2012 Mississippi State Football Preview: Niche Life

LITTLE ROCK, AR - NOVEMBER 19: Tyler Russell #17 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs throws a pass against the Arkansas Razorbacks at War Memorial Stadium on November 19, 2011 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Razorbacks defeated the Bulldogs 44-17. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

A senior-heavy depth chart and a manageable home (and non-conference) schedule provide Mississippi State with a serious opportunity in 2012: mainstream success for a niche artist. (As long as "mainstream success" doesn't include a division crown, anyway.) Related: Mississippi State's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends and rankings galore.

For more on Bulldogs football, visit MSU blog For Whom The Cowbell Tolls, plus SEC blog Team Speed Kills.

In the world of the Internet and The Long Tail, there is nothing wrong with targeting a niche market. O.A.R. plays really large music venues. So does Allison Krauss. Guided by Voices. Jim Jarmusch movies have a loyal following. So do those of Ed Burns, for that matter. You punch your weight, you don't aim for epic mainstream success, you do what makes you happy, and you find yourself successful.

Occasionally, of course, you can grow into something larger than your original scope. Bob Dylan isn't really known as a New York folk musician anymore, after all. And for that matter, the Boise State football program no longer beats you with trickeration; now they do it by out-executing you and mauling you in the trenches. But for every "moving up in weight class" success story, there are a thousand failures. A band tries to go mainstream and perhaps finds short-term success but turns off its hardcore fans in the process. A film director takes on a major project for a big pay day but turns off old fans and critics alike.


SB Nation Studios previews the SEC with SEC speeeeeeed.

This brings us to Mississippi State, of course. In just three years, Dan Mullen, Urban Meyer's former righthand man, has built the MSU program into one that is perfectly solid. After attending bowls just once from 2001 (the final, faltering days of Jackie Sherrill) to 2009 (the first year of the Mullen era), Mullen has engineered 16 wins, and two bowl victories, in two years. His Bulldogs are big, athletic, and reasonably talented. And historically speaking, that's about where Mississippi State, a niche market in a niche SEC town, should aim: win eight games, bang those cowbells, make a bowl, scare the big boys … and hey, with a few breaks and good timing … who knows?

Now? Now I think expectations have been raised to 6-8 wins and a bowl game under Dan Mullen. Sure, that doesn't seem like high expectations to some, but for us, I think that is a big deal. You also ask about what our "dream goals" are when a new coach comes in? I think for us a dream is for a string of 4-5+ consecutive seasons of attending bowl games. Maybe an SEC Championship. I mean, the way the SEC has been as of late, winning the SEC basically IS winning the National Championship, so I guess now those basically go hand in hand. I think though as State fans we wish for multiple bowl seasons, because when we've had them in the past, we typically follow those successful seasons up with a season that's resoundingly MEH. I think before 2010/2011, the last back to back bowl games we had played in was 1998,1999, and 2000.

We are just hoping for bowl games year-to-year...and hopefully that will evolve into being in contention for the SEC West. Me personally, a SEC Championship is the ultimate goal. We have only won one (1941) so it would be a huge deal. Of course, if we win the SEC we would most likely have a shot at the national title, but I'm not even thinking about that. We did win the West in 1998, and if we do it again we are going to throw a massive party in Starkville.

Those aren't Mullen's goals, of course, but that seems to be where the bar is set. State isn't a threat to start landing top-five recruiting classes, and like so many other major-conference teams, they need a little help from falling powers to sneak up and steal a division or conference crown, but all you can do in a niche market is keep your house in order and make sure you are ready when that opportunity presents itself (and even in the SEC West, it occasionally does). In 2012, there is opportunity on the table, even if State's division possesses potentially the two best teams in the country (again). A division crown probably isn't in the works, but a combination of experience and a light schedule could allow the Bulldogs to post a decent amount of mainstream success.


Related: Check out Mississippi State's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about Mullen's Bulldogs last summer:

With an offseason to recharge the emotional batteries and replace some key defensive cogs, head coach Dan Mullen and the Bulldogs will now attempt to do something Mississippi State has not done very much over time: follow winning with more winning.

