STARKVILLE — Mississippi State football players opened practice this morning with the first of two practices to begin the 2010 season.
The Bulldogs, coming off a 5-7 season, began fall camp Monday with 105 players reporting to the first team meeting.
The key is living up to the expectations set by the excitement of the 2009 season.
On Monday, State announced it had sold 41,200 season tickets, surpassing the 40,901 sold last year. That number is expected to increase with the season set to begin in a month.
Talks of expanding Davis Wade Stadium, though at an early stage, began after MSU set an overall attendance record in ”09.
MSU”s recent haul of verbal commitments for the 2011 class produced some of the state”s biggest names — yet another example of the upswing Dan Mullen and his staff have steered in Starkville.
The verbal spars with University of Mississippi coach Houston Nutt and Alabama coach Nick Saban also have added spice to the preseason and developed a swagger within the program.
“Let”s put it this way: Our guys believe, how we played last year, they can compete with any team in the league,” Mullen said at Southeastern Conference media days in July. “How we finished the year off, I believe they now believe they can beat any team in this league.”
Mullen hasn”t shied away from setting the bar at a level the Bulldogs haven”t reached since 1998, wen they won the Southeastern Conference”s Western Division.
To get there, the Bulldogs will have to find replacements for running back Anthony Dixon, linebacker Jamar Chaney, cornerback Marcus Washington, and quarterback Tyson Lee.
Here”s a look at three pivotal areas where players will be vying for starting jobs and/or increased first-team reps:
How do you replace Dixon, the program”s all-time leading rusher and current San Francisco 49er?
You give everyone a shot.
In the spring, junior Robert Elliott, junior college transfer Vick Ballard, and redshirt freshman Montrell Conner shared the load.
Each back has a unique trait or skill set that could lead to the two-back formations of last year, when Dixon, Christian Ducre” , and Arnil Stallworth formed shotgun option tandems.
Elliott is anxious to live up to his prep acclaim, but MSU”s running back situation could follow the “whoever”s hot” format.
Chris Relf, the team”s second-leading rusher last season, is sure to get his share of carries.
Finding a quarterback might not be as pressing of a need considering the way Mullen used Relf, a junior, last season.
Relf, who attended SEC Media Days last month in Hoover, Ala., was lauded by Mullen for his improved mechanics and attention to detail.
But Relf is the only quarterback on the roster who has thrown a pass in a college game, and he has just 292 career passing yards.
Redshirt freshman and former Parade All-American Tyler Russell split first-team repetitions with Relf in the spring, and Mullen has yet to name a frontrunner.
Another All-American, freshman Dylan Favre, arrived this summer and has lived up to the hype. Players have noted his willingness to learn and to compete from Day 1.
With inexperience at receiver and at center, the passing game will get plenty of scrutiny in the preseason.
Outside of Chad Bumphis and Leon Berry, MSU is thin in experience.
The losses of Brandon McRae and O”Neal Wilder could have a bigger impact if Chris Smith, Brandon Heavens, and Ricco Sanders don”t round out the group. Smith had troubles with drops, while Sanders redshirted. Heavens had just seven catches last season.
In the spring, Mullen mentioned the need to develop depth. Expect that topic to come up again this preseason.
n In ticket news, MSU began accepting orders from the general public for single-game tickets Monday. Lower level seating remains for games against Kentucky and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Only upper level tickets remain for the other five home games this season. The only way for fans to purchase lower level seats for those games is through a season-ticket package.
“This is another example of the passion and excitement within the Mississippi State family,” director of athletics Scott Stricklin said. “We still have a little over a month until we kick off against Memphis, so anybody that hasn”t ordered their season tickets really should do so soon.”
Last season, 376,544 fans attended games at Davis Wade Stadium, shattering the previous record by nearly 70,000. The increase helped MSU lead the nation in increased average attendance from the year prior.
MSU will kick off the 2010 campaign at 6 p.m. Sept. 4 against Memphis.