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Thursday, July 31, 2014

No. 20 Bulldogs travel north to face Memphis

STARKVILLE (AP) — Like most football teams, Mississippi State usually spends a lot of time in film study during the week, trying to dissect the strengths and weaknesses of the upcoming opponent.
The problem is that might be useless for Thursday’s season opener against the Memphis Tigers at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis.

The Tigers are coming off a horrendous 1-11 season, and the result was an understandable overhaul of the roster.

Very few familiar faces return on either offense or defense, making Mississippi State’s film study an inexact science at best. That means Bulldogs’ coach Dan Mullen has had to take a different approach.

“The first game has to be focused on you,” Mullen said. “ … Our focus in these opening games has to be are we taking care of the football and are we scoring in the red zone when we have the opportunity to do it? Do we have 11 guys running to the ball and not giving up on the play? Are we creating turnovers?”

Last season, the answer to most of those questions was yes. That’s why Mississippi State had its best season in a decade, finishing with a 9-4 record that included a Gator Bowl victory over Michigan. Now with 15 starters returning, the 20th-ranked Bulldogs are facing their highest expectations in a long time.

Fan support for the program has soared. Earlier in the week, student tickets sold out in just a few days, and overall demand for tickets has been so high that athletic director Scott Stricklin has presented plans for Davis Wade Stadium’s expansion from its current capacity of about 55,000.

“I’m just happy everyone’s bought in,” Mullen said. “If you change the way you think and everybody believes in what you’re going to do you can accomplish anything.”

Tough start
Now it’s the Bulldogs’ task to deliver. And as usual, it won’t be easy in the loaded Southeastern Conference. Five out of the six teams in the Western Division begin the season ranked in the national polls.

Memphis is Mississippi State’s only nonconference game before the team dives head-first into the SEC, facing Auburn on the road and LSU at home during a brutal five-day stretch. Though the Bulldogs have a veteran team, there are still a few concerns with new starters at both left tackle and all three linebacker spots.

“We’re still trying to learn and get some things done, but at the same time, we’re in game mode and we’ve got to be ready to go. The season moves fast,” senior center Quentin Saulsberry said.

For Memphis, the game represents a chance to pull a big upset and generate some sorely needed momentum for second-year coach Larry Porter. Ten of the Tigers’ 11 losses last season came by at least two touchdowns, and by the end of the season, the crowds at the Liberty Bowl had dwindled to next to nothing.

Even if a win against Mississippi State proves unattainable, a competitive game against a nationally-ranked program would go a long way toward showing Memphis could make some noise in Conference USA. The Bulldogs have a 32-11 advantage in the series and an 11-game winning streak dating back to 1993. (September 1, 2011, Page 7)

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