The success of 2010 set up lofty 2011 expectations for Mississippi State.
After a nine-win season and a rout over Michigan in the Gator Bowl, the Bulldogs received national attention. They began the season ranked 20th and were picked to finish fourth in the SEC West behind powers LSU, Alabama and Arkansas. At least one media member thought the Bulldogs could contend for an SEC title, giving them a first-place vote.
“The sky was the limit,” running back Vick Ballard said.
The Bulldogs bumped into the ceiling.
They suffered a devastating loss in the second game to defending national champ Auburn, which rallied in the closing minutes. From there, inconsistencies on offense and defense doomed them in losses to LSU, Alabama and Arkansas — all top 10 teams. Those setbacks coupled with close losses to Georgia and South Carolina left Mississippi State pondering its postseason fate and the reasons it fell short of the expectations.
“It was a little bit of everything, man,” Ballard said. “You can’t just blame one person. There were a lot of different things that played into it. But we still ended up in a bowl game so you can’t really complain about it.”
Mississippi State did enough to become bowl eligible for the second straight season, blowing out rival Ole Miss in the regular-season finale.
The Bulldogs face Wake Forest in the Music City Bowl at 5:40 p.m. on Friday (ESPN) at LP Field. This is the first meeting between the schools. Neither has played in the Music City Bowl.
Mississippi State (6-6) isn’t exactly rolling into the postseason but has won three of its last five games.
The Bulldogs rank 19th in the country in scoring defense (19.9 points per game) and are fourth in the SEC in turnover margin. NFL hopeful Fletcher Cox leads the way, with 12.5 tackles for loss – the most by any SEC defensive tackle. Cornerback Johnathan Banks is tied for ninth in the nation with five interceptions.
It was a quarterback switch, however, that seemed to get the Bulldogs back on track.
After consecutive losses to Alabama and Arkansas, they turned to senior quarterback Chris Relf, who led the 31-3 victory over Ole Miss.
Relf was the hero of last year's Gator Bowl, earning MVP honors after throwing three touchdowns and running for another. The 2011 campaign hasn’t gone as smooth. Throwing for just 1,083 yards, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions, he was replaced earlier in the year by sophomore Tyler Russell. He returned after Russell injured his knee and Relf is expected to start on Friday.
“I’m just going to go out there and be myself, play my game,” Relf said after practice at Vanderbilt on Tuesday. “It is like any other game — I want to go out and win.”
While the Bulldogs have struggled with the passing game, Ballard has led the charge on the ground. The senior finished the season ranked fourth in the SEC with 1,009 rushing yards in addition to eight touchdowns.
“That is a goal for any back,” Ballard said. “It was a little bit frustrating at times but ... at the end of the day you can’t complain.”
Though many can gripe that the season didn’t go the way the Bulldogs had envisioned, it’s hard to argue with the end result — another bowl.
“After that seventh game, we knew the games that we needed to win and set our eyes on it,” Ballard said. “We went out and accomplished it.”