Bulldogs will have another solid season in 2011

Published 11:39 am Thursday, August 4, 2011

It is the best of times to be a Mississippi State football fan.

The Bulldogs finished their best season (9-4, 4-4 SEC) in recent memory by demolishing a demoralized Michigan team in the Gator Bowl and sending Rich Rodriguez out the door.

A savvy ad campaign with billboards that read “Welcome to our State” has the Rebel fans in a tizzy. Just check out Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt’s reaction at SEC Media Days to the subject. The billboards, which have sprung up all over the state, are a serious burr in his saddle.

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Winners of the last two Egg Bowls, Bulldog fans finally have a reason to crow.

But this year is likely to prove a big test of how far the program has come under third-year coach Dan Mullen. Mississippi State will have to replace two vital cogs on the offensive line, left tackle Derek Sherrod and center J.C. Brignone. The linebacking corps, led by Conerly Trophy winner Chris White, will have to be replaced. Charismatic defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, whose schemes made a talented defense even more potent, left for Texas.

Can the Bulldogs make the leap to Atlanta and a berth in the SEC championship game? Probably not this season.

Even so, there are reasons for optimism. Senior quarterback Chris Relf returns to run the Mississippi State spread and his decision-making improved with every game last year. If he falters, Tyler Russell or Dylan Favre are capable of handling the workload.

The running back situation is another strong point. The unheralded trio of Vick Ballard, Robert Elliott and LaDarius Perkins proved to be formidable, with Ballard and Elliott carrying the majority of the load and Perkins supplying some serious big-play potential as a change-of-pace.

Chad Bumphis, who was the team’s leading pass catcher last season and missed the bowl game with a sports hernia, is fully healthy. In his absence, the wide receiving corps showed that State’s receiving group is not just a one-man operation.

While the linebacking corps will need “hello, my name is” tags, the secondary led by senior safety Charles Mitchell and the D-line, led by Fletcher Cox, both have the potential to be among the SEC’s best.

The schedule, while tough, has most of the difficult games (LSU, Alabama, South Carolina and Ole Miss) in Starkville.

So the ground floor expectation is probably seven wins, which would be a bit of a disappointment considering last year. Nine wins would be about the ceiling for this team.

But the fact that State fans would consider a seven-win season and a bowl berth a disappointment is an accomplishment. Mullen has done a great job in his two seasons of convincing both his team and fans that there is no reason why State can’t be a consistent winner.

The Bulldogs have finally figured out to win big, first you have to be able to dream big.

Steve Wilson is sports editor of The Vicksburg Post. You can follow him on Twitter at vpsportseditor. He can be reached at 601-636-4545, ext. 142 or at swilson@vicksburgpost.com.