The summer workouts will begin in just a few weeks and Scout.com went to its experts at each of the 12 SEC schools to gather post-spring practice outlooks heading into the summer, while also polling our writers to determine their picks to win the division and overall league titles.. Here is part 11 of a series that takes a look at each school with less than three months to go until teams report for fall camp.
Next up: LSU
Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen was hired as Mississippi State’s 32nd head football coach Dec. 11, nearly a month before Florida added a second national title to the resume that helped Mullen land the Bulldog head job. But adding another championship ring to his collection didn’t do a thing to change the reality the 37-year old Mullen faces as he takes over in Starkville – there is no tougher place to win on a consistent basis in the SEC than at Mississippi State.
Sylvester Croom spent five years trying to develop the Bulldogs into SEC title contenders, and although it seemed like the 2007 season might be a breakthrough with an 8-5 record after a win in the Liberty Bowl, a 4-8 record in 2008, including a 45-0 loss to archrival Ole Miss, finished off a mark of 21-38 overall and 10-30 in the SEC that led to Croom’s resignation.
Mullen brings a reputation as an offensive whiz to Starkville, hoping to create the type of excitement that will improve recruiting and instill some fear in opposing defenses when they have to take on what in the past has been a low-scoring, even boring, Mississippi State offensive unit.
It all starts at quarterback, where Mullen should have his biggest coaching impact after tutoring former No. 1 NFL draft choice Alex Smith at Utah and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow at Florida.
Senior Tyler Lee and sophomore Chris Relf both seemed to improve dramatically throughout Mullen’s inaugural spring practice sessions, with Lee leading the Maroon to a victory in the spring game by completing 19-of-33 passes for 251 yards while Relf hit 13-of-26 passes for 195 yards in the contest.
Despite improvement at quarterback, the Bulldogs will still be relying heavily on senior tailback Anthony Dixon to be a key factor in any offensive upgrade in 2009. Dixon is already the school’s career leader in rushing attempts (645) and rushing touchdowns (30) and his 2,585 career rushing yards leave him only 627 away from surpassing Jerious Norwood as the school’s all-time rushing leader.
The change to the spread offense that Mullen brought with him from Florida was most obvious in the passing game, where Leon Berry, Terrance Davis, Brandon McRae, O’Neal Wilder and Delmon Robinson all figure to get plenty of chances to catch passes from Lee and Relf in the fall. McRae, who suffered a broken leg in the 2008 finale against Ole Miss and was held out of contact this spring, caught 51 passes last season and should benefit greatly from the new offense.
On the defensive side, linebacker K.J. Wright is the leader of a unit that was stingy at times, but was unable to hold up throughout the season because of the weak offensive output that generated little yardage and only 15 points per game. Wright had 72 tackles, including four sacks, in 2008 and should be helped up front by the addition of juco defensive linemen Pernell McPhee and Chris White.
The kicking game also got an infusion of juco talent with Sean Brauchle, who kicked 57-yard field goals in two different spring scrimmages and punter Heath Hutchins nailing down the starting positions.
How quickly can Mullen change the culture of mediocrity that has engulfed Mississippi State for so long? That will be the key to success both in recruiting and on the field. But there is no question that Mullen’s hiring generated the type of enthusiasm that should give an immediate boost to the perception that the Bulldogs will be an offensive force, if not this season, certainly in the near future.
Scout.com Publishers’ Predictions
(first-place votes in parentheses)
1. Florida (12)
4. South Carolina
1. Alabama (5)
2. Ole Miss (4)
3. LSU (3)
6. Mississippi State
Overall League Champion: Florida