2011 Record: (7-6, 2-6 in SEC)
Head Coach: Dan Mullen (21-17 at Miss State, 9-15 in SEC)
Last Bowl Game: 2011 Music City Bowl: beat Wake Forest 23-17
Revenge: 9/8 vs Auburn, 10/27 at Alabama, 11/10 at LSU, 11/17 vs Arkansas
Swing Games: 10/13 vs Tennessee, 11/3 vs Texas A&M, 11/24 at Ole Miss
Stat to Cheer: held opponents to 19.7 points per game (4th in SEC, 16th in Nation)
Stat to Fear: scored TDs on just 55% of red zone trips (9th in SEC, 93rd in Nation); gave up 172 plays of 10 or more yards (10th in SEC)
Phil Steele's Returning Starters: (Offense: 5; Defense: 7; Specialists: 1)
Key Defensive Returnees: LB Cameron Lawrence (123 tackles, 2 INT), CB Johnthan Banks (71 tackles, 5 INT 3 sacks), DT Josh Boyd (51 tackles, 4.5 sacks)
Key Offensive Returnees: QB Tyler Russell (8 TD, 4 INT), RB LaDarius Perkins (422 yds rush), WR Chad Bumphis (25 rec, 3 TD), WR Arceto Clark (30 rec, 4 TD), OG Gabe Jackson
CFBZ: Mississippi State seemed to regress a bit on the offensive side of the football last year. What are the main areas that the Bulldogs need to improve on offense in 2012?
Brad Locke: MSU needs to, and is expected to, improve in the passing game. Tyler Russell takes over full-time quarterback duties, and he's a much more polished passer than Chris Relf ever was. Coaches have talked openly about this being a more vertical offense, and Dan Mullen's schemes will be tailored more toward Russell's strengths. A deep, experienced receiving corps peppered with young talent should be better utilized with Russell at the helm. The biggest question on offense is the line, which battled injuries and ineffectiveness last year. Gabe Jackson anchors it at left guard, and if right guard Tobias Smith can remain healthy and center Dillon Day continues on his development track, MSU should be very strong on the inside. The tackles are another question, and MSU enters camp unsettled at both spots.
CFBZ: What are the biggest reasons to be optimistic about Mississippi State football in 2012?
Brad Locke: You start with Russell and his potential. The Mississippi Gatorade player of the year as a senior at Meridian High School, Russell has shown enough of his ability in two years as a part-timer to engender high expectations from coaches, teammates and fans. This should be the most balanced offense Mullen has fielded, with a committee of backs expected to ease the loss of 1,100-yard rusher Vick Ballard. The defense, for the first time since Ellis Johnson left, has the same defensive coordinator as the year before (Chris Wilson), and this looks like the deepest defense MSU has had in years. The loss of Fletcher Cox up front won't be as keenly felt as people might think, and the secondary is led by one of the nation's top cornerbacks, Johnthan Banks.
CFBZ: Who are some under the radar players to keep an eye on this year?
Brad Locke: A lot of hype has surrounded redshirt freshman receiver Joe Morrow, a big target who's expected to stretch defenses. He's the kind of receiver MSU has not had in years, and he seems a good match for Russell's strong arm and ability to make all types of throws. On defense, look for end Denico Autry – one of the top juco players in the country last year – to keep opposing QBs on their toes.
CFBZ: What is your gut feeling on the final record for the 2012 season and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
Brad Locke: Mullen would tell you that the only goal that matters is winning the SEC Western Division. That's not going to happen, but MSU should be able to pull out eight wins, maybe even nine. The front end of the schedule is very favorable, with four soft non-conference games mixed in with home games against Auburn and Tennessee and a road trip to Kentucky. The back end of the schedule is brutal: at Alabama, vs. Texas A&M, at LSU, vs. Arkansas, at Ole Miss. The Bulldogs say they're better equipped to compete with the likes of Alabama and LSU than they have been the first three years under Mullen. Pulling off an upset against one of those teams would change not only the course of this season, it could take this program to that next level it's striving for.
Coming off of a 9-4 season in 2010, expectations were sky high for Mississippi State. So high that we even had the Bulldogs picked in our Top 15 in the pre-season. Things didn't turn out as expected as Mullen's crew struggled to find themselves on offense (44 less yards per game, 3.7 less points per game). It was really a case of feast or famine for the Bulldogs as they scored 34.7 ppg in their wins and only 14.3 in their losses. A closer look will tell you that the Bulldogs only beat one team last year that finished the season with a winning record (Louisiana Tech) and five of their six losses came against teams that were ranked in the Top 25 at the time of the game.
The schedule this year is a little more favorable as the Bulldogs trade Georgia and South Carolina for Tennessee and Texas A&M and keep the Kentucky game as their cross-division rival. That by itself could be a two game swing in the win column for the Bulldogs as they play host to both the Vols and the Aggies. Last year, DC Manny Diaz moved on to Texas but the team actually had pretty much the same numbers as they did with Diaz. This year the Bulldogs look to continue their solid defense and improve on the offensive side of the football.
Tyler Russell will take over full time and the hope is that he will bring a more consistent passing game. From 2010 to 2011, Russell's completion percentage actually dipped about five points so that's a concern but the sample size from 2010 wasn't very large. The concern for me would be that in six of the eight games that Russell played he completed 55% or less of his passes. Maybe we can chalk that up to the funk that the offense seemed to be in last year. In 2010, the running game really clicked for the Bulldogs but the same magic wasn't there in 2011. LaDarius Perkins will lead a group of backs that hope to get the team back on track on the ground. One concern, as Brad mentioned in our Q&A, is that the OL is not very experienced and according to Phil Steele is one of the three least experienced lines in the SEC.
The schedule sets up very nicely for Mississippi State. Worst case scenario should see them at 5-2 in their first seven games. Dan Mullen lost a little bit of his "mystique" last year with a couple of questionable calls (the Auburn game says hello) and without any signature wins but I think he gets the team back on track this year and will push to be at the top of that second tier of teams in the SEC West.
2012 Prediction: 8-4
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