Earlier in the week I read an article by Brian Hadad in Mississippi Sports Magazine that caught my attention. I usually agree with Brian when it comes to matters of the maroon - but in this case I disagree. And since we don't ever write blog posts about when we agree with folks, I'll discuss why I don't agree that 2012 is a "crossroads year for Dan Mullen".
His definition of "crossroads" had nothing to do with Mullen's job status. As we all know he can probably put 2011 on repeat for the next 10 years and be safe. What he asserted was that 2012 should be the year when Mullen is able to take the next step - to beat a traditional power or two and find a spot in the next tier of SEC teams. If it doesn't happen this year, it may never happen.
So many MSU fans have high expectations for this season. But they are fair expectations - and I think most Bulldog fans are realistic in calling for 8-9 wins. However, I don't think Dan Mullen is at a crossroads. I don't think it's now or never to take a step up.
I've studied the roster all spring and summer and come away with more concerns than assurances. It's easy to get swept away in the measurables and practice reports but you've got to take it with a grain of salt. Outside of Kentucky and Ole Miss every fan of every SEC team is drooling over how good their players look right now. The SEC is the SEC because every program has superb athletes.
I know Mississippi State has more athletes this year than any year in recent memory. The talented depth makes me as excited as anyone. But there are question marks at every turn.
QB - Tyler Russell has started two games in his career. How will he do now that he is the man? By all accounts he has taken to leadership like a duck to water. He has the talent, the coaching. Still, it's a question mark going into the season.
RB - Only 530 rushing yards return from last year. And Nick Griffin's 108 was all in garbage time against UAB and UT-Martin. When I look at the four guys making up the running back corp I like their athleticism but with the....
O-Line - You could hang a ? on every position other than Gabe Jackson's Left Guard spot. That's not to say the line can't be GREAT, they have all the talent they need.....but almost no experience. Blaine Clausell has four career starts at Left Tackle, Dillon Day is a little better with 9 at Center. Charles Siddoway and Damien Robinson have zero SEC experience at RT, and who knows if Tobias Smith can play like he once did OR stay healthy at RG. Ben Beckwith has talent backing him up - but another with no experience.
WR - This senior-laden group hasn't done much in their career. Now, I'm banking on them having marked improvement with Tyler Russell throwing to them - but still, they haven't shown that much in three years. And the guys everyone is looking to for big production - Jameon Lewis and Joe Morrow - have little to no experience.
As far as the defense I think everyone feels pretty comfortable including me. The guys that were lost off last year's team were spread out through the units and there is a ton of talent coming in.
MSU has 18 seniors this year - a pretty good number. But only 13 juniors. That's leaves a ton of underclassmen. There are 5 seniors starting on offense if we include Tobias Smith and three of them are the WRs that give everyone a ho-hum feeling. There should be five seniors on the defense if Corey Broomfield starts at safety. The secondary is certainly in good hands.
The 2-deep is talented, but they are young and inexperienced. I like Dee Arrington, Benardrick McKinney, Curtis Virges, Nick Griffin and Joe Morrow too, but I can't deny the fact that they have virtually zero SEC experience.
In Phil Steele's NCAA Experience Chart (page 321) he uses the following factors to determine how experienced each team is: senior starters, seniors in the 2-deep, % of letterman returning, % of yards returning, % of tackles returning and number of starts on the offensive line. Mississippi State ranks dead last in the SEC in experience, and 99th in the country.
I'm not trying to re-create "6-6 is the best MSU can do". Far from it, I'm all about this 2012 team. I am pumped. I picked 8-4 and could see 9-3, maybe even 10-2. State CAN do it. Mullen CAN do it. But this isn't the year to judge Mullen. Next year is. 2013 is the year when it should all come together because outside the DBs all the seniors who will be lost won't hurt that much. The boatload of talent that has no experience right now will have some coming into 2013.
I agree that it's time for Mullen to win a big game (in the West). But beating Georgia and Florida in 2010 were big - I don't care if they were down or not. If Auburn goes 7-5 this year and State wins that game are we going to still say he hasn't won a big game? He has done it and will do it again. If MSU goes 7-5 or 6-6 again this fall I'm not going to lose faith in Mullen (that is, as long as we don't come out as flat as a Pepsi again like we did vs. LA Tech, UGA and UAB last year). 2013 is the year to put him on the crossroads, not 2012.