Philadelphia, PA – 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: Considering how much fanfare the Mississippi State Bulldogs had coming into 2011, its hard to consider last season being anything but a disappointment.
Mississippi State started the year in the preseason Top-25 and following a week-one win at Memphis, rose up to No. 16. In the end however, the brutal SEC schedule ended up doing the team in, with losses coming at Auburn (41-34), Georgia (24-10) and Arkansas (44-17), and at home versus LSU (19-6), South Carolina (14-12) and Alabama (24-7).
The Dan Mullen-led Bulldogs finished the regular season with a 6-6 record (2-6 in the SEC), just barely making them eligible for a bowl game. They were invited to the Music City Bowl, where they managed to salvage their season somewhat by defeating Wake Forest, 23-17.
OFFENSE: Although averaging 25.5 points and 355 yard per game seem like positive numbers, they were simply middle-of-the-road stats in the SEC in 2011.
Chris Relf and Tyler Russell split time under center a year ago, and the two combined for some very respectable numbers (2,246 yards, 18 touchdowns, 13 interceptions). With Relf gone, the responsibility of direction the MSU offensive falls to Russell, and Mullen is excited to see what he can do with the job.
"I think there's a great deal of trust between (Russell) and our coaching staff that he knows we're going to turn the keys over to him, put it on his shoulders, let him go, give him control of the offense, have a lot of input in decision making, give him a lot of freedom in play-calling at the line of scrimmage, to put a lot on him that way that there is that trust in him." Mullen said. "I give him credit because he's developed himself to be ready to be in that role right now."
The return of the Bulldogs' top three receivers will surely help Russell in his transition to full-time starter, as Chris Smith (330 yards, 2 TDs), Arceto Clark (442 yards, 4 TDs) and Chad Bumphis (339 yards, 3 TDs) have all been reliable options over the course of their careers.
The loss of Vick Ballard (1,228 yards, 10 TDs) will certainly hurt the running game, but Ladarius Perkins hopes that his insertion into the starting lineup means a big jump in production from his 452 yards and 2 touchdowns from a season ago. Perkins will almost certainly benefit from a veteran offensive line, which features the return of starters Blaine Clausell, Gabe Jackson and Dillon Day.
DEFENSE: Mississippi State lived by a bend-don't-break style of defense last year, which resulted in an average yield of 355.9 yards and 19.9 points per game.
The strength of the unit is in the secondary, led by cornerback Johnthan Banks, who had a sensational junior campaign with 71 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 5 interceptions. He had an opportunity to leave early for the NFL but opted to stay at Mississippi State for his senior season. Corey Broomfield (59 tackles) and Nickoe Whitley (34 tackles, 4 interceptions) also return to a defensive backfield, which should be even better than last season.
Linebackers Cameron Lawrence (123 tackles, 2 interceptions) and Deontae Skinner (69 tackles, 9 tackles for loss) anchor a solid linebacking corps, while Josh Boyd (51 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks) and Kaleb Eulls (30 tackles) bring experience to the defensive line.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Placekicker Derek DePasquale was shaky a season ago, making only 12 of his 18 field goal attempts. He went just 2-of-6 from 40 yards and beyond, with his longest being 42 yards. Baker Swedenburg had plenty of opportunities to punt in 2011, finishing with an average of 41.8 yards on 71 total punts.
Speedster Jameon Lewis returned the majority of the kickoffs last season as a freshman, and with Perkins taking over as the featured tailback, Lewis' chances figure to go up in 2012.
OUTLOOK: While Mississippi State's schedule is once again tough, it seems to be much easier than it was last year. In their first seven games, the Bulldogs go on the road to play Troy and Kentucky and face Auburn, Jackson State, South Alabama, Middle Tennessee and Tennessee at home. While there are no gimmes in the bunch, it is conceivable that they start out 5-2 or even better.
The road gets tougher as they take on Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU and Arkansas in succession before finishing off with Ole Miss in the regular-season finale. The loss of a few key players aside, MSU has positioned itself for improvement in 2012, and Mullen is anxious for his boys to start proving themselves.
"I think the future is really bright for us as we continue to strive to build a championship program, to build a team that can consistently win and consistently have the opportunity to compete for championships within the Southeastern Conference," he said. "It's been exciting. I can't wait to get the season rolling."