We are at the point of counting down the days until college football season, and the anticipation is driving some folks to drink as the Georgia Bulldogs prepare to surrender the Fulmer Cup and, with any luck, earn their way back into a postseason top 25. We are in the process of previewing the dozen opponents who stand in the way of the latter objective, and we now focus our attentions upon the Mississippi St. Bulldogs, who will visit Sanford Stadium on October 1.
While there were worse losses yet to come, Georgia’s 12-point road loss to Mississippi State last year felt at the time like the end of the world. This sensation was attributable partly to the fact that it snapped a nine-game winning streak by our Bulldogs over their Bulldogs that dated back to the mid-1970s. In a series that got underway in 1914, Georgia has gone 16-6 against Mississippi State, with half of the Red and Black’s losses coming in the first four series meetings. Prior to 2010, the Classic City Canines had fallen to MSU by a double-digit margin just once since Fran Tarkenton received his diploma from Athens High School.
Unfortunately, these are not your father’s Magnolia State Mongrels. Mississippi State’s 2010 season was successful by every measure, and, while the Western Division Bulldogs will need to negotiate a tough schedule and replace the entire linebacker corps in order to sustain their momentum in 2011, their achievements last fall included a second-place SEC finish in rushing offense and a third-place league standing in scoring defense. Running the ball well and stopping the other team from scoring are the cornerstones of a formula for success in the Southeastern Conference that has worked roughly since Reconstruction.
Despite the void at linebacker, State’s stellar defense returns mostly intact, with seven starters coming back with the intention of improving upon an autumn that saw the other Bulldogs end up 15th in the AP poll but fifth in the SEC West. However, they will have to do it without Pernell McPhee, Chris White, or K.J. Wright, and also without defensive coordinator Manny Diaz---no, not our Manny Diaz---who lit out for Austin to take over the vacancy on the Texas Longhorns’ staff that was left when Will Muschamp bolted for Gainesville. This leaves the MSU defensive unit in the hands of Coach Diaz’s co-defensive coordinator, Chris Wilson.
On the opposite side of the ball, the lynchpin of the MSU offense is quarterback Chris Relf, about whom I have bad news, good news, and worse news. The bad news is that Relf got better as a passer down the stretch last season, making a dramatic leap forward that saw him hook up with his intended receiver on almost 70 per cent of his passes over the course of the last three games. The good news is that his improvement may have been a chimera. The worse news is that it may not matter, because even the original version of Relf was good enough to beat Georgia last year.
In the battle between the Bulldogs in Starkville last fall, Relf was the home team’s leading passer and leading rusher. The Mississippi State signal caller connected on eight of 13 aerials for 135 yards and a touchdown while picking up 97 yards on 21 carries. In the Mississippians’ decisive 17-point fourth quarter against Georgia, Relf completed two of three passes for 48 yards and kept the ball seven times for 38 rushing yards. It’s no wonder Dan Mullen says, "I need Chris Relf to be a Chris Relf." Yeah, we pretty much need him not to be, and it’d be nice if MSU backup quarterback Dylan Favre wasn’t too much like his uncle, either.
Relf, who is on the watch list for the Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award, is joined in the backfield by Doak Walker Award candidate Vick Ballard. As I noted in the Maple Street Press annual opponent preview section, Ballard’s 20 rushing touchdowns last year were the most by any SEC running back, and two of his treks into the end zone came during his 14-carry, 77-yard effort against the Athenians. If last year’s SEC stats (in which he finished sixth in rushing production) are any indication, Ballard will be second only to Marcus Lattimore as the best back Georgia will face in conference play in 2011. (That’s right, boys and girls; for the fifth straight game, the Classic City Canines will face a challenge to their run defense that likely will dictate the terms of the engagement. This is a recording.) For what it’s worth, three-fourths of Ballard’s 2010 TDs came in State wins . . . and three-fourths of his scores came against unranked opponents, as well.
If only to prepare you for the return of "Too Much Information" in the fall, I should throw in a handful of random tidbits while I’m at it, so here goes: Mississippi State finished third in the league both in third-down percentage (45.9%) and in third-down percentage allowed (34.6%), while the Bizarro Bulldogs registered an SEC West-best three blocks on special teams last season.
For the Red and Black, who haven’t lost to MSU between the hedges since 1956 but who did not look good the last time the two sets of Bulldogs squared off in Sanford Stadium, this is a revenge game. Also, Mississippi State fans hate Ole Miss so much that they rip on The Sound and the Fury. Dude, that’s just wrong. More than two full shelves of my library are devoted to William Faulkner. You could say the guy’s had an influence on me. Heck, I quote Faulkner while we’re losing to Mississippi State! You don’t mess with Faulkner, people. I want to beat the faux Bulldogs just for that crack alone.
For their part, the MSU faithful appear resigned to a loss in Athens, noting: "This will be a completely different game for us this year. Their QB has experience now. Their defense is getting their act together. And we are playing in their house." While I discount none of that---Georgia is, after all, 9-1 all-time against Mississippi State in Sanford Stadium---our Bulldogs cannot take their Bulldogs lightly, especially after last year. This represents the fourth critical contest of the campaign’s first five games, and the season’s second straight "must win" outing against Magnolia State opposition. If the Athenians aren’t at least above .500 after this game, the autumn of the long knives will be underway, and more than a couple of the callers who phone in to the postgame show will ask unabashedly whether Greg McGarity ought to regard Dan Mullen’s first foray into the Classic City as a job interview.