Five burning questions for MSU at SEC Media Days

The unofficial start to the college football season kicked off today with the beginning of Southeastern Conference Media Days in Hoover, Ala. The Mississippi State portion takes place tomorrow morning at 8:30.

We’ll have full coverage here on the HailState Beat and on HailState.com as Dan Mullen, Johnthan Banks, Gabe Jackson and Tyler Russell navigate the annual circus with over 1,000 credentialed media in attendance.

Entering the final hours before State’s turn starts, we take a gander at the five big questions the Bulldogs will have to answer when they face the media tomorrow morning at the Wynfrey Hotel. Banks and the gang will be asked about themselves, their team, their coaches and their opponents, and by the end of the day, even the most curious of kids will be out of new things to question.

Can Mississippi State break through in the SEC West?

Now in his fourth year at State, Mullen has been able to beat plenty of SEC teams and has been to back-to-back bowl games, but as people will point out, he has yet to beat anyone in the west other than Ole Miss since he arrived at MSU. Despite their overall success, the Bulldogs have finished fifth in the division the last two years, and in 2012 a new team, Texas A&M, joins the division.

If MSU is going to continue to improve as both Mullen and the fans expect, they will have to find a way to beat one (or more) of those teams from Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas or even Texas. The Bulldogs will get their chance early when they host Auburn on September 8 in a game the whole country will be watching on ESPN.

Is Tyler Russell ready to lead the offense?

Russell was one of the most heralded quarterbacks to sign with MSU when he became a part of Mullen’s first class back in 2009. Since then, he has seen varying degrees of action as the backup to Chris Relf. But now, Relf is gone and Russell, for the first time, is the man. He is the unquestioned signal caller for the Dawgs and is considered one of the most talented passers MSU has had in quite some time.

With a receiving corps featuring five seniors and a 6’5” freshman, the pressure will be on Russell to take charge and lead an offense with more passing than State fans have seen in quite some time. In spring practice, Russell embraced both the leadership role and the added responsibility. In front of the national media tomorrow, his shoulders will feel that weight.

Will the offensive line return to form?

Led by future NFL left tackle Derek Sherrod, the 2010 offensive line paved the way for Relf and Vick Ballard to run their way to a nine-win season, but injuries and inconsistency plagued the unit in 2011, causing trouble for the Bulldogs offense last season.

Gabe Jackson will be answering the questions about the offensive line in 2012, with plenty wondering how the group will be with starters Quentin Saulsberry, James Carmon and Addison Lawrence now in the NFL.  While they were certainly younger, the line did appear stronger and more consistent in the spring. Now a junior, Jackson is the leader of the offensive line and any praise or criticism may run through him.

How will MSU replace Fletcher Cox and Vick Ballard?

Two of the Bulldogs’ best players from last season are gone and playing in the NFL with Cox leaving after his junior season and being drafted in the first round and Ballard now in the backfield for the Indianapolis Colts.

The answer to both questions is probably “by committee,” but writers from across the country will notice the holes left in the depth chart by Cox and Ballard.

For the last 20 years, MSU has had talented runners and has typically had a feature back leading the offense. Just as people asked who would replace Jerious Norwood, then who would replace Anthony Dixon, now the Bulldogs will be asked who will replace Ballard.

As for Cox, he was the centerpiece of Chris Wilson’s defense last year, a unit responsible for MSU winning as many games as it did in 2011. Cox had plenty of talent around him with guys like Banks backing him up, but as Wilson always says, the defensive line and the secondary are co-dependent groups, working in harmony when both are strong.

MSU has the experience in the secondary, but they will have to prove they have the talent on the line to hold up the other end of that deal, too.

Is Johnthan Banks ready to be the poster boy?

Speaking of the secondary… Banks is the most well-known player MSU has, and he is obviously one of the most talented. He’s also not shy about speaking out, which should endear him to the 1,000-member strong media in Birmingham.

But being the only player who is both proven and nationally known means that, after Mullen, Banks will be seen as the one most responsible for MSU’s successes (or failures) in 2012. The senior cornerback and Thorpe Award candidate is not one to shy from the attention or questions, which is good, because he will be seen as the leader of the Bulldogs this year.

If I had to guess, Banks will set high expectations for his team in 2012.

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