Liberty Bowl just a start for Bulldogs

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 2, 2008

STARKVILLE — For eight long months, Anthony Dixon has thought about this day. It’s kept him awake at night, then filled his waking thoughts in the afternoon.

Ever since he walked off the field following Mississippi State’s 10-3 win over Central Florida in last December’s Liberty Bowl, Dixon has burned to continue the Bulldogs’ momentum.

“Coming off that Central Florida game, we couldn’t wait to get back on the field,” said Dixon, the Bulldogs’ junior tailback who rushed for 1,066 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2007. “We felt there was so much we could do better.”

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Heading into the 2008 season, which starts Saturday at Louisiana Tech, Dixon is not alone in that thought.

His teammates and thousands of Mississippi State fans feel the same way following 2007’s surprising eight-win campaign. It’s led to a couple of things that have been sorely lacking in Starkville for nearly a decade — optimism and expectations.

“I think there is more confidence. The guys have greater expectations both individually and collectively,” State coach Sylvester Croom said. “It’s obvious they’ve really responded well to the coaching. I think there is a greater commitment to moving out of their comfort zones and being a better team than we were last year.”

For all of the giant strides the Bulldogs took last season — the eight wins was nearly half of the combined total from the previous six seasons — there are plenty of areas they need to improve upon to take the next step.

For starters, the passing game ranked last in the Southeastern Conference in 2007. Returning sophomore Wesley Carroll was the team’s leading passer, with 1,392 yards, but completed just 52.5 percent of his passes. As a team, State complete 50.5 percent and averaged a meager 159.9 yards per game.

“We talked about that all summer,” Carroll said. “We have a chip on our shoulder. We want to show people that we’re not a lower-tier passing team.”

Dixon will still be the focus of the offense, but Croom has said he wants to be more explosive. Only Ole Miss averaged fewer points than State in the SEC last year. Returning receivers Co-Eric Riley and Jamayel Smith, along with true freshman Delmon Robinson from Vicksburg High, will give Carroll some options to help make it happen.

So will junior quarterback Tyson Lee, who is a more mobile quarterback than Carroll and will split the snaps under center.

“Tyson’s size was a concern,” Croom said of the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Lee. “You want somebody who’s 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4, but there aren’t many of those guys around.

“What he showed us in the spring was that he could put the team in the end zone, and that’s the true measure of a quarterback.”

Defensively, the Bulldogs were solid in 2007. They ranked third in the conference against the pass, first in red zone defense, and fifth in total defense — a number that took a hit because of an inability to stop the run at times. Mississippi State allowed 156.8 yards per game on the ground, seventh in the SEC but nearly 28 yards worse than the next-best team, Vanderbilt.

State found its groove in the bowl game, keeping the nation’s leading rusher Kevin Smith in check, but only returns one starter on the defensive line. Croom was happy with most of his defense, but expressed concern about a lack of depth up front.

“Our linebackers are playing at a high level. The secondary is playing at a high level. Up front, we’ve got some issues. We’re a little thin up there,” Croom said. “If there’s any spot that concerns me, it’s with the depth at defensive tackle.”

Mississippi State won four of its eight games in 2007 by a touchdown or less. That could be an indication of a young team that’s just learning how to win, or one that just got lucky.

Based on the Bulldogs’ attitude and improvement heading into this season, Carroll was leaning toward the former.

“The next step is obviously competing for the SEC championship. We feel we can get to Atlanta and play with anybody in the West or the East,” Carroll said. “Everybody feels confident. Everyone feels this could be our year. We have good leadership and a lot of guys that bring a lot to the table.”