*Going by MSU's guide, State has only been ranked four times when playing Memphis; 1981, '92, '93, and '01. The Tigers have not been ranked when they met MSU.
*Mississippi State was 8-0 against unranked opponents last year.
*Coach Dan Mullen is 2-0 in season openers and 7-2 in non-conference games.
*MSU and the school formerly also known as MSU have begun seasons against each other 15 times, and the Bulldogs have won 13 of them.
*There are 13 Mississippi natives on the Memphis roster, while State has just two Tennesseans; Memphis native LB Ferlando Bohanna and S Wade Bonner of Mason.
*This is State's first trip back to the Liberty Bowl stadium since, well, the 2007 Liberty Bowl itself. Those Bulldogs took a 10-3 win over Central Florida.
The Opponent: Larry Porter certainly ought to have known what he was getting into. The 1996 alumnus went from one end of the Division I spectrum after five years as an aide—assistant head coach four of them—at LSU, all the way to the other. His first season was worse than the one before though going from 2-10 to 1-11 wasn't that much of a drop. Memphis probably had to hit rock-bottom before making anyway before bouncing in the better direction. There is some athleticism here, and changing the offense that direction is the wise course. And for what it is worth, Porter had a hand in the last Tiger win over a Bulldog team. Back in 1993.
Offense: As already noted, dumping a pro-style offense…which works even less well in lower-rung programs now than ever…for the trendy spread approach is a good call for Porter and coordinator Eric Price. After all, going the old way left the Tigers 117th in NCAA total offense last year and 119th in scoring. So there's nowhere left to go but up, right? Yeah, probably, though the transition might leave them stuck in neutral until everybody gets comfortable with the entirely new system, and more importantly the right talent to run it develops. Or maybe most importantly the offensive line is rebuilt. It can't be encouraging to begin a fresh approach with only one returning starter, LT Ronald Leary. In fact a veteran blocker has been moved over to shore up the defense. At least there is size up front with the guards and tackles all 315 or better, including juco transter RT Jordan Devey. RG D'Angelo McCray is a converted d-tackle, by the way, so lots of pieces have been shuffled this off-season. As for running things, nobody who threw a pass in '10 returned. At least not to offense as Cannon Smith is now a safety. All that is known about soph Andy Summerlin is A) he is from Apopka, Fla., so presumably played good prep competition and B) he's tall, 6-5. Beyond that there's almost nothing to scout with. It's a bit clearer with the runners as Jerrell Rhodes gained 499 yards with a touchdown in ten '10 games. Of course the whole offense had just five rushing scores last season. WR Marcus Rucker was way better than that with eight scores out of his team-best 41 catches, and a 17.2 yard average each connection. He's not the only proven catcher as Tannar Reher had 23 grabs and Billy Foster 14 more, against defenses that knew the ball was going airborne. And maybe a spread set will give TE Justin Henderson more chances to participate. The greatest irony of last season was how Memphis tied for 1st nationally in red zone efficiency; fine stats, saving they only got there 18 times all year. Porter would surely settle for scoring more often and with bigger plays to ‘spread' this out.
Defense: Don't think we're only picking on the offense of last year. Tiger defense has a hugely long way to go as well after showing up 117th in scoring and 115th in yardage. Oh, and 118th in turnovers. No wonder coordinator Jay Hopson swiped some offensive linemen for his use on this side as Memphis has to get more physical up front. One-time blocker himself Frank Trotter had 80 stops last fall, 16.5 for losses, and is at one end of the offset 4-3 scheme. The literal strength though is nose man Dontari Poe, a 350-pound roadblock who had a couple of sacks among the 41 tackles. He lines up beside 310-pound soph Johnnie Farms for a most imposing interior wall. Senior Terrence Thomas leads the linebackers from an outside slot after 37 stops, 8.5 for losses, with transfer Kenyatta Johnson taking over the inside position. Thomas, by the way, is the only Tiger on the current two-deep who intercepted a pass last season. So this means the whole '11 secondary is now going for their first picks in a while, if ever. The cornerbacks are both sophomores and do have some height on them, and Taurean Nixon and Lonnie Ballantine did combine for 32 tackles and four breakups as freshmen so there should be some potential here. Former quarterback Smith as said is now a safety, and listed second at both spots in fact. FS Mitch Huelsing got in on 35 tackles, soph SS Derek Smith none. Snap impressions of strength in the middle of the line and speed in the secondary mean this should be the Memphis unit that is able to show the most improvement soonest. And in a conference where defense is generally an afterthought this could be the smart first step.
