SEC PREVIEWS: Mullen wants next step

As if winning five straight national titles wasn't enough to declare the Southeastern Conference's college football supremacy, the league managed to take it one step further last season when the BCS title game matchup between Alabama and LSU guaranteed a sixth straight national champion from the SEC before the championship game was even played.

So how does seven in a row sound? Well it will be hard to bet against the SEC continuing its dominance, especially with LSU returning 15 starters from last year's squad and BCS champ Alabama still loaded on the offensive side even with the loss of standout running back Trent Richardson.

Yet the big story in SEC Football 2012 is the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M to the conference, something that figures to make it even tougher to get through the league schedule unscathed. While neither Mizzou nor the Aggies are expected to contend for SEC divisional titles, they both bring solid programs to the league. Missouri was ranked No. 1 in the country five years ago before losing to Oklahoma in the 2007 Big 12 title game, and A&M's Kyle Field is one of the most difficult venues in the country for visiting teams, something Florida, Arkansas and LSU will have to contend with this fall.

The Scout.com publishers believe that LSU and Georgia will repeat as division champions this year with LSU picked to win the SEC Championship. Previews of all 14 SEC teams are about to be featured on GamecockAnthem.com, and today we look at Mississippi State.



SEC WEST

Mississippi State(PREDICTED FINISH: 5TH IN WEST)


Three seasons, 21 victories, with two bowl triumphs and domination of the arch- rival… Dan Mullen could be satisfied by his Mississippi State tenure to-date. He isn't.

The 2012 season, Mullen says, must be the next stage for Bulldog football.

"Our focus is how we're going to improve, how we're going to be different from last year. Last year wasn't good enough, so we have to be very different."

A 7-6 season wasn't quite good enough for Mullen and MSU. Never mind various reasons, injuries mainly, which kept 2011 from matching pre-season projections. These Bulldogs are being pushed to be different. And better. Based on spring and summer readings Mullen is optimistic.

"I'm pleased with our guys. I'm pleased with the attitude, we have some guys trying to step up and become leaders. And I'm pleased we're starting to develop some depth around here."

Depth is even better when backing a solid starting squad, and State ought to be in good shape here with three notable questions. None include quarterback. Three years of development have Tyler Russell ready to take over. The junior alternated last season with four starts, 54 percent passing for eight touchdowns and four interceptions.

"Now, I have to be the guy," Russell said. "I think this offense should be good for us and something hard to prepare for."

His promotion signals a shift in offensive emphasis to quicker passes with many more targets.

"You have a quarterback who throws the ball well, and an experienced group of wide receivers," Mullen said. "So as we're looking more to throw the football."

The wideout group is largely intact. The top three receivers, all starters and all seniors, combined for 90 catches and 1,111 yards with nine touchdowns. Yet they are just the core of the corps. State looks to go four- and even five-wides now using converted split ends as tight ends in sophomores Malcolm Johnson and Brandon Hill. Redshirt Joe Morrow ought to be the "big" receiver Mullen has wanted for three years.

Record-setting scorer Vick Ballard graduated to the NFL, so ground duties will be split among no less than four runners.

LaDarius Perkins has the most experience, Nick Griffin is the classic tailback type, and redshirts Josh Robinson and Derrick Milton will take their turns. But all this hinges on settling an offensive line, particularly at both tackles, where veteran Blaine Clausell will likely rotate with Damien Robinson and juco Charles Siddoway.

The other question is how many snaps oft-injured guard Tobias Smith, the best blocker on the roster, can provide.

The defensive line by contrast is healthy, strong, and deep despite the early departure of first-round tackle Fletcher Cox. Senior Josh Boyd slides over to his slot with any of four other tackles taking the nose. This should be the breakout year for gifted sophomore Kaleb Eulls who can play all four front positions but is best as a big defensive end. Touted transfer Denico Autry ought to speed up the pass rush and in time freshman Quay Evans will be an interior beast.

Linebacker is well-stocked too. A 123-tackle performance last season sets up senior outside ‘backer Cameron Lawrence for all-conference recognition now. Deonte Skinner and former safety Matthew Wells offer alternate choices at the other outside slot to scheme for rush or coverage. In the middle, Benardrick McKinney, a 6-5, 235-pound specimen, has moved ahead of Ferlando Bohanna. They will keep competing in camp though, as will more and younger outside men.

No SEC squad has three better cornerbacks than the senior trio of Johnthan Banks, Corey Broomfield, and Darius Slay. They have 21 interceptions among them, and even better all can adjust to nickel- and blitz-packages for run and pass situations. Headhunter Nickoe Whitley is coming off an Achilles tear and three candidates are vying for the other open job.

Punting should stay steady with Baker Swedenburg, but Mullen hopes freshman Devon Bell can take over placekicking. Immediately. He also demands better results from a return game that was not as productive as hoped.

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Tennessee (5)
Vanderbilt (6)
Kentucky (7)

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Texas A&M (6)
Mississippi (7)

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