Through the decades, MSU has teased fans with hope, especially under Emory Bellard (1979-85) and Jackie Sherrill (1991-03). Individual seasons of stellar play have been followed by unexpected droughts. Since Darrell K. Royal left Starkville for one season at the Univ. of Washington in the mid-1950s, the Bulldogs have experienced spans of consecutive seasons exactly four times: 1974-76, 1980-81, 1991-92 and 1997-00. Otherwise, it's been one-and-done. […]

On the surface, there is quite a bit working against Mississippi State in 2011. They benefited from extremely good fumbles luck last year, and their minus-4.1 YPP Margin suggests they were a little unsustainably good from a points-to-yards standpoint. Plus, they must replace the outstanding coordinator of a defense that carried the Bulldogs at times. There are things to like, of course: Chris Relf is well-tested, Vick Ballard is an underrated back, the defensive line is deep, and the overall level of experience is strong. But in the SEC West, you need more than "things to like." Dan Mullen is a good coach, and he will absolutely lead a competitive team this fall, but initial signs point to a step backwards.

Mississippi State's 2011 schedule will afford us an early glimpse of what they have going for them. After a gimme against Memphis, the Bulldogs take on Auburn (on the road) and LSU (at home) back to back. If they are 2-1 after three games, this season could be headed toward something special. If they are 1-2, however, the goal likely becomes simply maintaining bowl eligibility for another season and attempting another nice step forward in 2012.


Hey, y'all. Shutdown Fullback talks SEC.

The 2011 season indeed offered a step backward, but it was manageable. The Bulldogs ranked 43rd in F/+ and fielded a team quite similar to the 5-7 squad of 2009, Mullen's first in Starkville. But instead of playing three 10-win non-conference opponents like they did in 2009, MSU skated through Memphis, Louisiana Tech, UAB and UT-Martin unscathed (though Louisiana Tech came close to scathing), won six games, and kept the beginning stages of a bowl streak alive.

As a whole, the season took some twists and turns.

First Five Games: MSU 27.1 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 27.1 (plus-0.0)
Next Three Games: MSU 28.2 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 25.3 (plus-2.9)
Next Three Games: Opponents 30.8 Adj. Points per game, MSU 26.7 (minus-4.1)
Last Two Games: MSU 26.0 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 23.5 (plus-2.5)

With the loss of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz to Texas and quite a bit of shuffling up front (of the 11 defensive linemen who logged at least 5.5 tackles last year, only three played in all 13 games), the defense began to crater as the season progressed, especially when safety Nickoe Whitley also went down. But it rebounded to mostly dominate Ole Miss and Wake Forest. Meanwhile, the offense mostly oscillated between average to slightly below average.

In 2012, the offense is less experienced but interesting, and the defense returns everybody but its biggest star. There probably isn't a reason to expect any sort of darkhorse run at a division title (having to play at both Alabama and LSU would preclude such a run anyway, even if it were otherwise conceivable), but a return to the F/+ top 30, where the Bulldogs resided in 2010, could be in the cards.

Offense

It is a time-tested rule in college football: whatever you choose as your identity, commit to it. Tommy Tuberville learned this the hard way in his Auburn dalliance with the spread offense in 2008. Either he, his staff or his players were not totally committed to Tony Franklin's spread offense, and it showed. The results were terrible, and Franklin was gone by midseason (Franklin, meanwhile, has led mostly strong offenses virtually everywhere else he has been).

In 2011, Mississippi State's problem wasn't so much the lack of commitment to an offensive identity; the problem was more the simple lack of an identity. Then-senior quarterback Chris Relf was a physical presence, a 6'4, 245-pound dual-threat who could hammer through tacklers at times. He ran for over 100 yards four times in his career, and averaged 4.0 yards per carry, serving as a decent complement to running backs Vick Ballard (also a senior in 2011) and LaDarius Perkins. He attempted 1.79 passes for every carry, a rather run-heavy total. Of course, while 4.0 yards per carry isn't amazingly impressive, neither is 5.7 yards per pass attempt. Relf completed 60 percent of his passes, but they really didn't go anywhere. His interception rate was 4.7 percent, and his sack rate was 5.5 percent, each quite a bit higher than they probably should have been, and when MSU needed to complete a pass, Relf probably wasn't the guy to get it done.

