This post continues our series checking in on next season's opponents. Our goal is to have gathered useful information about each character from Carolina's villains gallery prior to the beginning of the season. We've previously talked about the East Carolina Pirates, the Georgia Bulldogs, the Navy Midshipmen, the Vanderbilt Commodores, the Auburn Tigers, and the Kentucky Wildcats. Today, we're discussing the Mississippi St. Bulldogs.
If South Carolina was the SEC's biggest pleasant surprise last year, Mississippi St. was close behind. After a surprisingly competitive 5-7 season in Dan Mullen's first year in 2009, in 2010 the Bulldogs asserted themselves as a legitimate SEC contender, going 9-4 and netting a number of high-profile wins, including a 52-14 throttling of Michigan in the Gator Bowl. There's still work to be done in Starkville: MSU only finished 5th in the crowded SEC West and lost to the division's top four teams, and the team's Pythag wins suggest that it overachieved. However, after a string of lean years, there's no doubt that what happened last year at MSU has to be considered a huge success, and there's a fair bit of excitement surrounding this program for the first time in quite a while.
Significant Personnel Losses
Phil Steele ranks MSU 57th in the nation with 15 returning starters. However, considering that all 15 come from offense and defense, I would say that the Bulldogs are sitting pretty in terms of returning talent, granted that they can find good kickers to replace their efficient departed starters. The major loss on offense is left tackle Derek Sherrod, who is now in the NFL. The defense, which was 21st in the nation in scoring defense a year ago, returns lots of talent at defensive tackle but loses DE Pernell McPhee and LBs Chris White and K.J. Wright. All three will be tough to replace.
Continue reading after the jump.
The offensive prognosis for MSU is, in a word, good. Offensive whiz Mullen has improved this offense each year since he arrived, and with most of the offensive line and All-SEC candidates at QB and RB in Chris Relf and Vick Ballard returning, there's no reason to believe that shouldn't continue to be the case. In this group Mullen has found a good core a players to build his run-based spread around, and this should again be one of the conference's best rushing attacks. The big question mark is the passing game, but with Relf a year more experienced and plenty of returning talent returning at receiver, that should improve, too, just as it did over the second half of last season.
This is a bit more of a question mark. The Bulldogs should again be very good against the run with both defensive tackles returning, but the challenge will be to generate a pass rush and defend the pass. With little returning experience at DE, LB, and last year's corners underwhelming, this should be a team that's vulnerable to a good air attack.
Although we used to play them frequently, MSU is not a traditional rival, so this game won't hold a lot of emotional content, other than for those who would like to see us avenge ourselves upon our old foe Mullen. That said, it's very likely that MSU will have at most two losses coming into this game, and if it has less, this could be a high-profile intra-divisional matchup between ranked teams. If that's the case, it will amp up the intensity factor a bit.
Part of me wants to say that this is a trip-up game for Carolina. MSU is a good team, the game is in the fairly unfriendly confines of Starkville, and it could be a trap game, as it's sandwiched between two undoubtedly more important games against Kentucky and Tennessee. That said, I think we match up well against this team: we should be able to handle their running game to some degree, forcing them to resort to an under-tested passing game, and while they have the defensive line to slow down Marcus Lattimore, they lack the pass rush that typically puts Stephen Garcia off his game. I think we win this one, but it will be close.