MSU football makes 2010 debut Saturday
This is the amount of time the Mississippi State coaching staff, players and fans have been forced to wait for the next football game since the Bulldogs defeated Ole Miss 41-27 in the Egg Bowl.
In that time, the MSU program has seen a new athletic director, a pair of new defensive coaches and another school record in season ticket buyers.
Therefore, the excitement is there for the program that Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen is trying to build in Starkville.
“I probably don't feel any different than the fan down in Jackson or anywhere else that excited about football season starting,” said Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin, who will be watching his first game at Davis-Wade Stadium in his new job. “At this point, it's about the players, coaches and fans having a great experience.”
For the first time in at least six years, Mississippi State will be favored in every sports book by over 20 points against a Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) school.
“We've had to worry about us executing at a high level more than all the different scheme they are going to throw out at us,” Mullen said. “One of things you have to do is focus on yourself a lot. In practice, a lot of our stuff is focused on execution.”
Despite running his program in the opening week of the 2010 season under the cloak of secrecy, Mullen gave fans a window in his opening week game plan Thursday night during his weekly Dawg Talk radio show at Harvey’s Restuarant when he announced that junior Chris Relf would be taking the first offensive snaps when MSU takes the field against the Tigers defense.
"We will play more than one," said Mullen. "Chris has earned the right to be the starter but Tyler has certainly earned some playing time as well."
Mullen has praised Relf throughout this offseason for his physical and emotional development as a leader in the most important offensive position on the field.
“I think his entire mindset has changed,” Mullen said Monday. “The maturity level has completely changed for Chris this year. After the success in the last game of the season last year, really the pressure comes on you, it’s now or never for you at the quarterback position.”
The major news about Relf this week has been surrounded around his reportedly injured finger after the projected starting quarterback was absent for last week’s MSU’s Fan Day and the mystery was increased after none of the quarterbacks were made available to media throughout this week.
“I just tell them he’s going to be ready to play and that’s what we’re expecting him to do,” MSU senior linebacker K.J. Wright said Monday. “He’s good. He’s just got a little hurt finger but he should be out there on Saturday.”
Wright’s comments were made after Mullen’s newly-instituted injury report didn’t have the quarterback on it and denied any reports that Relf was anything but perfectly healthy.
“I gave the injury report and he's not injured,” said Mullen.
MSU will look to debut the aggressive defensive scheme of new coordinator Manny Diaz after he led the Middle Tennessee State unit last year to a top three ranking in the Sun Belt Conference in total defense, rush defense, pass defense and scoring defense. Observers may want to notice Saturday night how many different blitz packages the Bulldogs run at Memphis when they have a home game five days later against Auburn on Sept. 9.
Diaz, who worked under long-time Florida State defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews to begin his coaching career, will be the first person to say MSU has a long way to go before they call themselves a dominant defense.
“To be perfectly honest, let’s take a grain of humility here – no matter what we think of our guys now individually, we weren’t rated very high defensively at the end of the year last year,” Diaz said.
Memphis head coach Larry Porter will be experiencing a situation similar to what Mullen felt in 2009 as he will be making his head coaching debut at Davis-Wade Stadium Saturday night. Porter, who was most recently a running backs coach and recruiting coordinator at LSU, was hired by the Tigers program after they suffered through a 2-10 season in 2009 and subsequently fired Tommie West.
“He’s very competitive and likes physical football,” LSU head coach Les Miles said of his former assistant. “In the long term, I think Memphis will have a very, very good and talented head coach.”
Porter’s first act during this game week was during a media luncheon Monday when he announced sophomore Cannon Smith as the starting quarterback for the 2010 season. Before starring at Olive Branch High School in Hattiesburg, the Memphis native was one of the nation's top prep school quarterbacks in 2007 while at Hargrave Military Academy.
Smith eventually signed with Miami (Fla.) and played in the 2008 season opener against Charleston Southern. In that game, he completed only one pass for 2 yards and had a two-yard rush. In fall 2009, Smith returned home and transferred to Memphis, where he had to sit out a year due to NCAA guidelines.
“Ever since I started playing football as a little kid, I wanted to be the starting quarterback on a Division 1 team,” Smith said. “It’s definitely something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.”
The Bulldogs come in to this 2010 season opener relatively healthy with only fullback William Shumpert and defensive tackle Josh Jackson likely out. In a unlikely statistic, this MSU squad may have extra motivation to get early points on the board because since 2004, MSU has won every home opener in which they’ve cracked the scoreboard. The only losses came in 2006 (15-0 loss to South Carolina) and 2007 (45-0 loss to LSU).