By DUGAN ARNETT
Transition period? What transition period?
Former Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen wasted little time getting settled in his new post as head coach of the Mississippi State football team, leading the Bulldogs to five victories in ’09 – one more than the team had the previous season – and concluding the year with a lopsided 41-27 Egg Bowl victory over Ole Miss in which quarterback Chris Relf, a junior-to-be, rushed for 131 yards and a score to go along with a pair of passing touchdowns.
Mullen’s promising inaugural campaign has paved the way for the Bulldogs’ obvious – and presumably achievable – goal entering the 2010 season: Become bowl eligible for the first time since ’07.
Whether or not they’ll be able to do that, however, should depend largely on its ability to build upon last season’s success, as well as overcome inexperience at a number of key positions.
Despite Relf’s promising performance in the season finale, he threw just 41 total passes last season and will have to prove he deserves the starting spot over Tyler Russell, a red-shirt freshman who threw for 3,284 yards and 40 touchdowns (with just five interceptions) to earn Parade Magazine all-American honors during his senior year at Meridian (Miss.) High School. The Bulldogs finished a dismal 113th in the nation in passing offense a year ago (144.3 yards per game), tossing 17 interceptions in just 266 pass attempts, and improving greatly upon that ranking will be key if the program is to secure its second winning season in the past 10 years.
Making an improved passing game more integral is the departure of standout running back Anthony Dixon, who rushed for 1,391 yards last season to finish second in the SEC behind Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram of Alabama.
For a team hoping to spread the ball around, meanwhile, Mississippi State is noticeably thin at the receiver position. Sophomore Chad Bumphis should be the key cog in the offense after finishing as the team’s leading receiver a year ago (32 catches, 375 yards, four touchdowns), and junior tight end Marcus Green, the team’s second-leading receiver last year with 27 receptions for 306 yards and three scores, should also factor greatly into the team’s passing game.
From there, it’s unclear who will step into prominent roles.
What does bode well for the Bulldogs is their talent on both the offensive and defensive lines. Four of the five members of last year’s offensive front, which paved the way for the nation’s ninth-best rushing attack (227.6 yards per game), return this season, including senior left tackle and all-SEC candidate Derek Sherrod, while senior defensive end Pernell McPhee (56 tackles, a team-high 12 tackles for loss and five sacks) leads a defensive front that showed flashes of promise a season ago.
Additionally, sophomore defensive backs Corey Broomfield and Johnthan Banks combined for 10 interceptions a year ago, and the team’s linebacking corps of Chris White, K.J. Wright and Cameron Lawrence should benefit from new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz’s aggressive style.
The Bulldogs played Florida, LSU and Houston relatively close last season and won the games on their schedule they were supposed to win (along with one or two they probably weren’t).
With the exception of Houston, they should be favored in each of their four non-conference games this season, meaning that if they can pull out another three wins against SEC foes – Kentucky, Auburn and Ole Miss would appear to present the best chances for victory – they’ll be in prime position to make their goal of bowl eligibility a reality.
FLORIDA’S FOES: Mississippi State / Saturday, Oct. 16 / Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gainesville, Fla. / TBD
Location: Starkville, Miss. Conference: Southeastern (West Division). Nickname: Bulldogs. Stadium: Davis Wade Stadium (55,082). Debut season/Overall record: 1895 / 490-534-39.
Head coach: Dan Mullen (Ursinus College, 1994).
Record at Mississippi State (Years)/Overall (Years): 5-7 (1) / 5-7 (1).
Staff: Manny Diaz, defensive coordinator/linebackers (Florida State, 1995); John Hevesy, offensive line/running game (Maine, 1994); Mark Hudspeth, wide receivers/passing game (Delta State, 1992); Tony Hughes, safeties/recruiting coordinator (Southern Mississippi, 1980); Greg Knox, running backs (Northeastern State, 1986); Les Koenning, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks (Texas, 1981); Scott Sallach, tight ends (Ursinus College, 1994); Melvin Smith, cornerbacks/nickelbacks (Millsaps, 1982); Chris Wilson, co-defensive coordinator/defensive line (Oklahoma, 1992); Matt Balis, strength coach (Northern Illinois, 1996).
