2011 Season Preview: 51 Phantom And The Mississippi State Bulldogs

For a program that has struggled to string together winning seasons, Dan Mullen is building a solid foundation. Can Mississippi State overcome the losses of both a star assistant coach and their entire linebacking corps to keep moving forward?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

Though the 2010 football season was one of excitement on the field for the Mississippi State football program, it included a level of off-the-field emotion that far too many teams have had to deal with in the last year. The Bulldogs had to go through the incredible devastation of burying a teammate when defensive end Nick Bell fell ill in October (after starting the season as a first-stringer) and passed away in early November, claimed by a rare form of cancer. Despite dealing with a level of emotion that only death can bring, however, the Bulldogs paid tribute to Bell with a high level of play. Playing in their first January 1 bowl game in 12 years, MSU finished off Michigan's Rich Rodriguez era by absolutely trouncing the Wolverines in the Gator Bowl and posted only their second nine-win season since 1981.

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. But rarely has hope been as high as it is right now, with Mullen quickly building a sturdy, legitimate program. It is difficult to assess what MSU's ceiling is in the ridiculously rugged SEC West, but after two years under Mullen, the bones of this program seem as fortified as they have been since the late-1990s. Now, Mullen just needs to stay in Starkville long enough for us can find out how far MSU can rise. He was involved in seemingly every coaching rumor of the offseason, but now he begins Year Three in charge of the Bulldogs.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 8-5 | Final F/+ Rk**: 26
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Memphis 49-7 W 35.3 - 22.7 W
9-Sep Auburn 14-17 L 15.9 - 18.0 L
18-Sep at LSU 7-29 L 28.2 - 32.4 L
25-Sep Georgia 24-12 W 33.5 - 25.3 W
2-Oct Alcorn State
49-16 W 37.5 - 33.9 W
9-Oct at Houston 47-24 W 35.6 - 22.7 W
16-Oct at Florida 10-7 W 24.7 - 25.3 L
23-Oct UAB 29-24 W 20.9 - 26.1 L
30-Oct Kentucky 24-17 W 22.5 - 7.3 W
13-Nov at Alabama 10-30 L 24.9 - 25.8 L
20-Nov Arkansas 31-38 L 30.8 - 29.8 W
27-Nov at Ole Miss 31-23 W 24.8 - 11.8 W
1-Jan vs Michigan 52-14 W 33.4 - 17.0 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 29.0 49 19.8 21
Adj. Points Per Game 28.3 55 22.9 30

Dan Mullen has a stellar offensive background, and to be sure, the Bulldogs' offense has improved rather significantly compared to where it was at the end of (okay, for most of) the Sylvester Croom era. But MSU won games with defense in 2010.

Actually, that's not entirely true. For the first half of the season, the offense was mostly stellar, performing at an above-average level in four consecutive games (including an LSU game marred by five interceptions -- as I've mentioned before, S&P+ only views turnovers as zero-point plays instead of something devastatingly negative; this will be adjusted at least slightly in the future). But there was a serious, measurable fade over the last half of the season.

MSU Offense, first six games: 31.0 Adj. PPG
MSU Offense, next six games: 24.8 Adj. PPG

The defense, meanwhile, was mostly consistent, performing at a below-average level only three times, against LSU, Alcorn State and Arkansas. Both units were obviously outstanding against Michigan.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 68 50 76
RUSHING 74 73 69 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 55 39 68 34
Standard Downs 41 33 45 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 77 84 66 89
Redzone 56 47 66
Q1 Rk 29 1st Down Rk 56
Q2 Rk 73 2nd Down Rk 67
Q3 Rk 39 3rd Down Rk 24
Q4 Rk 70

Fun with schedule adjustments: upon first glance, it appears that Mississippi State's passing attack was semi-explosive. Top targets Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark and Brandon Heavens all averaged at least 14 yards per catch, and when combined with catch rates of 58% or higher, one gets the impression that this was a high-octane, high-explosiveness pass attack.

Of course, it really wasn't. MSU's Passing PPP+ rating was mediocre at best. To say the least, they had some help in the "stat-padding" department. They played four games against either FCS teams (Alcorn State) or defenses ranked 100th or lower in Def. F/+ (No. 104 Houston, No. 105 Memphis, No. 115 Michigan), and made the most of those opportunities.

  • Mississippi State Passing Versus Bad Defenses: 69-for-111 (62% completion rate), 1,118 yards (10.1 per pass, 279.5 per game), 10 TD, 3 INT.
  • Mississippi State Versus Everyone Else: 99-for-177 (56%), 1,306 yards (7.4 per pass, 145.1 per game), 8 TD, 10 INT.

Everybody does better against bad defenses, obviously, but the difference for MSU was rather stark, as was the difference in strategy. Against bad defenses, the Bulldogs opened things up, passing 28 times per game. Against better defenses, they threw just 20. They were particularly helpless on passing downs.

