No. 73: Mississippi State
By Paul Myerberg // Jun 22, 2010
It’s not easy to win in Starkville. At least win consistently; Mississippi State has had its periods of strong play, but most winning seasons — at least in recent memory — are bracketed by losing campaigns or, worse yet, defined by resulting N.C.A.A. sanctions. 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.
14 (7 offense, 7 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 4
- Sept. 9
- Sept. 18
- Sept. 25
- Oct. 2
- Oct. 9
- Oct. 16
- Oct. 23
- Oct. 30
- Nov. 13
- Nov. 20
- Nov. 27
Last year’s prediction
For this season, I can’t predict the Bulldogs to do any better than 5-7, with the more likely final mark being a repeat of last fall’s 4-8 record. To get to 5-7, either the Bulldogs would need to steal one of its two tough non-conference games, take 3 of 4 on the road, or upset a heavily-favored team or two at home. Possible, but not probable. It will take Mullen at least a full season to implement the spread, so we will see a better Bulldog team in 2010.
In a nutshell Perhaps we didn’t see much of an improvement in the win column: only a single victory, in fact. Yet this team was surprisingly good — extremely pesky in SEC play — despite my perception that the Bulldogs would struggle in their first season under Dan Mullen transitioning to a new, far more complicated offense. Yes, M.S.U. was terrible in the passing game; only 144 yards per game and 17 interceptions against only nine touchdowns. Nevertheless, Mullen was able to cobble together an effective offense thanks to a physical ground game; as this shows, the former Florida assistant remains flexible enough to define his offense to his personnel, not vice versa. Despite falling short of bowl play, it’s hard not to view last season as a success.
High point As if there was any question: an Egg Bowl win over Mississippi, the program’s third win in its last five games against its bitter rival. The Bulldogs rode an overpowering run game and a turnover-hungry defense to win by 14, avenging – at least somewhat – a 45-point Ole Miss victory in 2008.
Low point Only two other wins in SEC play, with both coming against two of the lesser teams in the conference: Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Both were road victories, however; Mississippi State has struggled for years away from home in SEC action.
Tidbit Only three coaches in the modern era of Mississippi State football (1936-present) have won the Egg Bowl in their first season: Mullen, Allyn McKeen (1939) and Jackie Sherrill (1991).
Tidbit (bowl teams edition) Each of Mississippi State’s seven losses came at the hands of an eventual bowl participant. In fact, each team won at least eight games on the 2009 season: Arkansas and Auburn went 8-5, L.S.U. finished 9-4, Houston 10-4, Georgia Tech 11-3, Florida 13-1 and Alabama 14-0. A loss is a loss – you better believe Mullen’s not making any excuses – but the Bulldogs played most of these teams pretty tight, minus blowout losses to Auburn and Alabama.
Former players in the N.F.L.
22 LB Titus Brown (Cleveland), TE Eric Butler (St. Louis), LB Jamar Chaney (Philadelphia), LB Quinton Culberson (Carolina), RB Anthony Dixon (San Francisco), CB Kevin Dockery (St. Louis), LB Dominic Douglas (St. Louis), DT Ronald Fields (Denver), S Keith Fitzhugh (Baltimore), FB Justin Griffith (Houston), LB Mario Haggan (Denver), DT Antonio Johnson (Indianapolis), DT Tommy Kelly (Oakland), TE Reggie Lee (Green Bay), TE Donald Lee (Green Bay), WR Lance Long (Kansas City), DT Kyle Love (New England), WR Brandon McRae (St. Louis), RB Jerious Norwood (Atlanta), DT DelJuan Robinson (Houston), OT David Stewart (Tennessee), OG Floyd Womack (Cleveland).
Arbitrary top five list
Athletes from Starkville, Miss.
1. Jerry Rice. Wide receiver for the 49ers.
2. James “Cool Papa” Bell. Member of the baseball Hall of Fame.
3. Hayes Jones. Gold medal-winning hurdler.
4. Travis Outlaw. Forward for the Los Angeles Clippers.
5. Julio Borbon. Outfielder for the Texas Rangers.
Dan Mullen (Ursinus ’94), 5-7 after one season in Starkville. This is Mullen’s first head coaching job on any level. Mullen is most closely tied to Florida Coach Urban Meyer, who he served under for the last eight seasons. If you count Mullen’s time as a graduate assistant at Notre Dame (1999-2000), when Meyer was the wide receivers coach, Mullen has 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, the 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 the past 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 past four seasons includes a pair of national championships (2006 and 2008). It’s hard to say if Mullen will ultimately be successful at Mississippi State — last season marked a terrific start — but the university needed an offensive-minded coach, and that’s what it got with Mullen. It also got a young (37), tough, solid recruiter who has learned his trade at the feet of college football’s premier coach.
