July 30, 2011 10:11:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- The motto of Mississippi State''s football team has been "go from good to great."
When players report to campus Monday for preseason camp, they''ll be in an unfamiliar position coming off a winning season and a bowl victory.
The Bulldogs also likely will be ranked in the preseason top 25 polls and will have to manage expectations after a breakout 9-4 season.
After overcoming a decade-long bout with inconsistency and tempered optimism, the Bulldogs took a significant step forward last season when no one expected it. But there''s greater pressure to live up to the hype this season, senior running back Vick Ballard said.
"We look at it as a motivator," Ballard said. "We don''t want to get complacent."
MSU coach Dan Mullen and his players are blunt about their goal each season: win the Southeastern Conference''s Western Division.
MSU has accomplished that goal only once -- 1998 -- and despite last the team''s success last season it still finished fifth in the SEC''s Western Division. This year, members of the media picked MSU fourth in the division this year behind Alabama, LSU, and Arkansas.
"I think we have the talent to do it," Mullen said. "The question is, are we that team this year that is going to come together, that is going to jell, work a little bit hard, believe in themselves? We have to be ready for those moments, and we have to develop our guys this year to do those things."
MSU will open practice Thursday on the first of three straight days of workouts that are open to fans.
The Bulldogs return the core of their offense, led by quarterback Chris Relf, who accounted for 2,502 yards of offense and 18 touchdowns. Relf guided the Bulldogs to team records in total offense and points.
MSU also returns Ballard, who averaged 5.2 yards per carry and scored 19 rushing touchdowns, and speedster LaDarius Perkins. The latter is just a sophomore, and he is arguably the offense''s most explosive player. Perkins rushed for 566 yards and averaged 27.4 yards per catch last season.
All of MSU''s receivers return, including junior Chad Bumphis, who has led the team in receiving in each of the past two seasons.
MSU lost starting center J.C. Brignone and All-America left tackle Derek Sherrod, who was selected in the first round of the NFL draft.
Though the offense has few players to replace, finding a starter to step in for Sherrod will be a challenge. Converted defensive tackle James Carmon and redshirt freshman Blaine Clausell are positioned to battle for that spot.
Sherrod''s dominance was a key factor in the offense going "from good to great" last season. Mullen, however, doesn''t think the inexperience of Carmon and Clausell will be a linchpin to the offense''s productivity.
"We''re going to need both those guys to play for us," Mullen said. "Our expectations of them have to be reasonable; not to sit there and say, ''We''re going to be a different team'' (because Sherrod is gone). We need to build around the strengths of what this team''s strengths are and really understand those two players."
On defense, the Bulldogs have to replace defensive end Pernell McPhee and linebackers Chris White and K.J. Wright. All three were selected in the NFL draft, and all three were All-SEC players.
The transfer of senior linebacker Brandon Maye from Clemson should help ease the loss of White in the middle. However, the Bulldogs will look for an end who can be an anchor against the run and rush the passer. Senior Sean Ferguson figures to be the favorite.
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