10 Signs of Progress for Mississippi State

Brad LockeContributor INovember 6, 2009

LEXINGTON, KY - OCTOBER 31:  Anthony Dixon #24 of  the Mississippi State Bulldogs runs with the ball during the SEC game against the Kentucky Wildcats  at Commonwealth Stadium on October 31, 2009 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Mississippi State's football program has changed in so many ways from last season to this season, that it's kind of hard to count them all. But as we head into a bye week, I've come up with 10 key differences; things that portend a brighter future for the Bulldogs:

Dan Mullen is one high-strung, hyper-focused dude. Sylvester Croom was like the uncle at your family reunion who is friendly enough, but will cuss you out if you suggest that Ford doesn't make the best trucks anymore.

Mullen is like the cousin who swings by Thanksgiving dinner for a few minutes and then takes off to do important things. He never stops moving and can be a bit moody, depending on how his day's going (aren't we all?).

The offensive line can actually block people. Some of that can be attributed to experience and improved chemistry, but all the lineman have cited the offseason workouts implemented by new strength and conditioning coach Matt Balis as a key factor.

Center J.C. Brignone said the work was the toughest he's ever done, but as he told me earlier this season, "We're not here to get patted on the back."

MSU is scoring in different ways. Last season, MSU had zero (zero!) non-offensive touchdowns. This season, the Bulldogs have six such TDs—four on interception returns, one on a kick return, and one on a blocked punt return.

One word: playmakers.

The school record for non-offensive touchdowns in a single season is eight, set by the 1998 team, which won the SEC Western Division title.

This might seem like a little thing, but the few practices I've been to—the media normally get about 15 minutes on Tuesday, that's it—the team stretching is rather light-hearted, but not quite as much as last season. There seems to be a better focus overall by the players and coaches.

Senior tailback Anthony Dixon (pictured above) has fulfilled his full potential. He dropped down to 235 pounds but kept his strength, and he's running with more authority, power, and speed than he ever has.

Through eight games—he was suspended for the season opener—Dixon has gained 1,001 yards and has been running roughshod through the MSU record book.

Thanks in large part to Dixon, the MSU offense has done a near 180-degree turn. The Bulldogs averaged 15.2 points and 276 yards per game last season; right now, they're scoring 26.9 points and gaining 384.7 yards per game.

You've also got to credit Mullen's spread offense and his flexibility when it comes to fitting his schemes to his personnel.

Last season, MSU got outscored in the second half of games by a combined total of 160-88. So far this fall, MSU is winning in the second half, 120-96.

The kicking game has not been the drama-filled distraction it was last year, when kicks were shanked and blocked and a promising kicker, Eric Richards, simply flamed out. True, punter Heath Hutchins has struggled of late, but it's just a slump, and the placekickers have been rock solid.

MSU's pass rush was non-existent last year. State isn't near the top in sacks right now—it's tied for seventh in the SEC with 16—but it has gotten progressively better at pressuring quarterbacks, and end Pernell McPhee is the real deal.

There is a legit quarterback on this team. He's not playing, and probably won't this season, but freshman Tyler Russell is the future of the program and has all the tools to be an elite SEC passer. That doesn't help this season, but it gives the program hope, as do all the other things I've listed.