Players to watch
Junior Chris Relf held the upper hand in the quarterback battle as Mississippi State entered the summer, largely outplaying the highly-regarded redshirt freshman Tyler Russell during the spring. Relf — or Russell — will replace Tyson Lee, who struggled mightily as a passer in Mullen’s system, tossing 14 interceptions against only four touchdowns. It was surprising, in fact, that Lee was able to fend off Relf — who played admirably when called upon — when given his immense struggles. As I wrote about Relf last month:
He’ll replace the departed Tyson Lee, who gave the Bulldogs grit, if little else. In terms of athleticism, Relf is a clear upgrade; how he develops as a passer will dictate the strides M.S.U. makes in Dan Mullen’s second season. If nothing else, Relf can keep the position warm for Russell, the unquestioned future at the position.
Relf rushed for 500 yards last fall, second on the team, and threw for five touchdowns — one more than Lee, obviously — in only 41 attempts. Russell will see plenty of action, preparing him for the future, but I’m intrigued by Relf’s athletic ability in Mullen’s offense.
A more disciplined passing game will mean a greater role for sophomore Chad Bumphis, a multi-talented athlete who can fill a Percy Harvin-type role in this spread attack. The highly-touted recruit made an impact as a true freshman, tallying 32 catches for 375 yards and 4 touchdowns; 73 yards rushing and a score on the ground; and averaging 23.9 yards per his 16 kick returns. Bumphis shared return duties with Leon Berry, who averaged 26.7 yards per return with a touchdown in addition to 14 grabs for 170 yards. Berry will play a far larger role in the passing game after making three starts last fall, and if his spring game is any indication, is poised to greatly improve his receiving totals from a year ago. Depth will be found from a handful of youngsters, such as Chris Smith, Brandon Heavens, Ricco Sanders and Charles Bailey.
While Mississippi State may trail the rest of the SEC in terms of its offensive skill players — the team is rapidly closing the gap — the offensive line easily ranks in the top half of the conference. Four of the five starters from last season’s physical group return, with the lone departure being right guard Craig Jenkins. Senior Derek Sherrod and junior Addison Lawrence will bookend the line; Sherrod earned second-team all-SEC honors on the blind side last fall. Quentin Saulsberry, a junior, returns at left guard, while sophomore Tobias Smith will earn the first shot at replacing Jenkins at right guard. Senior Mark Melichar is another option at the position. Of course, it will again be J.C. Brignone at center; the multiple-year starter, recently named to the Rimington Trophy watch list, is one of the best in the SEC.
The defense needs to make a significant improvement against the run, as it was often sieve-like last fall against some of the SEC’s better rushing offenses: 390 yards allowed at Auburn, 249 yards against Florida and 252 yards against Alabama. Any improvement against the run will come from a very talented defensive front, as well as the new voice provided by recently-hired defensive coordinators Manny Diaz and Chris Wilson. Diaz comes to Starkville from Middle Tennessee State, where he served as its defensive coordinator, while Wilson was most recently the defensive line coach at Oklahoma.
This line has me very excited. It starts with senior Pernell McPhee, who earned all-conference accolades a year ago. The former JUCO transfer took quickly to the SEC, posting 56 tackles (12 for loss) and 5 sacks; the latter total led the team. He’ll be even better in 2010, as one would expect with added experience on the major college level, but also due to the development of a talented group of second-year players. Sophomores Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox (29 tackles, 3.5 for loss) will man the interior of the line, while sophomore Nick Bell will step into a starting role opposite McPhee at end. Junior Sean Ferguson, who has started in the past, is another option at end. Keep an eye on massive JUCO transfer James Carmon: while not expected to be more than a two-down interior lineman, Carmon could be the deciding factor in an improved run defense.
The Bulldogs will miss Jamar Chaney in the middle, as the departed starter led the team in tackles (90, 4.5 for loss) while adding a pair of sacks and interceptions. The starting lineup will shuffle a bit to accommodate Chaney’s departure, with returning starter Chris White (75 stops, 4 for loss), a former JUCO transfer, moving inside. Senior K.J. Wright becomes the star of this linebacker corps after making 82 tackles, second on the team, and two sacks a year ago. White’s transition to middle linebacker opens up the weak side linebacker spot, with former defensive back Cameron Lawrence currently standing atop the depth chart. Senior Emmanuel Gatling could also see time on the weak side.
