Last year’s contest had all the makings for a great ACC vs. SEC classic. With only two prior games in the series, and none in the modern era, few knew what to expect as MSU took their tough-nosed SEC defense to Atlanta to match it up against the high-powered option attack from GT.
Coming into the game, things looked promising for Tech. They held a 2-1 record. They had managed to beat a good Boston College team on the road, but dropped a game to Virginia Tech (eventual ACC champ) by only 3 points.
Mississippi State, on the other hand, held a 1-2 mark and entered Atlanta one week after an embarrassing 3-2 loss to Auburn. It was a game that displayed two of the worst offensive performances in recent history and was the talk of the week on most sports shows and chat boards.
State limped to Atlanta as an 8.5 point dog (no pun intended), MSU fans wondered if they could shake off the prior week and come away with a victory over the rushing machine that was emerging at Georgia Tech.
Much to their dismay, at the sound of the final whistle it was all Tech. State failed to score a point until the fourth quarter as the second and third tier defenders manned the field for the Yellow Jackets.
In spite of playing most of the game with back-up quarterback, Jaybo Shaw, the Yellow Jackets turned in a record day. Johnathan Dwyer (2008 ACC Player of the Year) set a school record with an 88-yard scamper for a touchdown.
The GT rushing attack continued its onslaught to the tune of 438 yards (fifth highest in school history) and finished with 500 yards in total offense. The Dawgs were sent home from Bobby Dodd Stadium on the losing end of a 38-7 margin.
The final sum of the 2008 seasons marked both a beginning and an end for each program.
Coming into the season, expectations were relatively low for first year coach Paul Johnson who was determined to successfully implement his option attack into the ACC. Sports Illustrated had projected a 3-9 finish and had rated the Yellow Jackets 80th overall in the FCS.
Much to the surprise of pretty much everyone outside of Atlanta, Johnson´s formula worked. He led his young team to a 9-4 season and maintained a share of the ACC Coastal Division title.
His option threat led the ACC in both total offense and rushing offense and ranked fourth nationally in rushing with 273.2 ypg. For his efforts, he received honors as the 2008 ACC Coach of the Year and the CBS Sports National Coach of the Year.
Meanwhile, in Starkville, coaches, players, and fans entered the season hopeful to build on successes from 2007 where they finished 8-5 overall with a bowl victory. They returned 14 starters and had aspirations of sending the Bulldogs to consecutive bowls for the first time since the ’99-’00 seasons.
Unfortunately, the Bulldogs never really recovered from their opening day loss. They finished tied for last in the SEC West with an overall mark of 4-8 to close out the season.
Sylvester “Sly” Croom had done many great things during his tenure at MSU to turn around a program that had virtually lost control in most areas off the field under former head coach Jackie Sherrill.
However, this step backwards in the performance of the team was the last straw for many alumni and fans. The increasing pressure resulted in the resignation of Coach Croom only five years after he had broken the color barrier for SEC head coaching positions.
As we approach the 2009 rematch in Starkville, the team´s situations and expectations are reversed almost completely from the year prior.
MSU comes into the game with a brand new coaching staff that has worked hard to implement a new offense in the off season. Meanwhile, last year’s overachievers from Georgia hope to build on their successes as they set the ACC title in their sights.
Each team will face stiff conference competition leading to game day in Starkville. State plays a tough three game stretch against Auburn, Vandy, and LSU while Tech will face Clemson, Miami, and UNC.
GT is the early odds on favorite to win based off of last years success and the rebuilding efforts that will be ongoing with MSU.
Tech returns 17 starters and almost every skill position player on offense However, they will have only six scholarship seniors on hand to shore up the team leadership roles. Additionally, Coach Johnson will have to get creative to make up for the lack of depth at some positions.
The offensive line lost All-ACC tackles Andrew Gardner and David Brown, but the returning starters played in several games last year so the experience level is there. They will be led by All-ACC guard Cord Howard and senior center Dan Voss.
At QB, Josh Nesbitt (Jr.) returns after starting 11 games and accounting for 1,501 yards of total offense in 2008. Nesbitt is considered by some to be one of the top dual threat QBs in the ACC. If he can stay healthy, he should be able to build on last year’s offensive momentum.
Behind him on the depth chart is Jaybo Shaw. Shaw first featured his ability to successfully run the triple-option attack in last year’s match with MSU after Nesbitt was injured. The benefit of having two experienced and capable QBs is vital to the triple-option offense where QBs obviously take more hits as they run the option outside.
The experience at QB coupled with the depth and talent at RB, like Dwyer, will definitely aid the efforts of the Tech offense to once again run its way to the top of the ACC rushing charts and cause challenges for the Bulldog defense in Starkville.
The defense has the most rebuilding to accomplish and should be a factor in this year’s game if Mullen and company can identify and exploit its inexperience.
One could expect that a key target for MSU will be to exploit the depleted defensive line. Tech´s D-line only returns one starter from last year’s squad, DE Derrick Morgan (Jr.) (honorable mention All-ACC selection). Tech said good-bye to their three superstar senior All-ACC defensive linemen, Michael Johnson (DE), Darryl Richard (DT) and Vance Walker (DT). All of whom were selected in this year’s NFL Draft.
Positive notes for the defense are its depth at linebacker and the return of
DB Morgan Burnett who tied for first overall in the nation last year with seven interceptions.
By the time the game kicks off in Starkville, many of the leadership questions should be answered. All of last year’s team had the benefit of playing in six games decided by four points or less. Tech came away 5-1 in those games which will serve as a huge confidence boost for this year’s team as evidence that they can win the “close one.”
In spite of the successes that GT experienced last year; the Yellow Jackets will enter this game with a chip on their shoulder against the SEC as they look to avenge themselves after an embarrassing bowl loss to LSU.
Standing in their way will be the future of the Mississippi State Bulldogs and its new group of coaches.
With virtually no where to go but up for the MSU football program, first year head coach Dan Mullen will look to overhaul the Bulldog offense to some version of the spread. Mullen has seen success with his offense at every school at which he has coached. His schemes and play calling have produced an undefeated season at Utah and two BCS national championships at Florida.
Most Bulldog fans were very happy with the hire, but time will tell if their patience to see the offensive transition take place will outlast their impatience to see their program turn around. As we have seen, the spread offense takes certain types of athletes to be successful.
It has seen growing pains under Rich Rodríguez at Michigan and fell flat at Auburn in 2008. With high expectations for the future of the program, most feel that the Dawg fans will wait out the 2-3 recruiting classes it will take to truly run the offense how Coach Mullen envisions it.
Keys for the coaching staff to reverse the outcome of last year’s meeting with GT…STOP THE OPTION ATTACK!!!
It’s simple to say, but hard to execute.
From the start, MSU has a few great benefits to assist them that they did not have last year. First is a complete season of game film that displays the Paul Johnson coached version of the Ramblin’ Wreck. Specifically, they have last year’s game to analyze to see what not to do and then compare it to the LSU-GT tape to see what actually works.
Mullen has brought in Carl Torbush as his defensive coordinator. Torbush has prior SEC experience at Alabama and Ole Miss. His 2002-2003 Crimson Tide defense finished first in the SEC and third nationally in total defense.
However, as he followed Dennis Franchione to Texas A&M, his established defensive success did not follow. He later departed A&M to fill an assistant head coaching position at his alma mater, Division II's Carson-Newman.
Ironically, it is his time at Carson-Newman that may prove the most productive in preparing the Bulldog defense for this year’s rematch with the GT. Carson-Newman still runs a split back veer with great success under long-time head coach Ken Sparks.
Additionally, the school sponsors the the Carson Newman/Sports Belle Football Clinic which is regarded by some option enthusiastic coaches as the best clinic in the country. Assuming Torbush participated in the clinic and took notes from Coach Sparks, it’s very likely that this year’s MSU squad won’t get caught with their pants down again.
Key returnees for MSU that will impact not only the GT game but the entire season are its trio of talented RBs led by Anthony Dixon.
As stated, Mullen will need time to recruit the athletes necessary to run his style of offense as successfully as he has in the past. But, in the meantime, the Bulldog faithful can expect a lot of variations that feature his strengths at tailback while they wait for development at receiver.
This year’s recruiting class was a great start for pulling in the type of players that Mullen wants. With the addition of 6 JUCO transfers, Mullen focused efforts on making as many immediate improvements as he could to increase overall team talent and depth. Of all the incoming class, no expectations are set higher than those for JUCO transfer Pernell McPhee who will play at DE.
It is unrealistic to think that Mullen will experience the same amount of first year success as Paul Johnson. However, we are almost assured of seeing a different style of play and change in attitudes from the Bulldogs.
This year’s game has the potential to be everything that last year’s could have been. We should see a much more prepared MSU defense that will give their new offense a legitimate chance to make plays. But, in the end, the experience and established system of GT will likely win the day.
That said, I’d be very surprised to see the Jackets go into Starkville and expect to receive another 8.5 point spread.
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