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August 31, 2011On New Year's Day Mississippi State dominated Michigan in the Gator Bowl.
The Bulldogs not only celebrated their 52-14 victory but also their first bowl win in nine years on the field following the game.
But that was nine months ago.
Now Dan Mullen and MSU, ranked preseason No. 20, begin a new season full of high expectations following a 9-4 season in 2010.
"We're really excited to get going," Mullen said. "If you look, we haven't played since January 1st of this year so it's been a nine month wait between games. Obviously the excitement of the first game is upon us. We worked hard in the offseason, spring ball, summer conditioning and training camp. I can't wait to get out there and go play. I think our team is excited to get out there on the field and showcase all the hard work they've put in over the last nine months waiting for the kickoff."
The first task on the Bulldogs schedule is a trip to Memphis Thursday night. State won convincingly last season 49-7 over the Tigers in Starkville but a revamped offense and roster for Larry Porter gives Mullen a little mystery heading into the opener.
"As you look they have a bunch of new starters going this year," Mullen said. "Obviously they've made some changes with a high tempo offense that we haven't seen on film. If you look, some of the guys that return on defense their two d-tackles are SEC quality players. When you have that type of ability up front you throw in some new talented players and guys who are in their second year of the program that makes them a very dangerous team."
Memphis had a dismal 1-11 showing last year but Mullen, who is just in year three as a head coach, expects Porter to see some improvement in his second season.
"Obviously getting into the second year of the program, Coach Porter is going to have them ready to go," Mullen said. "I think that first year there is a lot of learning what your program is all about. Now the guys are coming back in their second year understand the program. What I mean by that is development through offseason conditioning, spring ball, training camp and what your expectations are. You can see a huge jump forward in the second year of a program."
State will also unveil some new starters as well. Redshirt freshman Matthew Wells is atop the depth chart at outside linebacker for the opener.
"We have some young talented players at linebacker so we're going to have to play some young guys," Mullen said. "Matt is a great athlete. He's a guy who came here that we recruited as an athlete, went over to the defensive side of the ball and bought into what we were doing playing some safety last year and a little bit of linebacker. He's grown physically in the offseason and really gives us an outside linebacker with a safety skills set. He's grown into the size of a linebacker with the athleticism of a DB. Hopefully he'll create an athletic mismatch for us."
Another new starter will be at left tackle for the departed Derek Sherrod and Phillip Freeman. Both senior James Carmon - a former defensive tackle - and redshirt freshman Blaine Clausell have been battling since the spring for the starting job.
Mullen was not willing to announce the starter but is pleased with the progress of both players.
"We feel pretty good about the competition there," Mullen said. "We have a good idea who is going to start for us right now. Everybody worries about who is going to start, but that's never been my concerns. We have to have two guys as have to develop both of them because not only did we lose our starting left tackle, we lost our third tackle - the first guy in the game last year. You are a play away from being the starter and that's something that's been our number one focus during training camp more than who the actual starter is and make sure both guys are ready to play."
Naturally when an offense returns its starting quarterback there is more of a secured feeling heading into a new year. Chris Relf started every game for the Bulldogs last season and made progress throughout the year in his development.
"A year ago we were going to try and keep things simple for him as he built his confidence," Mullen said. "Right now I'm comfortable with him doing everything. It's not that we didn't have the whole playbook for him last year but I think early on within each game we might keep it a little simpler for him where he could build up his confidence. Now as an experienced guy coming in there is a lot more freedom in every game, a lot more freedom in the adjustments of the game for him. We can make a lot more in-game adjustments because he knows what's going on and why we're trying to do those things."