Specialists: At least the defense can count on generally good positions given how Ton Hornsey punts the ball. The Australian native got plennnnnnty of reps as a freshman All-America (two games he booted it ten times) and averaged 42.7 yards. PK Paulo Henriques began badly but ended strong with nine-straight field goal makes, five of 40-yards plus. Both return men are back but Curtis Johnson obviously didn't get to field too many punts last year compared to KOR that got lots of action.
The Series: Mississippi State owns a 32-11 lead in a series dating back to 1951. Though, the teams have taken two extended breaks, 1966-73 and 2004-09, in a rather natural sort of rivalry. When the Bulldogs romped to a 49-7 win last year upon resumption, it gave State a 11-game streak going back to '93. The city of Memphis has been a generous host as MSU is 16-6 there, with another win forfeited.
Bulldog Notebook: Mississippi State's offense returns the players who accounted for every single pass thrown in 2010; all but eight of the 619 rushing attempts and 98.7% of rushing yardage; 88% of passes caught and 95% of the yardage thereby.
*And, of the 48 touchdowns scored last season, only two were by Bulldogs who graduated. Or a Bulldog who graduated as Leon Berry caught a TD and kick-returned for the other.
*The 2010 offense took advantage of 13 games to set program records for total plays (907), yardage (5,217), and first downs (268). The game average of 401 yards though fell short of a record set in 1982 of 427.0 yards.
*Bulldog teams have scored a rushing touchdown in 22 of Dan Mullen's 25 games. A passing touchdown, in sixteen games.
*In non-conference games last year, all wins including the Gator Bowl, State rushed the ball almost exactly two-thirds of their plays.
*He's only had one season starting, but already QB Chris Relf is bidding for some career records. He begins the senior season #1 in career efficiency, just ahead of legendary Jackie Parker by a little more than one point in the complex calculation.
*What boosts Relf's ranking is he has twice as many touchdowns (18) as interceptions (9), is second in career interception average (0.033%) and third in completion percentage (56.7%.).
*His 2,502 yards of total offense last season is the second-best Bulldog year ever, behind only the 2,886 by Don Smith in 1985 (and 11 games to Relf's 13).
*Relf was the first quarterback to lead State in rushing since Sleepy Robinson in 1991.
*Relf completed 61% of his passes in MSU wins last year. But he was 31-of-43 in the ‘bowl' wins over Ole Miss and Michigan, with six touchdowns total.
*TB Vick Ballard wrote his name in perhaps the most important place possible in MSU's record book last year. His 20 touchdowns were the most ever by a Bulldog in a single season, surpassing the 16 by both Jackie Parker (1952) and Anthony Dixon (2007). The 19 rushing touchdowns were also a record.
*Ballard averaged a rushing touchdown every 9.8 carries. By contrast Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton took 12.6 rushes on average, and Ole Miss' Brandon Bolen 11.6 rushes.
*But because Parker also kicked PATs, he remains even with Ballard in season points at 120. And it will take a far greater year to catch Dixon's career scoring record of 276 points.
*Ballard came up just short of 1,000 rushing yards as a junior. So this year he will try to become the eighth Bulldog to reach that mark.
*Ballard had four 100-yard games last year and rushed for a touchdown in ten of his twelve games.
*WR Chad Bumphis has led the team in receiving both of his varsity seasons. After grabbing 32 balls for 375 yards as a freshman, Bumphis got 44 catches for 634 as a sophomore.
*So with 76 catches already, Bumphis is on the verge of top-ten status. Five more balls ties him with Danny Knight.
