THINGS WE KNOW
1. The rushing offense will be superb.
As I mentioned yesterday, Mississippi State led the conference in rushing last season. Sure Anthony Dixon is gone, and it's hard for anyone to replace one of their all-time great running backs. Still, Robert Elliott wasn't bad last season, and he was a four-star recruit coming out of high school. The other main back, Vick Ballard, wasn't as highly touted but is a big and powerful guy. The two of them make a nice tandem, but what will really put the running game over the top is Chris Relf. He's the designated option quarterback for the Bulldogs, and he ran it with great success last season. Dan Mullen is a believer in option football, and the three of those guys should make for a dangerous attack.
2. The defensive line should be outstanding.
Barring injury, Mississippi State will start three consensus four-star guys on the defensive line. Neither Florida nor Alabama can say that unless some highly talented freshman arriving this summer force some depth chart changes. Senior DE Pernell McPhee headlines the trio, which also includes sophomore tackles Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox. Together they make one of the best line units in the conference, and that doesn't even include JUCO transfer James Carmon, who is listed at an imposing 6'7" and 345 pounds. The defensive line is the best single unit on the team and should cause problems for opposing offenses all season long.
3. The team is sound on kickoff returns.
Believe it or not, Mississippi State was second in the SEC in kickoff returns last season. The Bulldogs averaged just under 25 yards a return, which is pretty nifty as that's a quarter of the whole field. Rising senior Leon Berry did most of the work, though rising sophomore Chad Bumphis had almost half as many as Berry did. The two of them are coming back, obviously, and that should help the Bulldogs continue to excel in this area. They combined for around 125 yards per game in kickoff returns, something that helped to supplement an offense that finished in the bottom third of the SEC in total offense in league play.
THREE THINGS WE DON'T KNOW
1. How good the passing game will be.
Mississippi State managed just 121 yards of passing per game in 2009, and that number only climbs by 22 yards when you add the non-conference games. That put the Bulldogs among the bottom three teams (along with Kentucky and Vanderbilt) that were in the basement by a margin of 40-50 yards per game. Presumably the four-star, redshirt freshman QB Tyler Russell will be an improvement over the graduated Tyson Lee. Plus, MSU returns three of its top four receivers in terms of yardage from '09, those losing sophomore O'Neal Wilder (chose to focus on track only) is a blow. The pieces should be there for a functional passing game in 2010, but it won't be for another couple of years before the offense has enough receivers to have a good passing game. Functional is within reach though.
2. How good the defense as a whole will be.
Only Alabama and Florida completely shut down the MSU offense last year, but that was nothing to be ashamed of in 2009. In all of the Bulldogs' other five losses, the team got to at least 21 points, and they managed 24 points in four of the five. That's not a recipe for sweeping the set, but with a good defense, that's enough to win a few of those. MSU was 10th in the league in total defense and 11th in scoring defense in Mullen's first year, ranks that will have to improve for the Bulldogs to have a chance at something special. Last year's coordinator Carl Torbush left to go to Kansas, and Mullen chose Manny Diaz to replace him. Diaz ran one of the SBC's best defenses at MTSU the last couple years, but now he has to step up to the big stage of the SEC.
3. How well the special teams coverage teams will be.
While Mississippi State has a nice set of return guys, the coverage units could use some work. The Bulldogs ranked seventh in SEC play in stopping kickoff returners, which isn't bad but isn't especially good either. It gets worst on punt returns though. State ended up 10th in the conference in punt coverage, and it was one of just four SEC teams to allow a punt return touchdown despite having just 12 punts returned in their eight league games. Shoring up the special teams units could be one of those things that helps to put a team on the edge of bowl eligibility over the top and into the post season.