|Quarterback Chris Relf :: Tyler Kaufman/Icon SMI|
After Mississippi State finished the 2010 season by bludgeoning Michigan in the Gator Bowl and landing the No. 15 spot in the final AP poll, coach Dan Mullen feared his team might not understand that it now had to work harder to maintain a lofty ranking than it had to attain one. Then Mullen realized he could eliminate complacency by reminding the Bulldogs to check the '10 SEC West standings instead of that national poll. "Fifth place is not where we want to be," Mullen says. "Our goal is to win the SEC West. We're pretty far from that."
In any other league Mississippi State would be on the short list of title contenders. In the SEC West, where Alabama and LSU probably will start 2011 in the top five nationally and Arkansas in the top 15, the Bulldogs face a steep climb.
To keep his players on edge, Mullen will conduct competition for jobs into the preseason. Even QB Chris Relf, who seemed to solidify his starting slot with excellent games against Arkansas, Ole Miss and Michigan to close 2010, isn't safe: Mullen says Tyler Russell and Dylan Favre will have a chance to win the job. If Relf does start, Mississippi State will be nearly intact at the skill positions, bringing back its top three rushers (Vick Ballard, Relf and LaDarius Perkins) and top four receivers (Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark, Brandon Heavens and Chris Smith).Meanwhile the defense must replace its top two tacklers (linebackers Chris White and K.J. Wright) and its wunderkind co-coordinator, Manny Diaz, whose innovative schemes helped the Bulldogs jump from 71st in the nation in scoring defense in 2009 to 21st in '10. (Diaz left Starkville to become the defensive coordinator at Texas.) Geoff Collins, hired from Florida International to take Diaz's place as linebackers coach and co-coordinator, hopes three productive starters will emerge from a linebacking group that includes junior Cameron Lawrence, senior Brandon Wilson, sophomore Chris Hughes and Clemson transfer Brandon Maye.The good news is that Collins and his predecessor have similar philosophies, and whenever Collins needs guidance, he calls Diaz. "Within five minutes we're getting everything on the same page," Collins says. "It was an easy, smooth transition." The Bulldogs hope a transition from SEC West also-ran to contender can be equally smooth.
Can the inexperienced skill players take another step forward and lift the Bulldogs' point production?
95.8 -- Avergae yards by which the Bulldogs outrushed opponents in 2010, the second-best differential in the SEC.
Chad Bumphis, WR, Jr. -- If QB Chris Relf remains as consistent as he was at season's end, Bumphis could well exceed the 634 receiving yards he put up in 2010. The speedy, athletic Bumphis is Mississippi State's top playmaker. Fletcher Cox, DT, Jr. -- The 6-4, 300-pounder won't rack up a ton of tackles in Mississippi State's defense, but if he does his job, the men behind and around him will. Cox's quickness should force opposing offensive lines to pay so much attention to him that the Bulldogs' linebackers have a chance to make plays. Charles Mitchell, SS, Sr. -- Mississippi State's top returning tackler (93 in 2010) will also be a captain this season, and he anchors one of the SEC's most experienced secondaries.Chris Relf, QB, Sr. -- Relf came into his own during the Bulldogs' final three games in 2010, completing 51 of 73 passes for 793 yards and six touchdowns with just two interceptions (182.8 passer rating). During the same span he averaged 66.3 rushing yards per game. Vick Ballard, RB, Sr. -- The juco transfer burst onto the scene last season, piling up 968 rushing yards on 5.2 yards per carry. With 19 touchdowns on 186 carries, he scored on more than 10 percent of his runs last season.
Cameron Lawrence, LB, Jr. -- As a freshman in 2009, Lawrence practiced at quarterback, receiver, safety and linebacker. He settled in at outside linebacker as a sophomore, but he spent the season as a backup. Mississippi State's most versatile athlete, the 6-2, 225-pound Lawrence will be a starter this season. Expect him to show that linebacker is where he belongs.
Dee Arrington, DB, Fr. -- This 6-2, 210-pounder from Wiggins, Miss., was a Parade All-America selection who made 121 tackles as a senior at Stone High. Lining up at running back, Arrington rushed for 1,105 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2010. This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' SEC Preview.