On the other hand, MSU also had an interesting passer in then-sophomore Tyler Russell. Yards per pass attempt: 7.1. Interception rate: 3.1 percent. An average of 5.2 passes for every carry (very pocket-based). With Russell in the game, MSU's run game suffered a bit, but the passing game improved. And as the season progressed, Russell began to see quite a few more snaps. For the season, though, it didn't really matter who was behind center.

Mississippi State Offense (Primary Quarterback: Relf): 26.7 Adj. Points per game
Mississippi State Offense (Primary Quarterback: Russell): 27.3 Adj. Points per game

With Relf gone (Ballard, too, for that matter), MSU isn't guaranteed to improve on offense, but it is guaranteed not to have a confused identity. Expect Russell to wing the ball around quite a bit. There was a higher percentage of five-wide formations in the spring game, and with the top four wideouts (and seven of the top eight) returning, this might be a pretty good idea. Mullen and offensive coordinator Les Koenning are probably going to remain a bit conservative when possible; they ran 44 percent of the time on passing downs last year (national average: 33 percent), and that wasn't all because of Relf. But whereas MSU averaged about 27 passes per game last year, we should probably expect that number to reach into the low- to mid-30s this fall.

The Bulldogs are loaded with flawed-but-interesting wideouts. Russell himself struggled with accuracy at times, but his receivers probably need to help him out a bit more this time around. In seniors Arceto Clark and Chad Bumphis, they have a pair of interesting intermediate-to-deep threats (average yards per catch: 14.2) who are a bit too inefficient (catch rate: 54 percent). In senior Chris Smith and junior Ricco Sanders, they have potentially decent possession guys (yards per catch: 9.9) who were far too inefficient (catch rate: 57 percent, about 10-20 percent lower than it should be with that per-catch average).

Honestly, the most interesting pieces of the receiving corps could be the ones that were lurking lower on the depth chart last year. Tight end Malcolm Johnson averaged 10.8 yards per target and 18.7 yards per catch as a freshman. Also a freshman in 2011, Jameon Lewis averaged 15.9 yards per target and 20.4 yards per catch but was only targeted nine times. He also carried 11 times for 86 yards and should line up just about everywhere in 2012; he caught 10 passes for 144 yards in the spring game. Former four-star recruit Robert Johnson (four catches in 2011), meanwhile, still has time to figure things out, and fans are buzzing about the spring performance of redshirt freshman Joe Morrow. The top of MSU's receiving corps was rather mediocre in 2011; but if the seniors are supplemented by some high-upside freshmen and sophomores, the Bulldogs could suddenly have more than enough weapons for Russell.

When MSU does choose to run the ball, it should still have some interesting options despite Ballard's departure. Junior LaDarius Perkins (who, it should be noted, caught 13 of 13 passes last year, albeit for just 59 yards) has rushed for 1,448 yards in two years of backing up Ballard, and bigger backs like 225-pound sophomore Nick Griffin, 215-pound redshirt freshman Josh Robinson and 205-pound redshirt freshman Derrick Milton could provide a decent change of pace. The biggest issue for both the running and passing games, honestly, could be up front, where only one lineman (two-year starting guard Gabe Jackson) has started a full season's worth of games. Three others (center Dillon Day, tackle Blaine Clausell and guard Tobias Smith) have combined for 17 career starts, but a line that was just mediocre last year (55th in Adj. Line Yards, 66th in Adj. Sack Rate) will need contributions from sophomores and junior college transfers to even reach that level again.

Defense

When Mullen took the MSU head coaching job, the line of thinking for an optimistic State fan was simple: hold the fort defensively (MSU ranked 17th in Def. F/+ in 2007) and improve the offense (again, Mullen was known as a strong offensive mind), and voila! You've got yourself a really nice team! Well, the offense has seen fits and starts (30th in Off. F/+ in 2009, 89th in 2010, 72nd in 2011) while the defense has just been damn good. State ranked ninth in Def. F/+ in 2010 and a steady 18th in 2011, and despite the loss of first-round draft pick Fletcher Cox, it should have the depth to be solid once again.

