With four different teams (Auburn, Alabama, LSU and Florida twice) winning national titles in the past five years plus three Heisman Trophy winners (Tim Tebow, Mark Ingram and Cam Newton), winning the SEC championship has become the single most important factor in determining leading candidates for college football's top team and individual honors.
The Scout.com SEC publishers have tabbed Alabama as the overall favorite to
win the league championship and make its way to another BCS title game. LSU drew
strong support both as the second choice in the SEC West and for the overall title with
South Carolina getting the nod over Georgia for the SEC East championship. All 12
teams will be previewed in their predicted order of finish over the next couple of weeks.
Mississippi State (4)
If Bulldog veterans thought success scored credits toward 2011, Dan Mullen set
them straight in the offseason. Those books have been closed as Mississippi State's coach
changes his approach for this third year.
"It is a little bit different," Mullen admits.
But in a good way. After a 5-7 debut season spent setting things in place, the 2010
campaign produced a Bulldog breakthrough. Nine wins, a 4-4 SEC mark, another victory
over Ole Miss, and a Gator Bowl rout of Michigan produced a final No.15 ranking.
Good, even very good.
Which is why returning players and redshirts found signs proclaiming "From
Good to Great" as the next stage in Mullen's schedule.
"And that's one of the hardest things you deal with. These guys have worked
really hard, got to see some success, people are patting them on the back. They need to
understand they have to work even harder now."
The good news is, based on off-season efforts, the 2011 Bulldogs were working
for greater things. If a couple of vacated positions are re-filled Mississippi State can have
a great say in how the SEC, and thus the BCS, picture looks come next January.
It's been many, many years since a Dog team had so much proven personnel in
offensive skill positions. Senior quarterback Chris Relf thrived in his first season as a
starter, and capped it as Gator Bowl MVP. Perhaps the most-improved player, at any
position, in modern MSU memory, Relf has become a productive passer (59 percent,
13 touchdowns, six interceptions) to go with proven running skills in Mullen's spread
schemes. But while Relf had to win the Egg and Gator bowls on a bad hamstring, State
won't hesitate to put sophomore Tyler Russell and redshirt Dylan Favre on the field this
Whoever takes snaps will hand off to physical senior Vick Ballard. As a juco
transfer he smashed the school scoring record with 20 touchdowns, gaining 968 yards.
He might not reach 1,000 yards this year either, because sophomore LaDarius Perkins
will share carries (566 yards, 3 TDs last season) and is even more dangerous turning short
throws into huge gains.
Mullen loves letting receivers run, too, on sweeps and reverses. This season
targets like Chad Bumphis (44 catches, 634 yards, 5 TDs), Arceto Clark, Chris Smith,
and Brandon Heavens will try to stretch defenses more than the past two years. They'll
be rotated a lot because spring showed at least nine capable receivers, and four talented
true freshmen will join them. State also hopes tight end Marcus Green stays healthy this
senior season to create matchup nightmares blocking or route-running.
The big, literally, questions are replacing left tackle Derek Sherrod and center
J.C. Brignone. Center should be in good hands with Quentin Saulsberry, who will start
at guard or redshirt Dillon Day. If either converted defensive tackle James Carmon or
redshirt Blaine Clausell can cover Relf's blind side, the offense is set for great things.
The defense is excellent up the middle. True junior tackles Josh Boyd and
Fletcher Cox are as potent a pair as any in the league with two more years together, and
depth is excellent with redshirt Kaleb Eulls coming on strong. The starting end jobs are
unsettled and not a worry with plenty of choices and combinations of size and speed for
line coach and newly-promoted coordinator Chris Wilson.
All three linebacker starters graduated, two to the NFL. But restocking went
well with Brandon Wilson filling the middle. Cameron Lawrence and Chris Hughes are
former safeties who are physical enough to play the outside spots with coverage and
blitzing speed. Mullen likes how youngsters Matthew Wells, Deonte Skinner, Christian
Holmes, and Ferlando Bohanna are maturing.
And the secondary is the best-stocked part of the squad, built around senior
safeties Charles Mitchell and Wade Bonner with sophomore Nickoe Whitley. Corey
Broomfield, Johnthan Banks (a safety alternate as well), Marvin Bure, and Damein
Anderson make for all sorts of blitz- and cover-play packages.
Derek DePasquale is back to place kick and kickoff with redshirt Baker
Swedenburg now punting. Mullen expects more big return plays this fall as well.
In fact, he expects more of everything in year three. Beginning with more effort to
improve on 2010 success.
"That is what is needed for us to take the next step, and I think they have," he
said. "We have to see how this team gels and how this team is molded into hopefully a
championship caliber team."
South Carolina (1)
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