2009 SEC Preview: Mississippi State

2009 SEC Football Previews | Gate 21

After Mississippi State beat Central Florida to win the Liberty Bowl two years ago, it appeared that State had taken a step forward. It was the Bulldogs’ first bowl since 2000 (remember the snowy Independence Bowl win over Texas A&M?). Coach of the Year Sylvester Croom had looked to finally have broken through.

But State lost at Louisiana Tech to open last year, and two weeks later gave up just three points at home to Auburn…and still lost, in arguably the most futile offensive game in the history of football. The Bulldogs did beat Vanderbilt when the Commodores were ranked in the nation’s top 15 and beat Arkansas late in the year.

Any good feelings created by the Arkansas win were squashed by an abysmal performance in the 45-0 Egg Bowl loss to Ole Miss, in which State had just 37 yards of offense. Croom resigned the following day.

State hired Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen a couple of weeks later, and he brought in a recruiting class ranked #19 by Scout and #25 by Rivals. Mullen coached quarterbacks under Urban Meyer at Bowling Green and Utah, becoming Florida’s offensive coordinator when Meyer was hired in 2005.

So now a team that’s been known for their ability to run the football now begins the transition to Mullen’s spread-type offense. There’s obviously reason for optimism surrounding the Mississippi State program (starting at the top…), and it’s possible Mullen can bring success to Starkville. But then again, it’s Mississippi State. All I know is that Mullen’s got quite the work ahead of him to get State back to a respectable level, and it could be a rough year.

Schedule Breakdown

    Assumed wins:

  • Jackson State (the opener)
  • Assumed losses:

  • LSU
  • Georgia Tech (the Jackets hammered MSU 38-7 last year)
  • Florida
  • Alabama
  • at Arkansas
  • Ole Miss
  • Toss-ups:

  • at Auburn (no way these two can repeat last year’s 3-2 Auburn win, right?)
  • at Vanderbilt (State won 17-14 last year)
  • Houston (the Cougars won in Starkville in 2005)
  • at MTSU (State won 31-22 at home last year)
  • at Kentucky


A recent DUI arrest has the status of Anthony Dixon up in the air

RB Anthony Dixon (Sr.): Dixon’s been a hoss in the backfield for the Bulldogs the last four years, but a recent DUI arrest has his status up in the air a bit. He’s not exactly the kind of back you think of when you picture the spread, but he’s still one of the few sure things for State on offense. His punishment pending, he may be the most reliable player on the Bulldog offense.

LBs Jamar Chaney (Sr.) and K.J. Wright (Jr.): Chaney led Mississippi State in tackles in 2007, but was injured in the season-opening loss to Louisiana Tech last year. Now departed Dominic Douglas and Wright picked up the slack, going 1-2 in tackles for State last year. Wright started every game last year as a sophomore, and he and Chaney figure to be the best players for the State defense. Chaney spoke very highly of Chaney at Media Days, calling him the team’s “MVP”.

Offensive Line: As I mentioned before, the “strength” of the Mississippi State offense the past couple of seasons has been the running game. Along with Dixon, the offensive line has been the biggest part of that. Center J.C. Brignone, tackle-turned-guard Quentin Saulsberry and tackle Derek Sherrod all started the majority of last year, and tackle Craig Jenkins started 12 games in 2006, 11 in 2007 and 7 last year. While the line is experienced, it’s built on running the football, not running the spread. That’s a theme I’ll reiterate through the rest of this preview, but how they manage the transition for this year could be interesting.


QB Tyson Lee (Sr.): Lee was 3-5 as a starter last year after taking over for Wesley Carroll, who transferred to Florida International. It’s likely Lee could start the season as the guy at QB, but he’s going to have some competition in the form of sophomore Chris Reif and true freshman Tyler Russell, a Mullen recruit. Mullen said last week it was going to be “wide-open competition.”

Secondary: Cornerback Marcus Washington is the only returning starter back in the Mississippi State secondary, and they also lose Derek Pegues. Zach Smith started a pair of games last year at free safety, but the rest of it is a little unsettling. Maurice Langston is a junior college transfer to keep an eye on at corner, and strong safety Charles Mitchell saw the field a good bit last year.

DT Pernell McPhee: McPhee was a four-star junior college defensive end who was in Starkville for spring practice. He totaled 33 sacks in two years at Itawamba C.C., and he’s going to have to be a key player for a State front that’s going to be using some new players. Outside of tackles Kyle Love and Charles Burns and end Sean Ferguson, there is hardly any starting experience along the front, so it’s an area of concern.

What’s New, but Maybe Not Improved

Dan Mullen: As I said earlier, Mullen’s got a big rebuilding job ahead of him. It’s going to be interesting to see how competitive he has the Bulldogs in his first year, as State’s certainly going to an underdog in the overwhelming majority of their games and a heavy underdog in many as well. Two aspects coincide with Mullen’s first year…

New Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen at SEC Media Days last Wednesday

New system: Remember when there were all the questions surrounding Georgia Tech’s hiring of Paul Johnson and the impending switch to the flexbone triple option offense? It’s a similar situation for Mississippi State, although it’s unlikely to produce similar results. State’s been a run-first team under Croom; Mullen brings a whole new system that requires different styles of offensive players, both at the skill positions and on the line.

It’s not as drastic defensively, as I expect State to rely on the defense while the offense takes shape and gains experience and confidence. Defensive coordinator and Knoxville native Carl Torbush followed Mack Brown at North Carolina, was Dennis Franchione’s d-coordinator at Alabama, and served as the assistant coach at Carson-Newman. He should be able to allow Mullen to focus primarily on building his offense.

Youth: Eight of Mississippi State’s signees were in Starkville for spring practice, incluing six junior college players. As with any coaching change, everybody at every position more or less starts from scratch. So don’t be surprised if there’s a youth movement of sorts for Mississippi State this year.

HSH’s Bold Prediction

Best-case scenario is Mississippi State gets three out of conference wins and two SEC wins. I think a split of the Houston/MTSU games and at least one SEC win seems more likely. They were 4-8 last year, so matching that would be a solid start for Mullen. A better question would be to see how the Bulldogs compete against the likes of Florida, Alabama and LSU.

The Bulldogs will be sporting new unis this fall

About Home Sweet Home... … to me.

Images Courtesy of: Grant Gannon / al.comChris Pow / al.commstateathletics.com

About the Author: I'm from Memphis but I'm now entering my third year at the University of Tennessee here in Knoxville. I am majoring in Journalism/Electronic Media and hope to go into sports broadcasting/writing/something like that. I'm a huge Vol fan and have been going to games for as long as I can remember. I started my on blog called "The View From The Hill" but moved here to Gate 21 for bigger and better things. In addition to my passion for Tennessee football and basketball, I enjoy watching the NFL and the NBA as well. Basically, sports are a big part of my life. >> Read more from this author

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