We have to start the conversation in the back of the defense. MSU must replace two starting safeties, Charles Mitchell and Wade Bonner (combined: seven passes broken up, 4.0 tackles for loss, 15 percent of all tackles), but wow, do they have some serious potential at cornerback. Seniors Johnthan Banks (five interceptions, nine passes broken up, 8.0 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles) and either Corey Broomfield (five passes broken up, 5.0 tackles for loss) or Darius Slay (one pick, four passes broken up) will make for one of the SEC's best sets of corners; it's either/or on the second spot there, as Broomfield has been spending some time in a still-unsettled safety unit. Defensive coordinator Chris Wilson used his corners very, very aggressively in 2011, and one should expect him to do the same in 2012. And if free safety Nickoe Whitley is indeed 100 percent after a scary Achilles injury last year, the safeties should hold up their end of the bargain.

MSU ranked 32nd in Passing S&P+ and 28th on passing downs last year despite a mediocre-at-best pass rush. While the secondary should once again be strong, the Bulldogs are hoping that a serious talent infusion up front aids in attacking the quarterback. Senior end Shane McCardell (7.5 tackles, 1.0 tackle for loss) is the most proven returning end (and he's not very proven), but between four-star junior college transfer Denico Autry, three-star freshman A.J. Jefferson, redshirt freshman John Harris and sophomore Preston Smith, there is quite a bit of potential. Autry had 11 sacks at East Mississippi Community College, but he'll only need more than three to top anything a Mississippi State end produced last year.

Star tackle Fletcher Cox (14.5 tackles for loss) is now a Philadelphia Eagle, but in senior Josh Boyd (8.0 tackles for loss), four-star sophomore Kaleb Eulis (3.0 tackles for loss), sophomore Curtis Virges (2.5 tackles for loss) and 335-pound senior Dewayne Cherrington, MSU still has quality depth in the middle. The key for improvement in 2012 will absolutely be at end.

A deeper line might mean the linebackers aren't forced to make as many plays, but in senior Cameron Lawrence, junior Deontae Skinner and sophomore Matthew Wells, the Bulldogs have three guys who combined for 20.0 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles. The 230-pound Lawrence is adept in pass coverage; he picked off two passes and broke up another five. MSU must replace two of its top four tacklers here, not to mention its two leading Brandons (Brandon Wilson, Brandon Maye), but Wells and fellow sophomores Christian Holmes and the wonderfully-named Ferlando Bohanna should prevent too much of a dropoff.

Defining Success

Honestly, the schedule could barely take shape any better for MSU in 2012. The Bulldogs must play at both Alabama and LSU, but that's fine -- they probably would have lost to those teams at home anyway (they certainly did last year). But all four conference home games (Auburn, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Arkansas) are winnable (though Arkansas did whip them by 27 in Fayetteville in 2011), as are trips to Ole Miss and Kentucky. Throw in a super-cakey non-conference schedule (Jackson State, at Troy, South Alabama, Middle Tennessee), and you've got the potential for a high win total even if the Bulldogs are only a top 30 to 35 team. In fact, the Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 projects MSU to rank just 44th in F/+ but still gives the Bulldogs a 21 percent chance of finishing 8-4 or better. We'll set the bar there, but if they are indeed better than 44th, a much better record could be in the cards.

Prognosis

It's a pretty good time to be a Bulldog fan. While still facing life as a niche artist, competitive but not elite, reasonably high quality but not chart-topping, Mississippi State is looking more sturdily built than at any time since the late-1990s. Dan Mullen is a true SEC-caliber coach, and he has quickly built MSU into a true SEC-caliber program. And in 2012, with stadium expansion on the horizon, a stronger offensive identity, elite cornerbacks, as easy a schedule as you could hope for in the SEC, and in-state rival Ole Miss still figuring out how to put the pieces back together, State is facing down a serious opportunity to make some noise. It would be a shame to waste it.

For more on Bulldogs football, visit MSU blog For Whom The Cowbell Tolls, plus SEC blog Team Speed Kills.

While we’re here, let’s watch some of the many fine college football videos from SB Nation’s YouTube channel:

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