SEC 2010 // Mississippi State Hopes to Take the Next Step

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In this era where bowl bids are handed out almost like participation trophies, not making the post season stings worse than it did 20 or 30 years ago. Still, there are varying levels of missing a bowl.

If you win two or fewer games, your team was essentially hopeless. Three or four wins is better, but if your team ends up there more than once, it’s infuriating. A 5-7 season is different though. It’s tantalizingly close to bowl eligibility, a huge frustration point for those expecting a bowl and a big reason for hope for those not.

A 5-7 season is what Dan Mullen got Mississippi State to last year, and it definitely generated hope. The malaise surrounding the team during the Sylvester Croom era seemed to be swept away by his endless energy and the team’s competitiveness on the field.

Most teams that finish 5-7 don’t excel in any one facet of the game, but Mississippi State was actually really good at something. The Bulldogs led the SEC in rushing in 2009, an instant sign of success for the changes that Mullen promised were coming. It wasn’t pretty at all times and the passing game has a way to go, but not one SEC team–including those with the Heisman-winning running back and the nationally hyped dual threat quarterback–collected more rushing yards last season.

The fans of the boys from Starkville are definitely buying into the program. State is selling season tickets at a brisk pace, far ahead of where it was at this time last year. And why not? Mullen has been reeling in highly touted recruits like Chad Bumphis, Tyler Russell, and Pernell McPhee in much higher numbers than Croom ever did. His team also showed more signs of sustainable success last year than the team did in its surprising 2007 bowl run, despite ending up at 5-7.

Now comes the matter of cashing in on that great season last year. Anthony Dixon was a huge part of that conference-leading rushing attack, but he’s currently on the San Francisco 49ers. Coming out of spring, the starting running back role was listed as a dead heat on the official depth chart between the junior Robert Elliott and JUCO transfer Vick Ballard. Elliott was Dixon's primary backup, gaining an even five yards a rush in limited action. Based on what we saw in spring practice, the two of them will see the field at the same time for option running purposes.

The quarterback race was also listed as even between the redshirt freshman pocket passer Tyler Russell and the mobile junior Chris Relf. Relf was a pleasant surprise for the Bulldogs last season, acting as the designated option quarterback with great success. It’s possible that both will play this fall in an arrangement similar to what MSU used last fall with Relf and the departed Tyson Lee, allowing for the team to benefit from the strengths of both of them.

The Bulldogs have a brutal road slate this season, having to travel to Baton Rouge, Gainesville, and Tuscaloosa in conference along with a trip to CUSA's Houston, who beat them in Starkville last year. They draw Georgia from the East division as well and of course have to play Auburn and preseason darling Arkansas, adding to the degree of difficulty.

Mississippi State's road to the post season is one of the more daunting ones, so I don't know if anyone would blame them too much if they don't make a bowl again. I know that would be a disappointment for both the fans and for Mullen, who probably has higher hopes than any of them. He said during the booster club circuit that he expects to compete for the SEC West title this season, a tall order given that his defense surrended nearly 30 points a game in SEC play last season.

Winning the division is always a tall task for State, and it will continue to be as long as Nick Saban is haunting the sidelines at Alabama. Mullen may take the Bulldogs to Atlanta for the first time since 1998, but it almost certainly won't be this season.

However if they can become even more competitive within the league and maybe even reach the post season again, there will be even more reasons to hope this time next year.

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