Assessing the Opposition - The 2012 Opponent Previews: Mississippi State

This is Chad. Say hi. (Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images)

This excerpt from the Rocky Top Tennessee 2012 Magazine is one of three opponent previews (with the other two coming later this week, including Florida on Friday. You can probably figure out how many opponent previews are in the magazine.

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Let's start with the easy part. Dan Mullen is doing a great job in Starkville. It's not the Bulldogs' fault that their uptick is coming at the same time as a three-pronged SEC West arms race between Alabama, LSU, and Arkansas. The challenge for the Bulldogs in 2012 will be to maintain their place in the SEC West with the addition of Texas A&M and the graduation of multiple key pieces.

The biggest losses for the Bulldogs are defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (2nd-team All-SEC, 3rd-team All-American) and running back Vick Ballard (1,189 yards rushing, 10 TDs). Aside from Cox, strong safety Charles Mitchell, free safety Wade Bonner, and linebacker Brandon Wilson all graduate. The likeliest candidates to step up in their stead are senior defensive tackle Josh Boyd, junior free safety Nickoe Whitley, junior linebacker Deontae Skinner, and senior cornerback Johnthan Banks. Banks is a budding star, and he'll see a lot of Justin Hunter. That will cause a cascade effect with senior cornerback Corey Broomfield and likely force Whitney into coverage. Getting deep into the Bulldogs' secondary is probably the best way to exploit them.

On offense, the Bulldogs' losses are palpable. Not only is Bullard gone, so are quarterback Chris Relf, tight end Marcus Green, and three offensive linemen, including long-time right tackle Addison Lawrence. Junior QB Tyler Russell played extensively in the middle of last season, but isn't considered a great quarterback. The good news for Russell is that the wide receiver corps returns nearly intact. Arcelo Clark, Chad Bumphis, and Chris Smith all return. None are elite, though. Bumphis is the most explosive in theory, but Mullen - who knows how to use receivers in the run game - hasn't really used Bumphis much.

The biggest question for the Bulldogs is how to replace Vick Ballard's production. Senior LaDarius Perkins didn't do much last year, and sophomore Nick Griffin is largely unaccomplished. Without an answer in the running game, I don't see a way for the Bulldogs to reliably move the football.

In the end, that's the biggest problem for Mississippi State. There are no easy answers to the questions they have. As a result, this game comes down to execution, and Tennessee's execution in the passing game should do the trick.

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Today is the last day to take advantage of the special pre-order offer for the 116-page full color print version of Rocky Top Tennessee 2012. Order by the end of the day today and get free shipping, a free copy of the ebook that you can download immediately, and delivery of the print edition the week of July 9. It's the only Tennessee Football preseason magazine you need. Full details here.

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