20th-ranked Bulldogs battle Tigers to kick off 2011 campaign

Larry Porter's first season in Memphis did not ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

Memphis' lone win from a year ago came in the team's third matchup, as the Tigers narrowly defeated Middle Tennessee, 24-17. After that victory the team stumbled through its last nine games, with eight of those losses coming by double digits.

As for the Bulldogs, they are coming off a promising campaign, and it seems as if the Dan Mullen regime in Starkville is going to pay off early on. After leading the Bulldogs to a 5-7 slate in his first season, coach Mullen led the Bulldogs to a nine-win campaign in 2010. The Bulldogs are ranked in the Top 25 to start a season for the first time since 2001 and should be considered a threat in the SEC this year.

The Tigers should definitely worry about the prospect of playing the revamped Bulldogs, because Mississippi State has enjoyed a tremendous amount of success against Memphis, especially over the past couple of decades. Currently, the Bulldogs own a 32-11 edge over the Tigers in the all-time series, and that includes an 11-game win streak. The most recent win came last season, as the Bulldogs routed the Tigers in Starkville by a 49-7 margin.

Last year the Bulldogs were not secretive about their offensive gameplan as they were going to run, and run often. With the return of Vick Ballard, it will be more of the same. The senior tailback was a big part of the SEC's second-best rushing attack (214.9 ypg) in 2010, and even though he did not eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau (968 yards), he managed to find the end zone 19 times. Ballard should eclipse 1,000 yards this year, but a repeat of his 19- touchdown effort might be too much to ask.

However, Ballard does not need to shoulder the entire load for Mississippi State, as LaDarius Perkins is back for MSU, along with quarterback Chris Relf.

Perkins rumbled for 566 yards on an impressive 5.9 yards per carry last year and should see a substantial increase in his workload as a sophomore. As for Relf, he is the perfect quarterback for this system. The senior only threw 13 touchdowns a year ago, but more importantly he tossed just six interceptions. His ability to take care of the football will be crucial for the team's success in 2011.

Add in his ability to run the football (713 rushing yards in '10), and Relf gives the Bulldogs a three-pronged attack out of the backfield.

"I've got a good running ability and a good throwing ability," says Relf. "I stayed up there in May instead of going home just working on my quickness to develop myself as a quarterback."

If all three players can continue their success, coach Mullen could possess the best ground game in the SEC in 2011.

What made the rushing attack of Mississippi State work so well in 2010 was the play of the defense, which held the opposition to under 20.0 ppg. For any team that insists on pounding the football for four quarters a sturdy and consistent defense is a must.

MSU held the opposition to just 3.6 yards per carry, and should enjoy another solid year in terms of defending the run thanks to the return of several playmakers up front.

Senior Sean Ferguson will be expected to provide leadership and a steady pass rush from his end position. As for the tackles, juniors Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox may very well be poised to take the next step after gaining valuable experience a year ago.

There are plenty of questions behind the line though, as the linebacking group will have a few new faces. Coach Mullen is hoping the new addition to the staff, Geoff Collins, will help out the inexperienced players. Collins comes over from FIU, and did a tremendous job there.

What hurt the Bulldogs in 2010 was their pass defense, but that is not entirely surprising considering MSU is in the SEC, arguably the top conference in the nation. There is plenty of talent back in the fold, giving the Bulldogs some confidence going into 2011.

The Tigers only scored 14.4 ppg in 2010, and that would partially explain the team's 11-loss campaign. Coach Porter is hoping the transition to the spread offense will give this unit a better capability of producing points.

The main question all off-season was the quarterback position. Ryan Williams transferred and left a hole under center. With the first game now here Porter has named Andy Summerlin the starting signal caller.

"I am very thankful for this opportunity and just hoping to do some great things for this team," said Summerlin.

The 6-5, 220-pound Summerlin is a junior college transfer who should have the benefit of the Tigers' leading receiver returning from last season in Marcus Rucker. Rucker had 41 catches and a 17.2 yards per reception average with eight touchdowns last season. In addition to Rucker there is redshirt freshman Kevin Wright, who is not starting on Thursday, but should see the field at some point. Wright brings much needed speed to a receiving corps that could be much better in 2011.

While Porter has the quarterback situation figured out, at least for Thursday's game, the second-year head coach will hope his ground game can materialize. Last year Memphis ranked near the bottom in rushing, averaging less than 100 yards per game on a pedestrian 2.9 yards per attempt.

As of now it seems as if coach Porter will go with sophomore tailback Jerrell Rhodes, who totaled 469 rushing yards last year. However, the success of Rhodes and the ground game as a whole will be largely dictated by the play of a rather inexperienced offensive line, which will have a huge test on Thursday.

The lack of success offensively was not the lone reason for Memphis' horrific 2010 campaign, because the defense also struggled. The Tigers surrendered close to 40.0 points per matchup and were abused through the air, as well as on the ground.

All four starting defensive linemen from last season return, with three others with starting experience expected to provide depth. That includes defensive end Frank Trotter, who was a Third Team all C-USA pick last year after posting 80 tackles, 16.5 for loss.

The secondary is inexperienced with three sophomores and a junior likely starting. Mitch Huelsing is the lone upperclassman, but he only collected 35 tackles last season.