by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst

Understandably, expectations have gone through the roof in Starkville following LY’s outstanding 9-4 campaign, culminating in a 52-14 slaughter vs. Michigan in the Gator Bowl. And keep in mind, the Bulldogs were just a couple plays away from upsets vs. the national champs Auburn (narrow 17-14 setback) and Arkansas (38-31 in double OT). Confident, upbeat, 3rd-year HC Dan Mullen has embraced the higher goals this season. “For us the expectation is always to improve,” Mullen said in the offseason. “Last year, we had to prove everyone being wrong about us. This year, we have to prove everyone being right about us.” Unquestionably, the SEC West is a monster once again, but experienced MSU (15 starters back) has a real shot to move up the ladder after finishing in 5th place LY, with huge home games vs.legit national title contenders Alabama and LSU. Mullen—who had his salary more than doubled with a new four-year deal that will pay him $2.65 million annually—will earn his keep in 2011.

The steadily-developing spread attack (29 ppg LY; just 15 ppg in Mullen’s rookie season) should continue to grow and mature under the leadership of athletic, dual threat 6-4, 245-pound Chris Relf (59%, 1789 YP, 13 TDs, 6 ints., 713 YR), who has been given an expanded playbook in 2011. In the spring, Relf reportedly made huge progress from both a technical standpoint and a confidence level. Our Starkville sources tell us he’s taken ownership of the spread offense and has found a high comfort level with the schemes and his teammates. “It shows great respect for him, because he’s showed great leadership skills, and he’s stepped it up a whole other level, because he wants to win.” exclaims TB LaDarius Perkins. “And he has everybody else wanting to win, too.” Capable, semi-experienced 6-5 soph QB Tyler Russell (39 of 67, 5 TDs 6ints.) is backup with vocal RS frosh Dylan Favre (Brett’s nephew) closing gap in spring. LY’s mediocre passing game (only 186 ypg LY; 9th in SEC) has the ingredients to be more dynamic TY (Mullens’ goal is 240 ypg), thanks to a deeper, more experienced group of WRs, featuring nifty jr. Chad Bumphis (44 grabs, 634 yds., 5 TDs). Meanwhile, the powerful ground component (215 ypg, 2nd in SEC) should continue to thrive behind prolific sr. RB Vick Ballard (968 YR, 5.2 ypc, school-record 19 TDs), burgeoning soph LaDariues Perkins (566 YR, 5.6 ypc) and highly-touted RS frosh Nick Griffin (recovering from torn ACL, expected to be cleared Oct. 1), who might be the best of the bunch. Mullen has expressed some concern over his scarcity of experienced depth along the OL (3 starters back), which must also replace All-American LT Derek Sherrod (1st round pick in NFL draft).

Even though highly-respected d.c. Manny Diaz has bolted for Texas, the fast, gang-tackling defense (19.8 ppg; 119 ypg rushing, 3.6 ypc) should show no slippage under the astute guidance of co-coordinators Chris Wilson and former Florid International d.c. Geoff Collins. And like Diaz, Collins has an aggressive, attacking style and brings blitzes from all over. Sure, all three LBs must be replaced, but coaches not too worried about that reloading unit (“We have SEC-caliber talent there,” beams Mullen) with the arrival of punishing sr. Clemson transfer MLB Brandon Maye, who started 33 games for the Tigers, piling up 233 tackles and establishing a school single-season record with five forced fumbles in 2009. Mullen also boasts his most experienced DL (3 of 4 starters back), and the seasoned secondary should tighten up after surrendering 237.8 yds. pg LY. Starting jr. CBs Johnthan Banks (3 ints.) and Corey Broomfield (3 ints.) along with super soph FS Nickoe Whitley (3 ints., 2nd-team Frosh A-A LY) will break up more passes and continue to provide solid run support. A new punter, holder and snapper must be found, but accurate PK Derek DePasquale (nailed 20 of 24 FGs L2Ys) is back.

Summary...This appears to be the best Bulldog squad in many years. But MSU will be hard-pressed to improve upon LY’s nine-win total with six true road games in 2011, including hostile trips to Auburn, Georgia and Arkansas. Ouch! But athe scending Bulldogs do have an opportunity for a strong start by facing heavy-rebuilding, Newton-less Auburn Tigers on The Plains in early September, followed by a Thursday showdown at home vs. LSU (6 wins by 7 pts. or fewer LY!), which had a string of Houdini-like escapes in 2010. With an upgraded, more sophisticated passing game better complementing a well-established infantry attack, no surprise to find MSU is in the conversation for the division crown come November.

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