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AFTER MISSISSIPPI STATE FINISHED THE 2010 SEASON BY BLUDGEONING Michigan in the Gator Bowl and landing the No. 15 spot in the final AP poll, coach Dan Mullen feared his team might not understand that it now had to work harder to maintain a lofty ranking than it had to attain one. Then Mullen realized he could eliminate complacency by reminding the Bulldogs to check the '10 SEC West standings instead of that national poll. "Fifth place is not where we want to be," Mullen says. "Our goal is to win the SEC West. We're pretty far from that."
In any other league Mississippi State would be on the short list of title contenders. In the SEC West, where Alabama and LSU probably will start 2011 in the top five nationally and Arkansas in the top 15, the Bulldogs face a steep climb.
To keep his players on edge, Mullen will conduct competition for jobs into the preseason. Even QB Chris Relf, who seemed to solidify his starting slot with excellent games against Arkansas, Ole Miss and Michigan to close 2010, isn't safe: Mullen says Tyler Russell and Dylan Favre will have a chance to win the job. If Relf does start, Mississippi State will be nearly intact at the skill positions, bringing back its top three rushers (Vick Ballard, Relf and LaDarius Perkins) and top four receivers (Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark, Brandon Heavens and Chris Smith).
Meanwhile the defense must replace its top two tacklers (linebackers Chris White and K.J. Wright) and its wunderkind co-coordinator, Manny Diaz, whose innovative schemes helped the Bulldogs jump from 71st in the nation in scoring defense in 2009 to 21st in '10. (Diaz left Starkville to become the defensive coordinator at Texas.) Geoff Collins, hired from Florida International to take Diaz's place as linebackers coach and co-coordinator, hopes three productive starters will emerge from a linebacking group that includes junior Cameron Lawrence, senior Brandon Wilson, sophomore Chris Hughes and Clemson transfer Brandon Maye.
The good news is that Collins and his predecessor have similar philosophies, and whenever Collins needs guidance, he calls Diaz. "Within five minutes we're getting everything on the same page," Collins says. "It was an easy, smooth transition." The Bulldogs hope a transition from SEC West also-ran to contender can be equally smooth.
COACH Dan Mullen (3rd year) 14--11 (7--9 in SEC)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Les Koenning
CO-DEFENSIVE COORDINATORS Geoff Collins, Chris Wilson