While there will be competition to fill the two cornerback spots, the Bulldogs look great at safety. Junior Charles Mitchell is a rising star — just ask the rest of the SEC. He’ll again start at strong safety, one year after making 64 tackles and 4 interceptions. Thanks to his ability to play both the run and the pass, not to mention the great improvement he showed a year ago, Mitchell is a clear all-conference candidate. Sophomore Johnthan Banks earned SEC all-freshman honors last fall, when he made four interceptions, returning two for scores. Banks — or “Tebow kryptonite,” his lesser-known alias — could move to cornerback in the fall, however, as the Bulldogs look to increase depth on the outside.
As of now, sophomore Corey Broomfield (team-high six picks) and senior Maurice Langston hold starting roles at cornerback. That pair, as well sophomore Louis Watson and junior Damein Anderson, earned significant playing time a year ago. Athletic ability is not an issue; experience, and the consistency that comes with it, remain a concern. I like Banks at free safety, where his strong ball skills are used to full advantage, but I would not fault Mississippi State for considering moving the sophomore down to cornerback.
Position battles to watch
Running back Anthony Dixon meant everything to last season’s offense, putting the Mississippi State offense on his back — such as he did against Kentucky — to offset a pitiful passing attack. He’ll be nearly impossible to replace, though Mullen and his staff hope increased production through the air can help recover much of Dixon’s lost yardage. The Bulldogs have three backs battling to claim Dixon’s role in the offense. The first is junior Robert Elliott — whose recruitment you might recall from Bruce Feldman’s terrific book “Meat Market” — the team’s leading returning rusher. Elliott rushed for 221 yards last fall, the third-most among M.S.U. backs, despite continuing to be hampered by the knee injury that cost him most of the 2008 season. Redshirt freshmen Montrell Conner — the biggest back on the roster — and LaDarius Perkins are also options. The Bulldogs added JUCO tranfer Vick Ballard into the mix in the spring, and the former junior college star rose rapidly through the depth chart; as M.S.U. entered the summer, Ballard and Elliott shared the starting role.
Game(s) to watch
Mississippi, for starters. The Egg Bowl is back, if you were unaware. Mississippi has taken its game up a notch, thanks to the job Houston Nutt has done in Oxford, while the Bulldogs are on the verge of returning to bowl play under Mullen. The entire SEC slate is dangerous, but Mississippi State should look at a home date with Kentucky as a must-win if the Bulldogs hope to realize their post-season hopes.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell 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. It’s all about this schedule, which easily ranks among the five most difficult in the country: in addition to its West division brethren, M.S.U. draws Florida, Georgia and Kentucky out of the East. It won’t be easy for Mississippi State to land that sixth win and earn bowl eligibility, obviously. 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. If all goes as planned, Mississippi State will firmly rank among the top 50 teams in the country heading into 2011.
Dream season Despite the tough schedule, Mississippi State lands an 9-3 mark, 6-2 in the SEC. One of those wins, of course, is on the road against rival Mississippi.
Nightmare season The Bulldogs take a step back after last season’s progress: 3-9, 1-7 in conference play.
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 Junction, Dawgs’ Bites and Six Pack Speak. As any M.S.U. fan can tell you, Kyle Veazey’s blog at The Jackson Clarion-Ledger is must-read stuff.
Tidbit (noise edition) For the first time in 37 years, cowbells will be allowed back into Mississippi State home games. Early this month, the SEC made slight changes to its artificial noise bylaw, allowing M.S.U. fans the use of cowbells at certain times during home games. The appropriate periods, as Veazey reported in The Jackson Clarion-Ledger, are during “pregame, halftime, between quarters, timeouts, after scores and during possession changes — basically, whenever music can be played over the speakers.” So leave your keys at home; Davis Wade Stadium can have more cowbell. Actually, you might want to continue to bring your keys.
Tidbit (Twitter edition) I hate doing this, yet I do so once a week or so. Don’t forget you can follow Pre-Snap Read on Twitter. I am world-renowned for the healthy interaction I have with all my followers: close, but not too close. Just right.
Who is No. 72? The zoo in our next school’s home city was the first in the country to feature a viewable hippopotamus aquarium.
Tags: Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
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