Ten Things Mississippi State Must Do to Be a Contender in the SEC
The upcoming season holds a lot of promise for Dan Mullen and his Mississippi State Bulldogs. They return seven starters on offense and seven on defense from a 9-4 team that ended the 2010 season with a 52-14 destruction of Michigan in the Gator Bowl. There has not been this much buzz around the program in quite some time, and the Bulldogs hope to continue to build on their recent success. Here are some things that they will need to do in order to continue to climb the conference ranks, as well as, the national ranks:
Relf Must Roll
Before spring training opened up in Starkville, Dan Mullen stated that all the starting positions were up for grabs. That may be true, but look for Chris Relf to retain the job of starting quarterback. Relf returns as one of the most experienced players in the SEC at the quarterback position. Last season, he threw for 1,789 yards with 13 touchdowns and only six picks while rushing for 713 yards and five touchdowns. Relf is a big quarterback (6’4", 240 lbs) who is extremely athletic with quick feet and a strong arm. He became more consistent throwing the ball towards the end of the season, as he averaged 264 yards through the air in the last three games, while completing 70 percent of his passes during that stretch. If the Bulldogs want to be a legitimate contender in the cut throat SEC West, Relf will need to play big time football.
Fill in the Holes at the Linebacker Positions
The Bulldog defense returns seven starters which sounds great. However, upon a closer look you will see that they lost all three starting linebackers. This loss really hurts considering the play of the linebackers last season, most notably Chris White. Clearly, these three linebackers were the backbone of last season’s defense. Mississippi State does not return much experience at this position, yet the addition of Clemson transfer, Brandon Maye, should be an asset to the defense. Maye, a 6'2", 235-pound senior, was a three-year starter for the Tigers and will give the Bulldogs an immediate boost. The play of their linebackers is extremely important. All the new faces will need to step up and play like their predecessors.
Win the Close Ones
There are a couple of games from last season that the Bulldogs would love to have back. They lost a close one to the eventual national champion Auburn Tigers, in which they held Cam Newton and company to a season-low 17 points. They also suffered a heart-breaking double-overtime loss to the Arkansas Razorbacks. Both of those games were against excellent teams. By avoiding small mistakes, Mississippi State could have won either one of those games. The Bulldogs were 10 points away from wins over top-tier teams and an 11-win season. If State wants to make the next jump in this conference, they must find a way to win the close games.
Unleash the Running Backs
Mississippi State returns a three-headed monster in their running game that consists of quarterback Chris Relf, senior running back Vick Ballard and rising sophomore LaDarius Perkins. Ballard led the team last season with 968 yards on the ground, along with 19 touchdowns. Chris Relf was second on the team in rushing with 713 yards and five touchdowns. LaDarius Perkins rushed for 566 yards and three touchdowns on an impressive campaign as a true freshman. They could all have bigger seasons in 2011. Relf improved greatly as the 2010 season progressed and should continue to get better throughout spring training. Senior Vick Ballard will more than likely eclipse the 1000-yard mark that so narrowly eluded him last year. Perkins should see an increase in his numbers and get the ball in his hands more often since he has shown his potential to be a solid, versatile back. Mullen has a talented stable of running backs and should let them run wild this year.
Take Advantage of the Schedule
In case you did not know, the SEC West is the best division in the best conference in college football. When your schedule routinely includes Alabama, Auburn, Arkansas and LSU, you are not allowed a chance to breathe as far as scheduling goes. If you get the fortune of playing three of the toughest teams on your schedule at home, you have to capitalize on that. State plays host to South Carolina, LSU and Alabama, which does not guarantee a win, but it could definitely play a factor. A win against any of these teams would be a huge victory, as all three are expected to win or compete for the conference title. State must get through the best teams to get the top of the conference. It certainly does not hurt that they get most of the big boys at home.
Get the Ball to Perkins
Last season, LaDarius Perkins quietly amassed 813 yards of total offense and six total touchdowns as a true freshman. What’s amazing is that Perkins did this while competing in a backfield that had some depth. He shared the backfield with the aforementioned Ballard and Relf, as well as running back Robert Elliot. Perkins showed that he can catch just as well as he can run, especially in the last two games when he compiled 219 of his 247 receiving yards. Now that he has shown what he can do with the ball, he must get the ball more. He’s on the smaller side at 5'10" and 190 pounds, but is speedy and can make good cuts, while showing some nice field vision, as well. Mullen knows that he has to get the ball in Perkins’ hands a lot more this year.
Fill the Hole at Left Tackle
A lot of the credit for State’s offensive production goes to their offensive line, especially Derek Sherrod. Sherrod was an All-SEC offensive tackle who most figure to be drafted in the first or second round of the upcoming NFL draft. He also started 34 games for the Bulldogs while playing in 46 games total. The Bulldogs lost a very productive and a well experienced player in Sherrod. Replacing a player like him is hard, but State has to if they want their offense to continue to improve. Looking to fill the important spot of left tackle is James Carmon, a massive converted defensive tackle. The good thing is that Carmon has a little bit of time to work on his game before the position must be filled. The play at this position will be something to keep an eye on.
Chris Wilson Must Build on the Success of Manny Diaz
Manny Diaz had a short, but successful run as the Bulldogs defensive coordinator and was lured away for the same position at Texas to be Will Muschamp’s successor. Under Diaz, the defense improved tremendously and was ranked in the top 25 in several defensive categories. Chris Wilson, former Bulldogs defensive line coach and defensive co-coordinator, will now be calling the plays for the defense. There are seven starters returning on that side of the ball. Unfortunately since all three starting linebackers are gone, along with standout DE Pernell McPhee, Wilson has a challenge in front of him with some pretty big shoes to fill. He must build on the success of Manny Diaz.
Chad Bumphis Must Stay Healthy
The No. 1 receiving target for Chris Relf is the speedy, versatile junior Chad Bumphis. Last season, he led the team in catches (44), receiving yards (634) and receiving touchdowns (5) to go along with 131 rushing yards. He also plays a prominent role in the return game for the Bulldogs. Bumphis missed the bowl game destruction of Michigan with a broken collarbone suffered in the regular-season finale against Ole Miss, but is fully recovered and participating in spring drills. He will need to remain healthy in order to be a downfield threat when the opposing teams put seven or eight men in the box to slow down the potent run game.
Take It One Week at a Time
Sure, it’s a cliché mantra, but when your team is expected to challenge for a conference championship then it’s a cliché that should be drilled into the heads of the coaches and players alike. State cannot get caught looking ahead any this season. If they do, they could stumble and fall. Some potential pitfalls for the Bulldogs include a season opener on the road at Memphis that is followed by a road trip to Auburn. State wants to avenge their close loss to Auburn from a year ago and cannot afford to overlook Memphis. Another game that should not be overlooked is the game at UAB, followed by a game against South Carolina in Starkville. If the Bulldogs want to avoid some embarrassing losses, they definitely need to focus on their season one game at a time.