For openers, Bulldogs look like a contender

Dan Mullen could do without the suspensions and some of the sloppiness early in the game.

Otherwise, No.20-ranked Mississippi State looked the part of a legitimate Western Division contender on Thursday night in the Bulldogs’ season opener.

There is a caveat.

Mississippi State’s 59-14 season-opening rout came over Memphis, which was arguably the worst FBS team in the country last season. The Tigers didn’t look like they’d done much to shake that dubious distinction on Thursday at the Liberty Bowl.

Then again, the Bulldogs had a lot to do with that.

Playing without suspended defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who missed the game along with four other players for violating team rules, Mississippi State picked up offensively where it left off last season in the 52-14 Gator Bowl dismantling of Michigan.

In their last two games, the Bulldogs have scored a total of 111 points and piled up 1,130 yards in total offense.

Senior quarterback Chris Relf looked sharp both throwing and running the ball. It’s amazing how much more touch he has on his passes now, and he knows where to go with the football.

Again, Memphis isn’t going to be confused any time soon for an SEC defense, but it looks like Mississippi State will be even more explosive than a year ago.

The Bulldogs, in rolling up a school-record 645 yards of total offense, had six touchdown plays that were longer than 25 yards, and their average scoring drive lasted a whopping 68 seconds.

Senior running back Vick Ballard vowed this preseason that he was going to get to 1,000 yards this season after just missing a year ago. He’s off to a rousing start with a career-high 166 yards in the opener on 10 carries. He scored three touchdowns, one a 66-yard sprint and another a 46-yard jaunt.

Ballard, one of the more underrated players in college football, has played in 13 career games at Mississippi State, and in five of those games, he’s scored at least three touchdowns.

The Bulldogs also may have found a new offensive toy. Redshirt freshman Jameon Lewis was a disaster when it came to fielding punts, but his game-changing speed makes him somebody you want to get the ball to on offense. The 5-9, 185-pound receiver caught an 80-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Tyler Russell and also rushed 19 yards for a touchdown on a sweep.

The real season starts now for Mississippi State, which gets a few extra days to prepare for its SEC opener against Auburn on the road on Sept. 10.