immediate impact in the middle of the second level. Those are the sort of concerns that could derail a season, in my mind. But I have tons of confidence in Mullen’s ability to make things work on the offensive side of the ball. Is there anyone who lacks faith in his ability to keep this program heading upwards? He’s made solid move after solid move, both on and off the field, and followed up an inspired defensive coordinator hire in Manny Diaz with another nice pickup in Collins, who will team with Wilson to lead the defense. Is Mississippi State a viable contender to take home the West? Not really, not with L.S.U., Alabama and Arkansas farther along in the process. But the Bulldogs just get better and better under Mullen, so a similar finish to last season should be easily doable.

Dream season The Bulldogs exceeded expectations in year two under Mullen; it happens again in year three, as Mississippi State finishes the regular season 11-1 and atop the SEC West, thanks to head-to-head tiebreakers.

Nightmare season Mullen has all the breathing room in the world, but a slide down to 6-6 would take some bloom off the rose.

In case you were wondering

Where do Mississippi State fans congregate? A long list of Mississippi State football options. For message boards and recruiting Web sites, check out Bulldawg JunctionDawgs’ Bites and Six Pack Speak. As any M.S.U. fan can tell you, Brandon Marcello’s blog at The Jackson Clarion-Ledger and Brad Locke’s blog over at the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal — that’s a mouthful — are must-read stuff. You can also catch up on Mississippi State news with Locke and Marcello on Twitter. Additional blog coverage can be found at For Whom the Cowbell Tolls. If you must ask, the cowbell tolls for thee.

Word Count

Through 99 teams 307,183.

Up Next

Who is No. 21? The state housing tomorrow’s university has three affiliated minor league baseball teams, one of which once tutored an M.L.B. all-time record holder in a statistic that was not officially tabulated until the year baseball first split each league into two divisions.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Andrew Griffith says:

    It’s either Notre Dame or West Virginia.

  2. Andrew Griffith says:

    I think it is Notre Dame, the MiLB team being the Indianapolis Indians, and the player is Roger Maris

  3. Rick Hindle says:

    It’s West Virginia. Three minor league teams, one of which Trevor Hofmann (baseball’s all-time saves leader) played for.

  4. Tyler says:

    Trevor Hoffman is MLB’s all-time leader in saves, a statistic that was first recorded in 1969 (the year the leagues were split into divisions). Hoffman began his professional baseball career with the Class A Charleston Wheelers (now the West Virginia Power).

    WVU is next.

  5. michael says:

    I thought Mississippi State would be a lot higher for sure.

    Also, Texas keeps getting higher.

  6. anu says:

    out of curiosity, would you say Miss State has the weakest out-of-conference schedule in the SEC (already jam-packed with weak OOC schedules?)

  7. Paul says:

    I like Mullen and the Bulldogs, but they have a tough schedule this year. Looking for 8 or 9 wins, unless they catch lightning in a bottle.

    I do think Mullen may be around Starkville for awhile. If he wanted glamour and a big paycheck he could have bided his time at Florida for a little longer and caught a bigger school. At MSU he can have some glamour and a good paycheck with a little less BS in the atmosphere…….

  8. Old Soldier says:

    I thought that Bobby Thigpen held the MLB record for saves. Are you counting saves in the minor leagues?

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