College Football Countdown: No. 38 Mississippi State

The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. The Sentinel staff will take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.

Today at No. 38: Mississippi State

Coach: Dan Mullen (21-17, fourth season)

2011 record: 7-6 (2-6 in Southeastern Conference, fifth in West Division)

Look back: Mullen has found overall success since taking the head job in Starkesville. In his three seasons, the Bulldogs have only had one losing season. Not bad considering the state of the SEC West. The fourth year coach has also taken the team to back-to-back bowl games including last season’s 23-17 win over Wake Forest in the Music City Bowl.

Offensive starters lost/returning: 7/5

Defensive starters lost/returning: 5/7

Key losses: DT Fletcher Cox, RB Vick Ballard, QB Chris Relf

Top returnees: QB Tyler Russell, LB Cameron Lawrence, WR Arceto Clark, WR Chad Bumphis

Strengths: After sharing the quarterbacking duties the past two seasons with Chris Relf, Tyler Russell gets the starting nod going into 2012. The junior supplanted Relf as the starter midway through last season and finished the year with 1,034 passing yards and eight touchdowns. Mullen has promised a revamped scheme which should benefit this true pocket passer. … Also benefitting Russell will be the return of the team’s top four receivers including Arceto Clark and Cham Bumphis, who combined for 55 catches, 781 receiving yards and seven total touchdowns. … Seven starters return from a defense which ranked 16th nationally in scoring (19.7 points per game). Defensive tackles Josh Boyd and junior college transfer Denico Autry will anchor a line that looks to continue to disrupt opposing offenses.

Weaknesses: Mullen and his staff will need to find someone to pick up where Vick Ballard left off. That someone could be LaDarius Perkins. The junior rushed for 422 yards and two touchdowns in 2011 as the primary backup to Ballard. Getting production from the running back spot will be key for a team that finished 2011 ranked ninth overall in the SEC in rushing. … The offensive line has to be a concern with issues at depth.

Outlook: Dan Mullen has always been known as a quarterback’s coach. He did wonders with some guy named Tebow so developing Russell and integrating him into a new passer-friendly system will be crucial to Mississippi State’s success on offense. Filling several holes on the offensive line will also help as well. The defense could be even better than last year thanks to the addition of Autry. Which will be huge when you consider just how loaded the SEC West is going to be again this year. Alabama, LSU, Arkansas and Auburn are all going to contend and then throw in Texas A&M and things just got a bit more difficult. Will there be enough opportunities to improve on last season’s seven-win mark?

2012 Schedule

Sept. 1 Jackson State

Sept. 8 Auburn

Sept. 15 at Troy

Sept. 22 South Alabama

Oct. 6 at Kentucky

Oct. 13 Tennessee

Oct. 20 Middle Tennessee

Oct. 27 at Alabama

Nov. 3 Texas A&M

Nov. 10 at LSU

Nov. 17 Arkansas

Nov. 24 at Ole Miss

Rest of the countdown:
No. 39 Georgia Tech
No. 40 SMU
No. 41 Wake Forest
No. 42 Houston
No. 43 Virginia
No. 44 Northwestern
No. 45 Miami
No. 46 Southern Miss
No. 47 USF
No. 48 North Carolina
No. 49 Illinois
No. 50 Tulsa
No. 51 California
No. 52 UCF
No. 53 Pittsburgh
No. 54 Arizona
No. 55 BYU
No. 56 Ohio

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