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April 21, 2011
The echo of cowbells may be just now fading.
Mississippi State's 2010 season warranted a prolonged celebration. In the second season under coach Dan Mullen, the Bulldogs posted their first win at Florida since 1965, ended a nine-game losing streak against Georgia and went to just their third bowl this century. They also had nine victories for the first time in 11 seasons.
Now, the hard part begins.
Any team can have a good season. Following up with another strong season is another story. Mississippi State was 8-5 in 2007, but the Bulldogs managed just four wins in '08. They also won eight games in 2000, but six consecutive losing seasons ensued.
Never in its 116-year history has Mississippi State posted back-to-back seasons with at least nine victories. Even with advantageous non-conference schedule that includes games with Memphis, Louisiana Tech, UAB and FCS member Tennessee-Martin, duplicating last season's win total won't be easy.
The offensive line lost star tackle Derek Sherrod, a probable first-round selection in the upcoming NFL draft, and center J.C. Brignone. All-SEC defensive end Pernell McPhee is gone, as is all-conference linebacker Chris White. In fact, the Bulldogs lost all three starting linebackers.
But quarterback, a problem area throughout the Bulldogs' history, actually could be a position of strength. Running back is in good shape with Vick Ballard, who ran for 968 yards and 19 scores last season. The secondary should be good, and the receivers should be better.
Finally, there is an atmosphere of confidence and expectation in Starkville, which isn't often the case.
Mullen, who turns 39 next Wednesday, points out that the confidence and expection come with positive and negative aspects.
"There is definitely [a different feeling] around the team and certainly around our campus and fan base," Mullen says. "There is an expectation here now of having a good season. But that can be good and bad.
"There is a lot more confidence in our players. There is a lot more confidence in our fan base. They think we're going forward to a championship level. But we're also a young team that's been patted on the back every day in class and told how great they were last year. Last year's team was laid to rest at the Gator Bowl [a 52-14 rout of Michigan]. That team doesn't exist. This year's team is completely different and has to make it own identity. We're working to fight overconfidence and keep that chip on our shoulder."
The foundation for much of Mississippi State's optimism is that under Mullen's direction, quarterback no longer appears to be a liability.
Mississippi State's record for single-season passing yards is just 2,422
As a result, the Bulldogs routinely have suffered from offensive ineptitude. In eight seasons from 2001-2008, they ranked between 96th and 115th in the nation in scoring offense. In seven of those seasons, they averaged fewer than 20 points per game.
That has changed under Mullen. Last season, the Bulldogs averaged 29.0 points to rank a respectable 48th in the nation. Mullen, who previously schooled All-America quarterbacks Alex Smith at Utah and Tim Tebow at Florida, has transformed senior Chris Relf into an effective quarterback, too.
Relf doesn't figure to contend for all-conference honors, but he did make significant progress last season with the best performance from a Mississippi State quarterback since Kevin Fant in 2003. Relf passed for 1,789 yards and 13 touchdowns, but he finished the season by completing 65 percent of his passes and throwing for more than 200 yards in each of the last three games (against Arkansas, Ole Miss and Michigan).
"That just goes back to working hard in the offseason and believing in yourself out on the field," Relf says. "At the end of the year, I just had more confidence than early in the year when they were switching me out [with Tyler Russell].
"I will keep working hard and working to get better. Hopefully, I'll pass for 5,000 yards if we throw the ball that much."
Perhaps more than anything, Relf's improvement shows that Mississippi State must be taken seriously as a factor in the SEC race.
"Our program is based on player development," Mullen says. "We're going to try to keep continually developing players the day they come in the door until the day they go out. Guys like Chris may not have the skills of highly recruited players with how ever many stars, but he has ability.
"We had to fine-tune some things, and to his credit he really turned the corner and committed himself. He had a good game when we beat Ole Miss in 2009. That's when he started to commit himself, but he didn't see the full results of that commitment until the end of last season. He really bought in and has developed as a quarterback."
Mississippi State also has developed an effective running game around Ballard. In addition, the Bulldogs return their top four wide receivers.
Now, Mississippi State's areas of concern have shifted to line play, where the Bulldogs have been good in the past. Hopes for another strong season depend heavily on the progress that is made along the lines.
"Our young players have to step up," Mullen says. "We have a young offensive line and that was a strength of our team last year. Those guys have to develop.
"We lost three starting linebackers. But we were most hit at defensive end. Pernell McPhee graduated and is heading off to the NFL. His backup, Nick Bell, passed away. We had another end quit last year before the Georgia game. When you get a player into your program, you develop him for the future. And when you lose two of your developmental players, it's a huge hit."
Consequently, Mullen is looking for players who can administer huge hits. Spring football provided a chance for newcomers, rising prospects and even previous underachievers. Those players will be key factors in whether last season's success continues.
"I don't know if anybody has [distinguished himself] just yet," Mullen says. "We have a lot of guys coming up. Hopefully, our defensive line as a whole can. We've been moving guys around."
Juniors Shane McCardell and Trevor Stigers and redshirt freshman Kaleb Eulls have drawn praise from Mullen. So have linebackers Deonte Skinner, Brandon Wilson and Ferlando Bohanna, who is expected to provide a physical presence in the middle.
If the unproven and unknown at those positions do develop into reliable starters, the Bulldogs can be a factor in the SEC championship race.
"It's all about who works the hardest," Relf says. "Last year, we were 9-4. This year I expect us to go all the way. It's just a matter of taking what we've learned and doing it."
Of course, anything seems possible in April. It's a different story in the fall.
Still, last season, the Bulldogs lost to SEC champion Auburn by three points and fell to Arkansas in overtime. That's how close the Bulldogs were to being in the thick of the championship race.
When can they be a legitimate contender?
"I'm hoping this year," Mullen says. "My expectations are still higher than [that of] our players and fan base. I expect us to compete for the championship every single season. But I'm also realistic of the long-term picture of building this program. We're certainly headed in the right direction.
"This team still has a long way to go to get to championship level. But we still have a full summer and 29 practices before a game. Hopefully, we'll find a way to Atlanta."
Just the thought of reaching the SEC title game should be enough to start those cow bells ringing again.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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