SI.com 2003 College Football Preview




SI.com's College Football Team Previews - from Athlon Sports

  Mississippi St. Bulldogs

 
The Lowdown
Coach: Jackie Sherrill (13th year, 73-65-2)
2002 record: 3-9
SEC finish: 6th (West)
2002 offensive stats:
Rush: 119.3 ypg
(11th in SEC, 91st in nation)
Pass: 217.6 ypg (4th, 58th)
2002 defensive stats:
Rush: 170.1 ypg (10th, 82nd)
Pass: 153.9 ypg (2nd, 3rd)
Projected Starters
Offense (5 returning starters in bold)
SE  10  Ray Ray Bivines  Jr. 
FL   8   Justin Jenkins   Sr.  
LT  77  Richard Burch  So. 
LG   64   Brad Weathers   Jr.  
C   63   Blake Jones   Sr.  
RG  50  Chris McNeil  So. 
RT   60   David Stewart   Jr.  
TE  87  Aaron Lumpkin  Sr. 
QB  17  Kyle York  So. 
TB   5   Fred Reid   Jr.  
FB  33  Darnell Jones  Jr. 
Defense (6)
DE   55   Tommy Kelly   Sr.  
DT   93   Ronald Fields   Jr.  
DT  91  Lennie Day  Sr. 
DE  36  Willie Evans  So. 
LB  32  Marvin Byrdsong  So. 
LB   53   T.J. Mawhinney   Sr.  
CB  24  Demetric Wright  Sr. 
CB  Odell Bradley  Sr. 
SS   40   Jason Clark   Sr.  
SS   30   Kevin Dockery   So.  
FS   22   Darren Williams   So.  
Special Teams
45  Brent Smith  Sr. 
43  Jared Cook  Jr. 
KR  Fred Reid  Jr. 
PR  10  Ray Ray Bivines  Jr. 
2003 Schedule
Aug. 30  Oregon 
Sept. 13  at Tulane 
Sept. 20  at Houston 
Sept. 27  LSU 
Oct. 4  Vanderbilt 
Oct. 11  Memphis 
Oct. 18  at Auburn 
Oct. 25  at Kentucky 
Nov. 8  Alabama 
Nov. 15  at Tennessee 
Nov. 22  at Arkansas 
Nov. 27  Ole Miss 
Times have been tough for Mississippi State the past two years. The losses have mounted to heights no one associated with the program would have ever imagined. However, longtime Bulldogs coach Jackie Sherrill isn't quite ready to wave the white towel and retire to the links.

In fact, the dean of Southeastern Conference coaches is determined to return the Bulldogs to the success enjoyed from 1997-2000, when his teams posted a 33-15 mark and earned three bowl bids. His determination was revealed in the offseason with the revamping of his staff. He hired five new assistants, including defensive coordinator Ron Cooper and offensive coordinator Morris Watts. He also diligently roamed the talent-laden state of Mississippi to sign a class of recruits considered to be one of the nation's best.

"You can sense a lot of the guys on this team have their enthusiasm back," said Sherrill, preparing for his 13th season at MSU. "It's refreshing for them because they know with all the new coaches, they won't be prejudged about how they have performed in the past."

OFFENSIVE KEYS:

For Mississippi State to climb out of the cellar in the SEC West, production from the running game is imperative. The Bulldogs finished 11th in the league in toting the football, averaging a mere 119.3 yards a game.

However, the backfield was relatively young and inexperienced. This year, it's a unit that returns Jerious Norwood, Nick Turner and Fred Reid, who combined for 763 yards in limited playing time. If their numbers improve, that should open things up for the Bulldogs' passing attack.

Last season, first-year starting quarterback Kevin Fant failed to show the consistency the Bulldogs needed. But as Sherrill emphatically stated, Fant didn't receive the necessary help from his running backs, while dropped passes plagued the receiving corps. Fant missed the last two weeks of spring practice for personal reasons, opening the door for Kyle York and Aries Nelson to make a push for the starting nod.

Regardless of who is under center, he will have veteran receivers to throw to in Justin Jenkins and Ray Ray Bivines. Last year as a sophomore, Bivines hauled in a team-high 40 passes for 511 yards and four touchdowns.

DEFENSIVE KEYS:

The success Mississippi State will have defensively this year will depend largely on how the Bulldogs replace All-SEC linebacker Mario Haggan. However, Sherrill believes turning to 6-foot-2, 240-pound Marvin Byrdsong is the ideal starting point. "He has a lot of ability," Sherrill said. "He can run, and he has a lot of good movement. He has that instinct."

Last year, free safety Darren Williams proved to have "that instinct" as a true freshman. He was one of the key reasons the Bulldogs were second in the SEC in pass defense, giving up just 153.9 yards through the air. However, Williams wasn't a one-man show. Demetric Wright and Odell Bradley emerged as the starting cornerbacks in the spring. Kevin Dockery will handle one safety spot, and Jason Clark is listed as a linebacker/safety, but he will spend most of his time in the secondary.

The question, though, is how Chris Swain will progress at safety. He signed with MSU in December, following a standout career in the junior college ranks, and enrolled in January in order to participate in spring practice and work his way up the depth chart.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

One of the biggest questions marks last year centered around special teams and the production the Bulldogs would receive from their place-kicker. Junior college transfer Brent Smith erased those concerns rather quickly. He became MSU's starter in the third game of the season and responded nicely by nailing 16-of-20 field-goal attempts, while converting all 16 extra points.

And when the offense stalled and a field goal wasn't an option, the Bulldogs always could count on punters Jared Cook and Robert Wallis to defend field position. They averaged 42.2 and 43.9 yards per punt, respectively.

FINAL ANALYSIS:

If the Bulldogs are to climb out of sixth place in the West, several factors must come to fruition. For starters, Fant has to be more consistent at quarterback -- if he returns -- and the running backs must increase their 119.2 average. Defensively, success starts with stopping the run, a facet of the game the Bulldogs failed at last year. And if the secondary and special teams units continue to improve as they did last year, this year's surprise in the SEC just might be Mississippi State.

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