19 August 2008
It was one of the thrills of my lifetime. I hadn't even been in that stadium since his last game (1982 Liberty Bowl). To get there and see how our fans turned out and then to win the game ... I immediately thought back to the locker room after coach Bryant's last game. There were guys bawling their eyes out all over the place. The emotion was unlike anything I'd ever seen. All those things went through my mind this last time. But most of all, I knew coach Bryant was with us.So, the Bulldogs returned to Starkville for a long, restful spring and summer. Ahh, Starkville. A city once called "The Most Appropriately Named City in the SEC" by the Birmingham News. For our crew, most road trips include dinner someplace in the host city or at least drinks with the locals. In Starkville we were forced to cook out in the shadows of the Rafael Palmeiro Center for Performance Enhancement (actually, only the Palmeiro Center, but I like my way better). There's nothing in Starkville but State, and it seems they like it that way. So, you wouldn't think there'd be much to get the Bulldog players in trouble. However, they proved us wrong this offseason, as Michael Brown, the upcoming senior left tackle, was arrested on gun charges and asked to leave the team. Defensive lineman Quiton Wesley was also dismissed from school during the Brown fiasco. Anthony Johnson played a "minor role" in the affair, but has been reinstated and is practicing with the team as school starts. Alabama fans should have some familiarity with the coaching staff at State, starting at the top. As most know, Croom was an assistant under Bryant and Ray Perkins (from 1976 to 1986). What isn't as obvious is both coordinators have Alabama links - Charlie Harbison on defense (receivers coach from 1998-2002 and 2003-2006) and Woody McCorvey on offense (receivers and offensive coordinator from 1990-1997) have both coached at Bama. Offense It has been a long, hard spring and fall for the Bulldog offense. As best I can assemble, State has managed one touchdown from the first unit offense in regular scrimmage situations. That includes a barn-burner of a 6-0 Maroon victory in the Spring Game. Those six points? In overtime on a pass from a redshirt freshman QB (Chris Relf). No matter what has happened in practice, Anthony Dixon is one of best backs in the SEC - he's second team All SEC behind Knowshon Moreno and Arian Foster. He will power the Bulldog offense. Dixon is a force - and must be respected. However, he racked up 1151 yards last season on 287 carries - a very mediocre 3.7 yards per carry. That number is best informed by the fact that Mississippi State faced eight men in the box more often than not. Dixon was pretty much the only reliable threat on offense, as true freshman quarterback Wesley Carroll led a passing offense that was dead last in the SEC with just 159.9 yards per game. That State was able to win eight games with that kind of offensive production is insane. It's not the sort of thing that can or will happen again. Much is made of Carroll's near-true-freshman-record of 137 passes without an interception to start a career. Less is made of the fact that Carroll rarely found the end zone and finished with a lackluster 9 TDs and 7 interceptions. Carroll is back after an off-season working on mechanics. The State coaches are optimistic that he'll be able to make some headway this season. For the Bulldogs to win games reliably this season, Carroll must be more effective. There are some decent targets for Carroll to try and hit. Jamayel Smith, Brandon McRae and Aubrey Bell are all back. One of the best names in the SEC is Co-Eric Riley - and he returns at receiver as well. Smith is expected to be the horse in this group - he is the leading returning receiver. His offensive line is trouble however. The middle of the line is decimated - Brown lost to expulsion, and Royce Blackledge (center) and JD Hamilton (tackle) were both seniors last year. The guards have both played (Craig Jenkins and Anthony Strauder), but it's a long, tough haul with underclassmen up front. Defense The defensive line is in equally sketchy shape. State loses both starters at end and, as noted above, Wesley won't be back at tackle. State D-Line coach David Turner expects to rotate as many as five or six guys at the end position. The situation isn't markedly different at tackle. However, as we move deeper towards the secondary, State gets better and better. Senior Jamar Chaney is the class of the bunch in the middle. He's played 36 games in his career as a Bulldog and started 26. At weak-side linebacker is senior Dominic Douglas, a converted safety who Croom hopes can help cover the inexperience at end. The strong side linebacker looks to be sophomore KJ Wright, who was excellent in the spring. The defensive backfield is where the Bulldog defense will really shine. First and foremost is first team All-SEC selection Derek Pegues. In addition to his prowess at free safety, Pegues has the uncanny ability to turn a game in a moment with an interception or punt return (see the Ole Miss game last year). He's electric. There are four other guys in the secondary with considerable experience - it will be a real strong point for State this fall. Big Games The lone big game on the non-conference schedule is a trip to Atlanta to play Georgia Tech. If the Bulldogs lose this game, it could quickly spiral out of control. That game is sandwiched between Auburn and at LSU. As always, the Egg Bowl versus Ole Miss will be a huge game. It very well could be the battle for the Papajohns.com Bowl for both teams. Prediction: 5-7 (1-7) Joe Cribbs Car Wash said what I was thinking best:
And for all of that, I can't ignore the avalanche of stats that say: They were the same old Bulldogs. Just luckier. Without Brown, top DE Titus Brown, and Johnson, I can't help but think that even given the across-the-board talent upgrades they're still going to be, more-or-less, the same old Bulldogs once again.Yep. More likely than not, this State team will struggle early and often. Carroll isn't equipped to make the throws necessary to back folks out of the box, and that will mean more bad numbers for Dixon - who would be best served to go pro after this season. The defense will be stout, but there aren't enough points on the other side of the ball. Croom just doesn't have the horses this season. He'll need to recruit more offensive talent if he ever wants to be competitive in the SEC.
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