*He is a little farther away from top-ten yardage. At 1,009 yards now he needs 1,391 to tie Willie Harris for #10 spot.
*But the junior is top-ten in touchdown catches after two years, his nine matching that of Fred Hadley. The next TD puts Bumphis in a three-way tie at eighth. However only two of his touchdowns have been in a SEC game.
*Bumphis missed the Gator Bowl with a separated shoulder suffered on a 44-yard catch at Ole Miss.
*That injury also stopped Bumphis' string of eight-straight games with a rush. He averaged 6.9 yards on his 19 carries last season.
*After sitting out 2009 on suspension, WR Arceto Clark came back strong and was second in '10 receiving with 25 grabs and three touchdowns. He caught at least one ball in the last seven games-straight.
*But the hottest receiving hand at the tail end of '10 was WR Chris Smith. In the final four games he had 15 of his 24 total receptions, for 177 of his 264 yards.
*Injury limited TE Marcus Green to just six quarters' play last season and three catches. This was after a healthy '09 season when Green had 27 catches and three touchdowns.
*The offensive line returns players with 42 out of 65 total starts. LG Gabe Jackson and RT Addison Lawrence started all 13 games at their positions, while Quentin Saulsberry started eleven times at RG and twice at C.
*Bulldog blocking allowed 23 sacks in 13 games last year, though ten came in a two-loss stretch to Alabama and Arkansas.
*OG Jackson has a unique stat; by falling on a Relf fumble in the end zone last season he is the only Bulldog blocker, and the first since 1988, to score a touchdown.
*The 2010 defense notched 26 sacks, eight more than the previous year. And ‘hurries' were up as well, from 34 to 43.
*Last year's top two tacklers are gone, along with players accounting for 12.0 of those sacks.
*But S Charles Mitchell is back for a senior season with 188 career tackles on his resume. He had 93 of those stops as a junior.
*Mitchell has four interceptions but all were in 2009. And he last broke up a pass in the Georgia game.
*After just two seasons CB Corey Broomfield is over half-way to the career interceptions record. He has picked nine passes, already tying for #9 on the list; the record is 16 by Walt Harris.
*Junior CB Johnthan Banks has seven interceptions of his own, three of them last season including a pick in the Gator Bowl.
*Closer to the line, DT Fletcher Cox has his own nose for the ball. In two years he has forced one fumble, recovered another, and blocked two field goals.
*Classman DT Josh Boyd also has a blocked field goal.
*S Nickoe Whitley had arguably the defensive play of 2010 when he rattled the ball free from a Georgia receiver at the goal line, then covered the fumble in the end zone. He had two fumbles forced and three picks as a freshman.
*State is breaking in a new punter, but coverage ought to be solid again. The Dogs allowed under two yards per return last year and only 94 total yards.
*But State had just four kickoffs downed in the end zone all season. Of course, that was up from zero in 2009.
*PK Derek DePasquale is 10-of-12 on field goals for each of his varsity seasons, which puts him first in all-time accuracy at 83%. His 20 makes are tenth-most in MSU records, and he tied a game record with five makes against UAB.
*And DePasquale is perfect on all his 51 PAT tries. State hasn't missed a point after in two years.
*State played three true freshmen in 2010: WR Michael Carr, LB Chris Hughes, and DE Corvell Harrison-Gay.
*Redshirt freshmen for 2010 are QB Dylan Favre, TE Brandon Hill, DB Matthew Wells, WR Jamerson Love, RB Nick Griffin, LB Jay Hughes, K Baker Swedenburg, LB Christian Holmes, LB Ferlando Bohanna, OL Archie Muniz, OL Dillon Day, OL Eric Lawson, OL Blaine Clausell, OL Damien Robinson, WR Malcolm Johnson, WR Robert Johnson, DL Kaleb Eulls, and DL Curtis Virges.
*The longest starting streak (not counting special teams) belongs to OG/C Quentin Saulsberry at 37, also how many games he has played. S Mitchell and DE Sean Ferguson have played in 37 games as well.