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Random Spring Thoughts: Mississippi St.

Using a combination of various computer programs and the Internet — a task nearly beyond my limited computing skills — I selected 25 F.B.S. teams at random. Teams lucky enough to have been randomly selected will be reviewed with several random thoughts as we enter the heart of spring practice. Up next: Mississippi State, rapidly rocketing up the F.B.S. ladder.

Here’s a new one: now that the Florida ship has sailed, Dan Mullen will be the next coach at Ohio State once Jim Tressel is sent packing. 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, Miami (Fla.) 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? It’s partly a reflection on Mullen and the job he’s done turning things around in Starkville; his stock, already sky-high, will continue to rocket upwards should his Bulldogs take another step forward in 2011. That people assume Mullen won’t remain in the fold for the long haul, however, is also a slight towards Mississippi State.

Why couldn’t Mullen hunker down and make Starkville his home for the next five years, decade, the rest of his career? What’s stopping him from turning this program into a consistent enough winner where an L.S.U. — just an example — is not as appealing as some might believe it to be? 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. More random thoughts about Mississippi State come below:

Still amazed by 2010. I didn’t think Mullen could turn things around so fast; in the same vein, I’m still impressed by how well his Bulldogs played in 2009, his debut season in charge. Mullen has rapidly transformed Mississippi State on the field, turning in the program’s first nine-win season since 1999. How did he do it? Well, he’s one heck of a coach, for starters, but most importantly, Mullen was able to get a roster largely composed of his predecessor’s recruits to buy into what he was selling — the type of first step any new coach must take before his team turns the corner.

Can Chris Relf hold off Tyler Russell? Last year’s projected quarterback competition didn’t last long into fall camp: Relf had a strong finish to 2009 and experience on his side, leading Mullen to hand Russell, then a redshirt freshman, a clipboard for the 2010 season. A year later, things haven’t changed all that much. Relf still has the experience: now a senior, he started all 13 games a year ago and two games late in 2009. And as in 2009, Relf played his best football down the stretch: he threw for 569 yards and 6 scores in victories over Mississippi and Michigan to end the year. Russell has his work cut out for him this spring and in August if he wants to leapfrog Relf on the depth chart.

Play-making ability. Mississippi State’s top six rushers, top two passers, top six receivers and three starting offensive linemen return from a year ago, which should give some idea as to why so many are high on this offense heading into 2011. There’s no doubting the offense, both in strategy and execution, though I wonder if we’ll see more game-breaking plays — the long scoring plays, for instance — than we did a year ago. Not that M.S.U. was necessarily weak in this category in 2010: in the top third nationally in long gains from scrimmage, the Bulldogs tied Auburn and Arkansas atop the SEC with 12 plays of 50 or more yards. It would be nice to see more of this, that’s all.

2-0, or 1,000-plus days. 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 854 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.

The defense got a good one. Losing 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 defensive 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.

Rutgers called, want its schedule back. Listen: this schedule isn’t tough — out of conference. It’s a minefield in the SEC. Maybe that’s the rationale behind this punch line of a non-conference slate, which finds M.S.U. playing Memphis and U.A.B. on the road, Louisiana Tech and Tennessee-Martin at home. Looking for respect? Beating SEC foes matters most of all, but if these Bulldogs do go 6-2 in conference play, these four non-conference games won’t boost their B.C.S. stock.

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