Debriefing: Mississippi State holds on to what it’s got in Dan Mullen

Matt Hinton

The least you should know about the 2011 Bulldogs. Part of SEC Week.

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I'm still here. Dan Mullen already had the enduring love of Mississippi State partisans, for obvious reasons — in his second year, he led upsets over Georgia and Florida, delivered a Jan. 1 blowout at end of the Bulldogs' best season in more than a decade, beat Ole Miss for the second year in a row and vowed to never lose to the Rebels again — but the fact that he's back in Starkville for a year three after topping the list of up-and-comers on the radar for bigger jobs lat winter only deepens the affection. When the top job at Mullen's old haunt came open in December, the locals were so certain he was Gainesville-bound that they put up adoring banners outside his house and penned affectionate goodbyes before he could get a word in edgewise.

Given the murky nature of coaching searches, they may not be sure whether to commend Mullen's loyalty or count their blessings that Florida, Miami and Michigan kept their distance despite the hype. But Bulldog fans do know their days in the sun are numbered: The more Mullen wins, the less likely it seems his future is in Starkville.

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Relf Respect. No one is ever going to mistake quarterback Chris Relf's arm for Tim Tebow's, including the skeptics who didn't think the latter had much of an arm to speak of. But with his raw ability and Tebow-esque size (both are 6-3, 240 pounds), Relf is a natural fit for the "option" portions of Mullen's spread option scheme — the same scheme that propelled Tebow to a Heisman Trophy in 2007 and Florida to a BCS championship in 2008 with Mullen as offensive coordinator — and Mullen's not afraid to use him: Relf logged 15 carries per game last year for 880 yards before sacks, including 21 for 97 yards in the win over Georgia, 22 for 82 in the upset win at Florida and 31 in the double overtime heartbreaker against Arkansas, for 103 yards.

Even with his suspect accuracy and grasp of the passing game, the attention defenses are forced to pay to Relf as a runner opens up the rest of the ground game — running backs Vick Ballard and LaDarius Perkins combined for 1,547 yards and 23 touchdowns on 5.4 per carry — and routinely leaves single coverage in the secondary on the relatively rare occasion Mullen asks him to throw. The result last year easily the Bulldogs' best offensive effort in well over a decade.{YSP:MORE}

The gang's all here. The really frightening part of that progress on paper is just how young the lineup was — and how much of it returns for another round. With Relf, Ballard, Perkins, and receivers Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark, Brandon Heavens and Chris Smith all back in the fold, Mississippi State returns its top seven rushers, top five receivers and well over 90 percent of its total offense, behind a starting five with a combined 80 career starts on the offensive line.

Put them together again for their third go-round in Mullen's system, and the modest school records for total offense (422 yards per game in 1982) and scoring (31.7 points per game in 1994) should could crashing down with firepower to spare.

Halcyon Diaz of yore. The defense lost four senior starters, including All-SEC picks Pernell McPhee and Chris White and two other starters at linebacker. But the biggest departure by far is defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, whose one-year rehab job was so impressive it earned him the DC spot on Mack Brown's staff at Texas, filling the vacancy left by Florida-bound Will Muschamp. Diaz's aggressive, attacking scheme cut the Bulldogs' scoring defense by a full touchdown per game compared to 2009, holding Georgia to 12 points, Florida to seven and eventual BCS champ Auburn to 17, a season low.

At least the general ideas are going to be the same: The new defensive coordinator, Chris Wilson, technically shared the title with Diaz last year and was "promoted" the day after Diaz's departure to keep the same system in place. All he's missing: 33 tackles for loss by White, McPhee and fellow senior K.J. Wright, more than a third of the total for the entire team.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.