Bulldogs continue to improve, but challenging division makes a top-25 finish unlikely.
By: Steven Lassan | 5/20/12, 3:25 PM EDT
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#47 Mississippi State
SEC West PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Dan Mullen, 21-17 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Les Koenning | DEF. COORDINATOR: Geoff Collins, Chris Wilson
Tyler Russell has bided his time, dutifully doing as asked. The past two years, he’s shared the position with Chris Relf, playing in an offense that at times was an awkward fit for his abilities. Russell, a fourth-year junior, was the Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior at Meridian High School, and he’s long been expected to give MSU the kind of passing attack it’s not seen since … well, ever. Russell must improve his completion rate, which is 55.1 percent over two seasons. He’s also overcoming a sprained MCL that kept him out of the Music City Bowl win over Wake Forest.
Nearly all the receivers return, although none has proved to be a game-breaker. Seniors Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark and Chris Smith have been productive, but redshirt freshman Joe Morrow (6'4", 205 pounds) could give the Bulldogs the type of downfield threat they have lacked in recent years.
Might this actually be a team known more for passing than running? Maybe, but LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin will present defenses with different looks — with Perkins the speedster and Griffin more of the power back. Griffin (6'0", 225) can make the sharp cuts and pick up yards in big chunks. Perhaps the duo can help fans forget 1,000-yard rusher Vick Ballard.
They’ll run behind an offensive line that has some issues. If junior college transfers Dylan Holley (center) and Charles Siddoway (tackle) pan out, then the Bulldogs should be adequate up front. But this group needs to be better than last season.
Even with several defensive linemen returning, coach Dan Mullen and his staff signed eight at the position in the most recent recruiting class. Most will have to wait their turn, but at least a couple will have a chance to play immediately. Junior college transfer Denico Autry should earn a starting job at defensive end, and he’s expected to be a pass-rushing demon for a team that tied for seventh in the SEC in sacks last season. Josh Boyd leads an inside group that lost big, athletic tackle Fletcher Cox to the NFL but has plenty of capable bodies.
The linebackers will be very active, led by Cam Lawrence (123 tackles) and Deontae Skinner at the outside spots. The secondary is led by top-notch corners Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield, and hard-hitting safety Nickoe Whitley provides insurance on the back end.
Statistically, State was solid against the pass in 2011, but the schedule wasn’t littered with pass-happy opponents. Arkansas torched the Bulldogs for 373 yards through the air in a 44–17 Razorback win in November.
Reliable placekicker Derek DePasquale is gone, and Brian Egan, an unproven commodity, will try to put his strong leg to good use. Punter Baker Swedenburg is a steady player who’s adept at downing the ball inside the 20-yard line. The return game, led by Perkins, Banks and Jameon Lewis, needs to be more explosive. It was one of the most anemic in the country last fall.
Mullen has the best depth and most overall talent he’s had during his tenure in Starkville. The offense, with a true pocket passer under center and more playmakers at wide receiver, should be more balanced, and the defense figures to be stout once again.
But life in the SEC West can be very difficult. The Bulldogs are 0–12 vs. division rivals not named Ole Miss during Mullen’s three seasons. There’s a chance that MSU might be much improved without seeing much progress — if any — in the win column.