MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
Record: 6-6, 2-6 SEC
Looking back, maybe the expectations were too high for Mississippi State in Dan Mullen’s third season in Starkville.
The Bulldogs were coming off a nine-win season, including a rout of Michigan in the Gator Bowl, and the buzz around the program was that maybe this was the season they made a run at an SEC championship or at least made some noise in the Western Division race.
It wasn’t to be, as Mississippi State simply couldn’t come up with enough key plays in close losses to Auburn and South Carolina and couldn’t take advantage of a stellar defensive effort against LSU. The Tigers held on to beat the Bulldogs 19-6 in a Thursday night game the third week of the season.
The end result was a 6-6 season that could have easily been another eight-win campaign in the regular season had the Bulldogs made a few more plays.
There weren’t any signature wins in 2011, although Mississippi State took care of arch-rival Ole Miss for the third straight season.
The frustrating part offensively was that more playmakers didn’t emerge. Senior Chris Relf started the season at quarterback, but sophomore Tyler Russell wound up being the more effective passer. Redshirt freshman Dylan Favre also played some at quarterback toward the end of the season.
Defensively, the Bulldogs were one of five SEC units to hold opponents to fewer than 20 points per game and allowed more than 17 only twice in their last seven games.
Offensive MVP: Running back Vick Ballard. After finishing just shy of 1,000 yards a season ago, Ballard surpassed that figure this season with 1,009 rushing yards. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry and scored nine touchdowns. The Bulldogs experienced their struggles on offense, but Ballard was their most consistent weapon and finished fourth in the SEC in rushing.
Defensive MVP: Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. After starting the season a tad slow, Cox came on to have an All-SEC season for the Bulldogs and was a force in the middle. The 6-4, 295-pound junior led the team with 12.5 tackles for loss, all coming in SEC games, which tied him for second in the league.
Turning point: Who knows what would have happened had Relf not come up a foot short of the goal line in that Auburn game the second week of the season? It was a tough loss for Mississippi State to swallow and sort of set the tone for the Bulldogs coming up just short.
What’s next: Just like a year ago at this time, there are reports that Mullen might be in play elsewhere. Penn State is reportedly interested. For his part, Mullen says he’s focused solely on Mississippi State, which is headed to its second straight bowl game and will face Wake Forest in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl on Dec. 30 in Nashville. The next challenge for the program is breaking through in the West. Mullen has just three wins over Western Division foes since taking the job in 2009. Of course, the good news for the Bulldogs is that all three wins are against Ole Miss.