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All eyes will be on Mississippi State Thursday night in the season opener for the Bulldogs when they battle Memphis at the Liberty Bowl.
State hopes to continue their impressive finish to last season which included a second straight Egg Bowl victory over Ole Miss and a 52-14 win over Michigan in the Gator Bowl which no doubt set the tone for a good start to 2011 under third year head coach Dan Mullen.
Mullen is 14-11 in his first two seasons in Starkville, tied for third among all coaches in that category.
Mississippi State hopes to continue their impressive streak of openers including their domination of the Tigers; 13-2 in the all-time series
between the two to kick off a new season, most recently, last yearâ€™s 49-7 pounding. The Tigers are coming off a horrible 1-11 season under then first year head coach Larry Porter. They have just a handful of starters coming back on both sides of the ball.
The Bulldogs have plenty of reasons to feel good about this season. Not only are they ranked No. 20 in the preseason polls, but the Bulldogs, led by senior quarterback Chris Relf returns eight starters on offense including senior Vick Ballard who finished with 20 touchdowns a year ago.
Relf has faced some criticism in the past, but in his first full year as the starter, he put up more numbers than any player in Starkville over the last two decades with over 2,500 total yards. A preseason Davey Oâ€™Brien and Manning Award watch list nominee, Relf is poised to be one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC. It helps to have experience under your belt too.
â€śIt helps to have guy when you go into game one that has played in gamesâ€ť Mullen said. â€śThe lights come on and knows how to prepare for games. Itâ€™s not a new experience for him stepping out onto the field.â€ť
Last season with Relf at the helm, the offense improved in almost every category including scoring average, passing touchdowns, rushing touchdowns and turnovers. State had just nine turnovers in those nine wins.
Expect the running game to be a vital part of the offensive system this year. Led by Ballard, who rushed for 994 yards and 19 touchdowns, the Bulldogs had over 2,400 yards total rushing, including 100-plus yards in every game.
Overall defensively, the Bulldogs will be seasoned at almost every position except at linebacker which features three new players with no experience.
Not to worry, the defensive front and secondary has plenty of experience to make up for it including Sean Ferguson, Fletcher Cox and Junior cornerback Corey Broomfield who has nine career interceptions.
Mullen said he doesnâ€™t know what the Tigers will be bringing to the table on Thursday at 7 p.m., he wants to focus on what the Bulldogs can do.
â€śA lot when you go into the first game has to be focused on you,â€ť he said. â€śOur personality on the team will be different from last even though we have a lot of returning starters. Your focus has to be, are we taking care of the football, scoring in the red-zone when we have the opportunity to do it, not giving up the big play, creating turnovers. Those are things that you control.â€ťView more articles in: