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How Mississippi State's Big Step Forward Happened

After five years of mediocrity (and worse) under Sylvester Croom, Mississippi State welcomed Dan Mullen to Starkville with open arms in 2009. He managed just one more win in '09 than Croom did in '08, but it was easy to see that the arrow for the program was pointed up. The team surged in his second season, winning nine games in what was a historically good SEC West division.

It was not a mirage. Toss out the Alcorn State game, and MSU had a point differential of 328-242 (+86), which gives a Pythagorean expectation of .673. If you take that percentage and multiply it by State's 12 games, that comes out to 8.07 wins. The team won eight of those 12, resulting in a luck score of -0.07. In other words, Mississippi State's win total was exactly where it should have been. The Bulldogs did win four games by a touchdown or less, but they lost two games by a score or less too. A margin of +2 in close games does not make them even close to an outlier.

So how did it happen? Mullen is an offensive guy, so the natural place to look is at the team's offense. That's especially true because spread option offenses in many places have taken off after a year of transition. However, let's look at some stats that encompass the team as a whole. All of the stats have had I-AA games removed, and the yards per rush stats have had sacks taken out.

Stat 2008 2009 2010 Change '09-'10
Passing Eff. 99.06 105.33 134.81 +29.48
Yds/Rush 4.09 5.35 4.75 -11.2%
Total Offense 264.6 368.5 387.6 5.2%
Scoring Offense 13.5 23.8 27.3 14.7%
Passing Eff. Def. 115.4 130.78 124.29 -6.49
Yds/Rush Def. 4.65 4.49 4.15 -7.7%
Sacks 14 15 22 46.7%
Total Defense 343.8 381.6 359.1 -5.9%
Scoring Defense 26 28.5 20.2 -29.1%
Turnovers Gained 15 20 28 40.0%
Turnovers Lost 18 28 19 -32.1%
Turnover Margin -3 -8 +9 +17
3rd Down Offense 31.29% 32.19% 44.86% 39.4%
3rd Down Defense 36.54% 37.76% 34.71% -8.1%
Red Zone Scoring Pct. 66.67% 71.05% 80.95% 13.9%


I put the largest changes in bold.

The two largest offensive improvements came in passing efficiency and third down conversion rate. The former was especially important given that, in absence of 2009's leading rusher Anthony Dixon, Mississippi State's yards per rush fell by more than half a yard per carry. The improvement in third down conversions, along with the more modest increase in red zone scoring percentage, lends credence to the theory that State had a better handle on the new offense in 2010.

The biggest changes overall, however, were in the realm of turnovers. The team forced 40 percent more turnovers, lost 32 percent fewer turnovers, and swung its overall margin by 17.

The defense pulled its weight too when it comes to improvements. It allowed more than a touchdown less per game, though the changes in turnovers probably helped there. The nearly 50 percent increase in sacks had nothing to do with turnovers though, and the defense didn't see a backslide in any of these categories like the offense did with rushing offense.

The offense has plenty of room to grow in comparison to some of the better offenses we've seen in the SEC in recent years, but I can't imagine it improving by a large margin over last year based on who the school can recruit. The real question is how the defense will do without departed coordinator Manny Diaz. He presided over a more significant improvement of the defense from 2009-10 than Mullen did over an improvement in offense.

While new coordinator Chris Wilson was co-coordinator in title last year with Diaz, it was Diaz who called the plays on game day. How well he can replicate Diaz's success will go a long way towards determining how well the Bulldogs can continue 2010's improvements into 2011.