STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) -- For the first time in a long time, there's chatter that Mississippi State might be one of the better teams in the Southeastern Conference this season.
The Bulldogs return much of their team from a 9-4 season that included wins over Florida, Georgia and Michigan. But for a program that hasn't been consistently near the top of the SEC since the late 1990s, high expectations are almost a foreign concept.
Such expectations have crushed seasons before, but Mississippi State's third-year coach Dan Mullen doesn't see any issues.
"I'm sure our expectations are even higher than anybody in the media or how anybody votes us," Mullen said. "Our goals are to get to Atlanta. Nobody picked us first (in the Western Division) so our expectations are even higher than everybody else."
It's true that even though Mississippi State has newfound respect in the SEC, the program is often lost in the shuffle behind defending national champion Auburn, along with perennial powerhouse
programs like Alabama, LSU and Arkansas.
As good as the Bulldogs were last season, they were 1-4 in the
Western Division, only beating rival Mississippi. And that's one of
many things that keeps players hungry.
"We beat the school up north, but nobody else in the West," junior cornerback Corey Bloomfield said. "We're not complacent at all. We haven't done anything."
Mississippi State hopes it has the talent to change that this season. The Bulldogs return quarterback Chris Relf, a 6-foot-4, 245-pound senior who had a breakout season in 2010, throwing for 1,789 yards and 13 touchdowns while also rushing for 713 yards and five touchdowns.
Relf has obviously grown more comfortable with offense. Now Mullen said he wants Relf to reach "doctorate level" in his understanding, which means grasping blitzes, coverages and adjusting plays before the snap.
"Those are the things that I don't know you can teach -- I think it just comes with time," Mullen said. "It takes a long time for you to really understand those things."
The Bulldogs also return senior running back Vick Ballard, who
rushed for 968 yards and a program-record 19 touchdowns last
season. He'll be running behind an offensive line that returns three starters.
The only real question is at left tackle, where James Carmon is
the likely starter after moving from the defensive line during the spring. At 6-foot-7 and about 310 pounds, Carmon has the athleticism and strength to handle the position.
It's just a matter of mastering the technique at a position that's vital to protecting the quarterback's blind side.
"I'm picking it up," Carmon said. "I'm not trying to take it too fast. I'm just going step by step. But I've definitely progressed."
Mississippi State returns seven defensive starters, including defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd. The secondary is also
loaded, with all four starters returning from last season.
Senior safety Charles Mitchell anchors the group after making 93 tackles last season. The Bulldogs are trying to replace all three starters at linebacker, including Chris White and K.J. Wright, who combined for 208 tackles last season, including 23.5 for a loss.
Mullen said there might not be two linebackers who can fill that void by
themselves, but there's a solid group of six or seven linebackers that can collectively be very good. Deontae Skinner, Cameron Lawrence, Brandon Wilson, Matthew Wells, Chris Hughes and Ferlando Bohanna could all see extended playing time.
Clemson transfer Brandon Maye could also make an impact immediately. The depth at linebacker matches must of the rest of the team, which Mullen says is one of this team's strengths.
"I think it certainly helps," Mullen said. "One, depth increases competition at practice. When guys start clawing and scratching just to get a rep at practice you're going to see drastic improvement. So that's great for our development within the program. But also when you're looking at having to play a SEC schedule, you'd better have some guys that are ready to jump in the fire and go play."