SEC Preview: Mississippi State

Can you smell it yet? The freshly-cut and newly-chalked fields and crackling coals of tailgating grills. Can you hear it? The distant echos of "Glory, Glory"; "Dixie" and "Rocky Top" in the air? Can you feel it? College football in the Southeastern Conference is right around the corner and optimism is running high from the title contenders to even the lowliest of doormats.

Leading up to the start of practice in early August, I'll be giving a preview for each of the 12 teams, starting from the bottom of the Western Division to the top of the Eastern Division. Coming off a season where many of the conference powers lost a great deal of talent and experience to graduation and the NFL draft, there's a sense that the SEC may lack a true title contender this season. But has the conference ever been deeper? As many as 10 … count ‘em … 10 teams have a realistic chance at a winning record and a bowl berth. It should make for another exciting season and I can't wait to get started.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

We begin with the Mississippi State Bulldogs, a team and fanbase that seldom has had reason for excitement over the past few years. And who could blame them? But a victory over Alabama in Tuscaloosa and hard-fought games against Arkansas, Kentucky and Georgia suggests the Bulldogs, in Head Coach Sylvester Croom's fourth season, may finally be turning the corner. Nevertheless, a harrowing schedule this year highlighted by games against LSU, West Virginia, Auburn, Tennessee, Arkansas and others means that more than gradual improvement will be needed to make an impact in the West.

Head Coach: Sylvester Croom, 9-25 in 3 years
Offensive Coordinator: Woody McCorvey
Defensive Coordinator: Ellis Johnson

Projected Depth Chart (returning starters in bold):

QB Michael Henig Jr.
Josh Ridell Jr.

RB Anthony Dixon So.
Justin Williams Sr.

FB Brandon Hart Jr.
Taurus Young Jr.

WR Tony Burks Sr.
Brandon McRae So.

WR Jamayel Smith Jr.
Aubrey Bell Jr.

TE Eric Butler Sr.
Dezmond Sherrod Sr.

RT Craig Jenkins So.
Mark Melichar Fr.

RG J.D. Hamilton Sr.
Michael Gates Jr.

C Royce Blackledge Sr.
Johnny Carpenter So.

LG Anthony Strauder Jr.
J. C. Brignone Fr.

LT Mike Brown Jr.
Mark Melichar Fr.

DE Titus Brown Sr.
Charles Burns Jr.

NT Cortez McCraney Jr.
Kyle Love So.

DT Jessie Bowman Jr.
Quinton Wesley So.

DE Avery Hannibal Sr.
Brandon Cooper Fr.

SLB Gabe O'Neal Sr.
Dominic Douglas Jr.

MLB Jamar Chaney Jr.
Tim Bailey Jr.

WLB Jamon Hughes So.
Anthony Littlejohn Jr.

SS Derek Pegues Jr.
Anthony Summers So.

FS Keith Fitzhugh Jr.
De'Mon Glanton Jr.

LCB Anthony Johnson So.
Keon Humphries Jr.

RCB Marcus Washington So.
Demario Bobo Jr.

Special Teams
K Adam Carlson Jr.

P Blake McAdams Jr.

KR Derek Pegues Jr.

PR Derek Pegues Jr.

Offensive Breakdown:

Key Returners: RB Anthony Dixon, WR Tony Burks

Key Losses: QB/WR Omarr Conner, RG Brian Anderson

Key Newcomers: 4* RB Robert Elliott, 4* JUCO WR Co-Eric Riley

The only reason you probably haven't heard the name Anthony Dixon, simply put, is because he plays at Mississippi State. At a hulking 6-1, 240 pounds, he's one of the best young running backs in the SEC and the Bulldogs' workhorse on offense. At quarterback, oft-injured Michael Henig returns for his junior season with hopes of bringing some consistency and production to a position where it has been severely lacking for several years. He has the talent to be a factor but the question is whether he can finally stay healthy. California JUCO QB Josh Riddell was brought in to back up Henig as insurance.

At receiver, MSU returns their top four pass-catchers led by senior Tony Burks, who in 2006 caught 35 passes for 850 yards and five touchdowns. Morehead State transfer Brandon McRae, Jameyal Smith, Aubrey Bell and Lance Long are also expected to contribute. Veteran tight ends Eric Butler and Dezmond Sherrod also return.

Up front, four starters return after a mediocre performance last season, finishing ninth in the conference in sacks allowed with 29. They're led by senior center Royce Blackledge and junior left tackle Mike Brown, a name many Gator fans will recognize from his years as a Gator before transferring to MSU.

Defensive Breakdown:

Key Returners: DE Titus Brown, SS Derek Pegues

Key Losses: LB Quinton Culberson, DT Deljuan Robinson

Key Newcomers: 4* JUCO DT Jessie Bowman, 4* DE Jazzmen Guy

While highlighted by some All-SEC talents, the Bulldogs' overall defense is a huge question mark going into next season. Numerous players have changed positions to accommodate the departures and arrivals of other players so the defense will definitely have a new look in 2007. Whether it's an improvement from a unit that finished 11th in the SEC in points allowed remains to be seen. Senior defensive end Titus Brown is a tremendous threat off the edge, piling up seven and a half sacks and 14.5 tackles-for-loss last season and earning second team All-SEC honors. Junior Jamar Chaney moves to middle linebacker position where he should be solid alongside senior Gabe O'Neal. But the absence of departed starters Quinton Culberson and Deljuan Robinson will be greatly felt.

The secondary replaces three starters but returns an All-SEC caliber player in Derek Pegues, who will play strong safety this year after starting at corner in 2006. The Bulldogs were atrocious in pass defense last season so perhaps some new faces will bring improvement. Much like the MSU football team as a whole, there's really no other way to go but up.

Special Teams Breakdown:

Both the starting placekicker and punter return for their junior season. Pegues, in addition to his defensive prowess, will once again return kicks and punts after excelling at the job a year ago.

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