Mississippi State works to improve on offense
The middle of August means Mississippi State's football team is down on ''The Farm,'' the no-frills locale under the scorching sun that is the setting for much of the Bulldogs' preseason camp.
It has two intramural fields located next to the university's agricultural facilities about a half-mile from the Bulldogs' on-campus stadium.
It's the place where position battles are often decided and the bulk of the playbook is implemented and refined. It's not always pleasant, but coach Dan Mullen says it's among the most important weeks of the year.
''There's two things - you can survive `The Farm' or attack `The Farm,''' Mullen said. ''If you're just worrying about surviving `The Farm,' then we probably won't be a very good football team. If we attack `The Farm,' then we've got the chance to be a championship team.''
Mullen said he saw of mix of surviving and attacking during practices at ''The Farm'' as the Bulldogs prepare for a season that comes with the program's highest expectations in a decade.
Mississippi State finished with a 9-4 record last season, including a Gator Bowl victory over Michigan.
Now Mullen is trying to guide the Bulldogs to the top of a brutal Southeastern Conference Western Division, which had five of its six teams ranked at the end of last season. To make that happen, Mullen said all aspects of the team have to improve.
But maybe the most pressing need is on offense, which scored 29 points per game last season to rank 10th out of 12 SEC teams.
Quarterback Chris Relf had a breakout season in 2010, using his bruising 6-foot-4, 220-pound body to rush for 713 yards and five touchdowns. But his passing numbers - 1,789 passing yards, 13 touchdowns and 58.6 completion rate - were pedestrian.
Because of the lack of big passing plays, the offense had to be more methodical. That worked for much of last season, but the Bulldogs would like to be a little more explosive. Junior receiver Chad Bumphis led the Bulldogs with 44 catches, 634 receiving yards and five touchdowns.
''We're always looking for big plays,'' Bumphis said. ''As an offense you want to be able to take shots down field.''
Though the Bulldogs return most of their skill position players, the offensive line is trying to replace two starters, including the left tackle position, which protects Relf's blindside and allows him time to throw downfield. Senior James Carmon and redshirt freshman Blaine Clausell are fighting for the job.
''The fact that there's a lot of competition helps,'' Mullen said. ''You've got a lot of guys out there fighting for playing time. At a lot of positions, there's not a lot of difference between the ones and twos. There's a lot of pressure on those guys and I think that will help us as the season goes on.''
Relf said he hasn't noticed a huge change in protection or execution. But Mullen has been critical of the offense several times during preseason camp, though he acknowledged he's holding his players to a high standard.
''There's still a lot of execution things on both sides of the ball that need to be cleaned up,'' Mullen said. ''You can't turn the ball over and expect to win.''
Mississippi State's time on ''The Farm'' ended Tuesday because the university started classes on Wednesday.
Though the most grueling part of camp is over, Bumphis said the Bulldogs won't lose focus. They open against Memphis on Sept. 1 at the Liberty Bowl.
''The (coaches) won't let that happen,'' Bumphis said. ''They're going to go and make sure we're getting better every day. Complacency isn't a problem.''