For the season as a whole, Mississippi State was a run-first, run-second offense featuring the exploits of Vick Ballard (968 yards, 5.2 per carry, +15.0 Adj. POE, 19 TD), LaDarius Perkins (566 yards, 5.6 per carry, -0.2 Adj. POE; 247 receiving yards as a redshirt freshman) and quarterback Chris Relf (836 pre-sack rushing yards, -8.1 Adj. POE). Ballard himself piled up a tremendous resume while trouncing bad defenses (he carried 29 times for 313 yards and eight touchdowns against Memphis, Alcorn State and Houston), but he was so good against those defenses that he still registered well on the Adj. POE scale. That he had decent moments against good defenses (62 carries for 328 yards against Florida, Alabama and Arkansas) helped his cause despite a few iffy performances.

Virtually all of MSU's skill position players return in 2011 -- Ballard and Perkins, Relf and fellow quarterback Tyler Russell, all of the above receivers and Chris Smith (11.0 per catch, 80% catch rate). This wasn't a particularly strong SEC offense in 2010, but one has to figure they will improve a bit with such a high level of experience.

Other tidbits:

  • The quarterback situation for MSU took a couple of twists in 2010. Russell (635 yards, 9.5 per pass, 58% completion, 5 TD, 6 INT) began the year as a starter over Relf, but he threw four interceptions in 19 attempts against Auburn and LSU and (justifiably) lost his coaches' confidence. Relf, meanwhile, added a run threat to the mix (though his Adj. POE suggests he ran a bit too much), and his stat line (1,789 yards, 8.1 per pass, 59% completion, 13 TD, 6 INT) was a bit more stable. It appears Relf, a senior, will likely start this fall, but don't completely count out either Russell or, apparently, Dylan Favre.
  • The offensive line returns three starters from a line that was decent in the run-blocking department. However, they must replace their anchor in left tackle Derek Sherrod, and they evidently struggled a bit this spring. Obviously a shaky line could offset any advances in the skill position department.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 10 17 12
RUSHING 10 15 10 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 21 22 17 6
Standard Downs 7 12 7 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 14 21 13 34
Redzone 13 11 14
Q1 Rk 21 1st Down Rk 17
Q2 Rk 7 2nd Down Rk 17
Q3 Rk 22 3rd Down Rk 7
Q4 Rk 19

When Sylvester Croom was in charge in Starkville, MSU always had a pretty decent defense. But it was nothing like what the Bulldogs put on the field in 2010. Mississippi State was good against the pass and great against the run, something that showed particularly against more one-dimensional teams like Michigan. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz coached innovative tactics for attacking a team's run, and when opponents abandoned the run to throw the ball, the MSU secondary was mostly good enough to make sure that didn't beat them either.

A fast riser in the world of coaching, Diaz was successful enough in just his first year in Starkville that Texas came calling and hired him away. Defensive line coach Chris Wilson now assumes the big chair; this is his first d.c. job, so it is difficult to glean how his philosophy might differ from that of Diaz, but he has had a lot of success as a defensive line coach through the years at MSU, Oklahoma, Colorado and Illinois State. The stats suggest the line was what stirred MSU's drink last fall, so that's a good start.

In terms of tackles, five of the top six linemen are back, but the best one is gone. End Pernell McPhee (10.0 TFL/sacks, 4 PBU) departs, but last year's depth could pay off. Eight linemen had at least 2.0 TFL/sacks, and tackles Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd (combined stats: 39.0 tackles, 14.0 TFL/sacks) are both stellar. McPhee, a fifth-round draft pick this April, was good, but ends Sean Ferguson and Trevor Stigers may be able to pick up the slack.

In Diaz' system, linebackers were used in creative ways as well, and this unit does not return the same level of depth as the line. Of MSU's four primary LBs, three are gone, including fourth-round draft pick K.J. Wright (74.5 tackles, 8.0 TFL/sacks, 9 PBU) and sixth-rounder Chris White (82.0 tackles, 15.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT). Cameron Lawrence (27.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks) will lead a green unit.

Other tidbits:

  • The top five players return in the secondary, including three tackling machines at safety -- Charles Mitchell (74.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks), Nickoe Whitley (43.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 2 FR, 3 PBU as a redshirt freshman) and Wade Bonner (32.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FF) -- and a pair of potentially great corners in Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield (combined stats: 88.0 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks, 6 INT, 13 PBU). There could be more pressure on this unit with the departures at linebacker, but it might be up to the challenge.
  • There was another change in the coaching staff with Diaz' departure: MSU brought aboard Geoff Collins to coach the linebackers. I can't tell for sure how good a coach Collins is -- early indications are positive -- but I can say he's easily one of the most entertaining coaches on Twitter.

Mississippi State's 2010 Season Set to Music

Since Diaz' defenses were intended to confuse and mislead, to make quarterbacks see defenders where there are none, how about a little "51 Phantom" by North Mississippi Allstars? Because I will never pass up an opportunity to show some NMAS love.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 48
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 36
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +7 / +0.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (8, 7)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -4.1

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.

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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