What's that you say? Actual developments on the football front that aren't rampant speculation on who may or may not be the coach next year? Does this mean we can stop incessantly debating Rodriguez v. Harbaugh? Probably not, but that doesn't matter now. Time to look forward to the OMG NEW YEARS DAY!1!! bowl match up.
If you haven't heard yet, our beloved Wolverines have been matched up against the Mississippi St. Bulldogs in the Gator Bowl on January 1st, 2011. The Bulldogs are currently ranked 21st nationally with the record of 8-4. All four of those losses came in the brutal SEC west (Bama, LSU, Ark, Aub) although the Arkansas game went to two overtimes, and the Auburn game was a low scoring affair at 17-14.
What is the general outlook for the game? I will leave that to more experienced bloggers (cough, mgoblog, cough). Instead, today we will look at five names to know over the next month. Who are the important players on this Miss St. team, and why should we fear them?
1. Dan Mullen - The surprising turnaround at Mississippi St. after the disappointing Sylvester Croom years begins and ends with Dan Mullen. This is a team that is routinely the whipping boy in an otherwise stacked SEC west, and when you are guaranteed games against the likes of Alabama, LSU, and the rest on a yearly basis, upward momentum becomes a hard thing to sustain. From 2004 to 2008, Croom guided the Bulldogs to a 21-38 record including a poor 10-30 record in the SEC. In 2009 that job went to Dan Mullen, last known for putting together the Tim Tebow offensive juggernaut at Florida which routinely led the SEC in total offense--a notion that Steve Addazio laughs off as "overrated" while he draws up another QB keeper play for John Brantley. In fact, Mullen had spent most of the last decade as a disciple of Urban Meyer at both Bowling Green and Utah (we won't hold that against him).
Mullen took the Bulldogs over in 2009 and led the team to a 5-7(3-5) record against the #1 ranked schedule. More importantly after coming in 113th in the country in total offense in Croom's final season, the Bulldogs jumped to 66th in total offense and 9th in rushing offense in the 2009 season, good for the best rushing offense in the SEC. This year's team has been just as effective running the ball coming in 16th in the nation and 2nd in the SEC behind--you guessed it-- Auburn.
Mullen has done such a masterful job turning around the wayward Bulldogs that his name is already on the radar for most major head coaching gigs. While it is very possible he takes his talents to greener pastures in the future, he will be leading the Bulldogs out of the tunnel on New Years Day in what should be an impressive offensive matchup.
2. Chris White - The match up between these two teams won't be all about offense, as long as Miss St. Sr linebacker Chris White has a say in it. White is a JUCO transfer who started all 12 games in 2009 and notched 75 tackles from the OLB position.
He returned this year for his Sr season and has gone about anchoring a surprisingly stout Bulldog defense. Miss St. is currently 20th nationally in rush defense and 53rd in total defense. In fact, the 206 total yards (136 passing, 70 rushing) that Miss St. held Cam Newton to in the two teams second week match up is his lowest output of the season. The 6'4 245 lbs White moved inside to MLB this year and has 105 tackles, 19 TFLs, 7 sacks, and 2 INTs on the season. For his efforts he was recently awarded the Conerly Trophy which goes to the most outstanding football player in the state of Mississippi.
If the Bulldogs are going to have any luck against the dynamic Michigan offense, it will begin with the efforts of White in the middle of the defense.
3. Chris Relf - While he is no Cam Newton, Relf has been consistently effective in Mullen's spread offense this year. Relf started 2009 getting the most snaps, but was slowly phased out to spot duty by the middle of the season. His improvement over the offseason led to his regaining the starting role going in to 2010.
This year Relf has been just what Mullen needs in his spread quarterback, a facilitator who is able to pass the ball when needed. The passing stats don't jump off the page at you (111/197, 56% comp, 1508 yds, 10/5 TD/INT, 21 sacks) but his 683 yds rushing for 4 TDs is a good enough to give the Bulldogs a legitimate running threat at the quarterback position.
If the Wolverines are going to have any luck in this bowl match up, the secondary is going to have to be prepared when Relf puts the ball in the air. Only twice this season has Relf thrown the ball more than 20 times, and four times he has been held under 70 yards passing. While the Wolverines aren't capable of shutting him down, they will need to limit big plays in the passing game from a quarterback who lacks the efficiency of a Scott Tolzien, Ricky Stanzi, or Kirk Cousins.
4. Derek Sherrod - Paving the way for Relf and the rest of the Bulldog offense is beast of a LT Derek Sherrod. Sherrod has been a fixture on the Bulldog offensive line since his freshman year, seeing time in 11 of 13 games that year. Since his freshman year he has missed only two games, both due to injury.
Sherrod has used a strong senior season to improve his draft stock greatly. Coming into the season his draft status was unsure, but he has slowly cemented himself as one of the top offensive tackles in the draft, and one of the best offensive linemen in the SEC.
The Wolverines have had a hard time getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks this year, and against a somewhat shaky passer that will be very important in flustering the passing game. If Sherrod can neutralize the Wolverine pass rush--and all indications are that he can and will--the young Wolverine secondary will need to grow up quickly over this next month to provide a foil to Relf.
5. Nick Bell - In one of the most heartbreaking stories of a season that has seen too much death and tragedy, Mississippi St. sophomore defensive end Nick Bell passed away in early November after a short but brutal battle with skin cancer. Bell was just twenty years old.
He was diagnosed after complaining of headaches during September practice. Surgery was performed to remove the tumor from his brain on October 1st, but the cancer had already aggressively spread through his body. He died just one month after the surgery. Spencer Hall of EDSBS sums this tragedy up the best:
Bell was just diagnosed in October. That's a month ago, a single month between playing as a defensive end in the SEC and the end of your life in a hospital bed surrounded by stunned family and friends wondering how this happened. There's unfair, and then there's this, which is somewhere beyond comprehension and simple unfairness.
The Bulldogs have understandably dedicated the rest of the season to the honor of Bell. While he may not be present on the field, the memory of Nick Bell is going to be ever present in the minds of the Bulldogs, and a sad reminder that the players we watch on the field are just as human as the rest of us.
More information is certainly on the way. In the meantime, check out the wonderfully named SBN blog devoted to Mississippi St.: For Whom the Cowbell Tolls.