With a good deal of help from Year2.
For all the credit that Dan Mullen gets for helping turn around the State offense last year (and rightfully so), it's important to keep things in perspective: He still hasn't been able to find a full-time, quality starter at signal-caller. This is only the second year for Mullen in Starkville, but it's still not the most encouraging trend in the world.
THEY HAVE TWO, BUT THEY MIGHT HAVE ONE
If there's a constant among the bottom three or four teams in the SEC this year, it's that each has some degree of uncertainty at quarterback. Nothing is different here, with Dan Mullen expecting a "pretty good competition going into the summer," which can also be translated into, "We won't know until at least August who's going to be our starting quarterback." This has to be frustrating for Chris Relf, who finally seemed to have claimed the starting spot from Tyson Lee (and was getting accolades from nonpartisan sources for doing so) when he started competing instead with Tyler Russell.
I'm slightly more optimistic about Relf's chances for significant playing time than Dr. Saturday, if for no other reason than Mississippi State is likely going to need his athleticism in the running game (see below). But the question that the doctor raises is a good one: If Mullen and Co. didn't trust Relf enough until after watching Lee for nearly an entire season, what's going to change their minds now?
All that said -- it's not like Relf was a bad passer when called upon to put the ball in the air (22-of-41, 283 yards, 5 TDs, 3 INTs, 137.20 RTG). So it might also be a mistake to write him off because of the doubts about his arm.
THE ONES WHO GOT AWAY
The obvious first entry here is Anthony Dixon, who rushed for 1,391 yards and 12 TDs in the final, breakthrough season season of a solid if inconsistent career at Mississippi State. This is more than just a loss for State's rushing attack; Dixon gained a third of the team's overall yardage last year, which leads one to wonder how much more pressure the passing game might face without a back of Dixon's caliber and experience in the backfield.
Jamar Chaney, a seventh-round pick in the NFL Draft, is the only major loss on defense. The linebacker lead the team with 90 tackles, 4.5 for loss and two of those sacks, and threw in two interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles as well. That's a lot to loose, but there's plenty returning for State to think that the loss won't be a huge blow.
THE ONES LEADING THE WAY
Despite the potential quarterback controversy, finding the best candidate to inherit Dixon's carries has to be priority No. 1. State does have some talent there: junior Robert Elliott was a four-star recruit who gained 221 yards on 44 rushes last year, an average of 5.0 ypc. The other possible starter is three-star JUCO transfer Vick Ballard, who ran for 1,728 yards and 22 TDs last year, earning an All-American spot from the NCJAA and helping lead Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College to a No. 8 final ranking.
Whoever is carrying the ball will have plenty of support up front; four full-time starters on the offensive line from the 2009 team return.
But if State is going to get off to a good start this year, the defense is going to have to do it. The Western Division Bulldogs have plenty of experience and talent there; the secondary returns four players who all started at least one game last year and had a combined 14 interceptions. K.J. Wright and Chris White are the backbone of the linebacking corps. Pernell McPhee, who had five sacks among his 12 tackles for loss, is back to anchor the defensive line. It won't be easy; the other three likely starters had nine starts between them last year.