Basic offense: Spread. Basic defense: 4-3.
Starters back/lost: 14/10. Offense: 6/5; Defense: 6/5; Kicker/punter: 2/0.
Top players returning: Junior QB Chris Relf 22-of-41 passing, 283 passing yards, 500 rushing yards, 7 total touchdowns; sophomore WR Chad Bumphis 32 catches, 375 yards, 4 touchdowns; senior LB K.J. Wright 82 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks; senior LT Derek Sherrod; senior DE Pernell McPhee 56 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 8 quarterback hurries; sophomore DT Fletcher Cox 29 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss; junior SS Charles Mitchell 64 tackles, 4 interceptions, 1 forced fumble.
Did you know? The Bulldogs made Sylvester Croom the first black coach in SEC history in 2003, when he was hired to replace longtime coach Jackie Sherrill. Croom was named the SEC coach of the year in 2007 after leading the Bulldogs to an eight-win season.
Sept. 4 (Saturday) / MEMPHIS / Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, Miss. / TBD
Sept. 9 (Thursday) / AUBURN (SEC) / Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, Miss. / 6:30 p.m. / ESPN
Sept. 18 (Saturday) / at Louisiana State (SEC) / Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La. / TBD
Sept. 25 (Saturday) / GEORGIA (SEC) / Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, Miss. / TBD
Oct. 2 (Saturday) / ALCORN STATE / Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, Miss. / TBD
Oct. 9 (Saturday) / at Houston / Robertson Stadium, Houston, Texas / TBD
Oct. 16 (Saturday) / at Florida (SEC) / Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gainesville, Fla. / TBD
Oct. 23 (Saturday) / UAB / Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, Miss. / TBD
Oct. 30 (Saturday) / KENTUCKY (SEC) / Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, Miss. / TBD
Nov. 13 (Saturday) / at Alabama (SEC) / Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, Ala. / TBD
Nov. 20 (Saturday) / ARKANSAS (SEC) / Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, Miss. / TBD
Nov. 27 (Saturday) / at Mississippi (SEC) / Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Oxford, Miss. / TBD
Dec. 4 (Saturday) / SEC Championship / Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga. / CBS / TBD
Sept. 5 (Saturday) / JACKSON STATE / W, 45-7 / Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, Miss. / 1-0 (0-0 SEC)
Sept. 12 (Saturday) / at Auburn (SEC) / L, 24-49 / Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, Ala. / 1-1 (0-1 SEC)
Sept. 19 (Saturday) / at Vanderbilt (SEC) / W, 15-3 / Vanderbilt Stadium, Nashville, Tenn. / 2-1 (1-1 SEC)
Sept. 26 (Saturday) / Louisiana State (SEC) / L, 26-30 / Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, Miss. / 2-2 (1-2 SEC)
Oct. 3 (Saturday) / GEORGIA TECH / L, 31-42 / Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, Miss. / 2-3 (1-2 SEC)
Oct. 10 (Saturday) / HOUSTON / L, 24-31 / Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, Miss. / 2-4 (1-2 SEC)
Oct. 17 (Saturday) / at Middle Tennessee / W, 27-6 / Floyd Stadium, Murfreesboro, Tenn. / 3-4 (1-2 SEC)
Oct. 24 (Saturday) / FLORIDA (SEC) / L, 19-29 / Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, Miss. / 3-5 (1-3 SEC)
Oct. 31 (Saturday) / at Kentucky (SEC) / W, 31-24 / Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington, Ken. / 4-5 (2-3 SEC)
Nov. 14 (Saturday) / ALABAMA (SEC) / L, 3-31 / Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, Miss. / 4-6 (2-4 SEC)
Nov. 21 (Saturday) / at Arkansas (SEC) / L, 21-42 / War Memorial Stadium, Little Rock, Ark. / 4-7 (2-5 SEC)
Nov. 28 (Saturday) / MISSISSIPPI (SEC) / W, 41-27 / Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, Miss. / 5-7 (3-5 SEC)