by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst

The Bulldogs won their second straight bowl game and improved fourth-year HC Dan Mullen to 3-0 in the all-important Egg Bowls with a 31-3 rout of Ole Miss last season. A $25 million football complex is scheduled to be finished in January. Renderings for a 6,000 seat addition that’s part of an $80 million expansion for Davis Wade Stadium were unveiled in March, and the project, which will bolster premium seating considerably, is set to be finished for the 2014 opener against Southern Miss. One thousand season-ticket requests had to be turned down in the offseason!

Mullen was pleased to see the Bulldogs didn’t get fat and happy in 2011 after capping the previous season, a 9-4 campaign, with a 52-14 romp over Michigan in the Gator Bowl. “Last year was such a huge year because we were able to follow that with another bowl game.” Mullen says. “We didn’t take a step backwards to have a losing season last year.” Actually, Mississippi State did stumble a bit slipping to 7-6. And quality wins were scarce. The most notable triumphs were a 23-17 Music City Bowl victory vs. Wake Forest and a 28-16 win at Kentucky. And it must be pointed out that the Bulldogs are 0-12 vs. SEC West division rivals not named Ole Miss during Mullen’s three seasons.

But respected Starkville sources report that Mullen has the best depth and most overall talent he’s had during his tenure. And the head honcho likes the team’s attitude heading into the 2012 campaign by asserting, “I think there’s a little bit more hunger for the games, because even though we’ve won a bowl game, won three straight Egg Bowls, nobody’s patting anybody on the back around here, which happened last offseason.” '

Four starters return to an offense (only 25. 3 ppg LY) that is seeking to unveil a more consistent aerial game after finishing 94th nationally year ago--though MSU did throw a school-record 19 TDP in 2011. Fourth-year junior QB Tyler Russell (right), who split snaps his first two seasons, will be the No. 1 guy in a revamped, pass-first scheme. But Russell, who was the Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior at Meridian High School, must improve his completion rate, which is only 55.1% over two seasons. Offensive coordinator Les Koenning believes it can be a breakout season for Russell, who has shown in the spring he has a better grasp of checking it down instead of having the mentality that the deep ball is the only way to throw it. There is no experience at the backup spot with RS frosh Dak Prescott the No. 2 guy after former Mississippi Mr. Football Dylan Farve left the team to transfer to junior college after completing 13 of 26 and a TD in 2011. Nifty speedster RB LaDarius Perkins (422 YR), who has bulked up to become a tougher every-down runner, will be solidly supported by powerful soph Nick Griffin (shined in spring), who combines with Perkins for a bit of a thunder-lightening vibe. Superior depth exists at the WR position, which is bolstered by scintillating 6-4 RS frosh Joe Morrow, who has the skill set to quickly become a downfield threat. The Bulldogs could be bitten by growing pains in the trenches, with three starters, including both tackles, needing to be replaced.

Seven starters are back on a fast, hard-hitting defense (19.7 ppg) that successfully employed a bend-but-not-break mentality. Senior DT Josh Boyd (4.5 sacks) leads a deeeepp DL (Bulldogs got one of the most touted classes of linemen in the country) hoping to increase the 21 sacks they produced a year ago. Coaching are counting on juco DE Denico Autry to become a pass-rushing demon after totaling 41 QB hurries as an NJCAA in 2011. Brandon Wilson (94 tackles LY) must be replaced at MLB, but that unit has the potential to be better, thanks to fearless Cameron Lawrence (piled up 123 tackles) and rising jr. Deontae Skinner (left; 69 tackles, 9 TFL), who comprise a nasty tandem at OLB. The stout secondary is led by topnotch senior CBs Johnthan Banks (five interceptions) & Corey Broomfield (59 tackles), while aggressive jr. FS Nickoe Whitley (four interceptions in nine games before a ruptured Achilles’ near end of season) provides insurance on the back end. The primary defensive concern is at strong safety, where Charles Mitchell (95 tackles) must be replaced after being a sixth-round draft choice of the Atlanta Falcons. Statistically, State was strong vs. the pass in 2011, but the schedule wasn’t filled with pass-happy opponents. Remember, Arkansas torched MSU for 373 yards through the air in a 44-17 Razorback win last November.

On special teams, reliable, former prep All-American PK Brian Egan is slated to replace graduated Derek DePasquale, while junior punter Baker Swedenberg (41.8 yards per punt) remains a model of consistency.

Summary...The offense, with a true pocket passer and more playmakers at WR, should have greater pop and be better balanced, especially if the semi-rebuilt OL can rapidly synchronize. The proud, athletic “D” figures to clamp down in the red zone once again. Plus, MSU’s schedule is tailor made for a promising roster that needs some seasoning for a few talented newcomers at key positions, particularly on the stop end. The Bulldogs could conceivably be favored in each of the first seven games. Home dates with Auburn (Sept. 8) and Tennessee appear to be the biggest challenges during that span. Sure, the brutal four game stretch that follows--Texas A&M, Alabama, LSU and Arkansas--includes trips to Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge. But even if MSU wins at least one of those four, and a fourth straight Egg Bowl, Mullen might have a shot at his second nine-win season in three years.


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