Mississippi St.-Memphis Preview
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen has rarely met a conversation he didn't like during his two-plus years on campus, chatting up reporters and fans at every turn - especially if the conversation has anything to do with needling rival Mississippi.
But there are two subjects that will make the third-year coach clam up in a hurry: Injuries and the depth chart.
Outside of the first few practices, which are open to the public, Mississippi State's preseason camp is mostly a mystery. Mullen has a policy of not answering injury inquiries, dismissing them as "silly questions." Position battles are also shrouded in secrecy.
The secrets won't last too much longer, though. The 20th-ranked Bulldogs open their season on the road against Memphis on Thursday at The Liberty Bowl.
"I'm fired up - I can't wait," Mullen said. "You've been with these guys - you've been practicing for eight or nine months and preparing this team for the next 12 hours of the regular season. You get twelve, 60-minute games and that's it."
Mississippi State is expecting these 720 minutes of football to be quite successful, considering it returns 15 starters from a team that finished 9-4 last season. The Bulldogs are nationally ranked in the preseason for the first time since 2001.
Because of the Bulldogs' continuity, there hasn't been much drama during preseason camp. Quarterback Chris Relf and running back Vick Ballard, who set the school's record with 19 rushing touchdowns last season, will anchor the offense. The defense will be led by defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd, along with a secondary that returns all four starters.
Mullen also says the Bulldogs are relatively healthy, though receiver Ricco Sanders is "doubtful" and backup linebacker Chris Hughes is "questionable."
But there are some intriguing questions, with the most pressing at left tackle.
Senior James Carmon is expected to make his first career start on the offensive line against Memphis. The converted defensive lineman has the 6-foot-7, 330-pound body that's ideal for the position, but protecting Relf's blind side is a big responsibility for a newcomer.
Senior center Quentin Saulsberry said Carmon's improvement over preseason camp has been "phenomenal."
"He's finally getting the concept of what's going on and what needs to be done," Saulsberry said. "James has found out that his position is very critical. If 10 guys are doing their job and one isn't, it's not a good play. But his attitude's been good the whole time."
There also are questions at linebacker - the Bulldogs are trying to replace Chris White and K.J. Wright, the team's top two tacklers from a year ago. Matthew Wells, Brandon Wilson and Cameron Lawrence were listed as the three starters on Monday's depth chart, but up to six or seven players could see time in the regular rotation, including Clemson transfer Brandon Maye.
"The six or seven guys we have are solid," Wilson said. "They aren't necessarily guys who will awe you, but they're all about going out and doing their job to the best of their ability."
The good news for Mississippi State is some of the new players might have some margin for error against Memphis, which is coming off a dreadful 1-11 season and returns only a handful of starters on both sides of the ball. The Bulldogs have won 11 straight games against Memphis, including a 49-7 beatdown last season at Davis Wade Stadium.
Still, Mullen has made no secret that he expects perfection from the first game. So do the players.
"It's going to be a challenge," cornerback Johnthan Banks said. "We're going to have to go out and play hard because it isn't going to be a pushover game."