2010 overall record: 9-4
2010 conference record: 4-4
Offense: 8; Defense: 7; Kicker/punter: 0
OT Derek Sherrod, C J.C. Brignone, TE Brandon Henderson, DE Pernell McPhee, LB Emmanuel Gatling, LB Chris White, LB K.J. Wright
2010 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Vick Ballard* (968 yards)
Passing: Chris Relf* (1,789 yards)
Receiving: Chad Bumphis* (634 yards)
Tackles: Chris White (110)
Sacks: Chris White (6)
Interceptions: Johnthan Banks*, Corey Broomfield*, Nickoe Whitley* (3)
1. Relf ready for next step: Last season, quarterback Chris Relf proved he’s a dynamic runner, but toward the end of the year he also showed that he could be strong passer. Relf finished the season passing for more than 200 yards in each of his last three games and the Bulldogs went 2-1 during that span. Coach Dan Mullen has repeatedly said the quarterback position is wide open, but don’t be fooled. Relf had a very good spring and it would be a real shocker if he weren’t the starter this fall.
2. Depth at receiver: Relf will have plenty of options in the passing game this fall. Chad Bumphis is the star of the receiving group, but the Bulldogs developed some nice depth at receiver this spring. Junior Arceto Clark continued to impress, and Chris Smith and Ricco Sanders proved to be reliable targets. Mullen has said that he would like to rotate 10 receivers into games and he’s not only got the depth, but the talent to effectively do that this fall.
3. Strong secondary: Mississippi State lost just one player from its secondary and returned five players that started at some point a year ago. Johnthan Banks, Corey Broomfield and Nickoe Whitley all grabbed three interceptions and recorded 50-plus tackles in 2010. While the Bulldogs look to replace three starting linebackers, expect the defense to lean on its secondary to make plays this season. Making things more convenient is that each player as the ability to play in the box and has a knack for making big plays.
1. Finding linebackers: While most of the pieces returned on offense this spring, there are gaping holes at linebacker. The Bulldogs lost three – Chris White, Emmanuel Gatling and K.J. Wright – and must start over at the position. The toughest to replace is White, who led the Bulldogs with 110 total tackles and six sacks in 2010. Cameron Lawrence, has two years of experience in Mississippi State’s defense and should be in charge of directing the linebackers. Behind him, Brandon Wilson and Chris Hughes combined for 30 total tackles last season, but have yet to make an impact.
2. Offensive line holes: Mississippi State might have the pieces needed to have an even more explosive offense this fall, but there is a little concern with the bodies up front. Guard Tobias Smith did very little this spring after having shoulder surgery in January and the Bulldogs must replace left tackle Derek Sherrod. The battle for that spot wasn’t decided this spring with sophomore Blaine Clausell and senior James Carmon working there the most. Clausell has the most experience, while Carmon moved from defense before spring. Mississippi State must also replace J.C. Brignone at center.
3. Dealing with the hype machine: For the first time in a long time, expectations are high for the Bulldogs. Mississippi State enters the season as a popular dark horse pick in the SEC. There’s a ton of speed and athleticism on offense and defense, but it’s tough to say if the Bulldogs will be able to keep up with Alabama, LSU and Arkansas this fall. Also, the Bulldogs no longer have the element of surprise on their side. After throttling Michigan in the Gator Bowl, no team will be overlooking the Bulldogs this fall. Whether Mississippi State can handle the hype is yet to be determined.