Senior tailback Vick Ballard has a simple explanation for why the Bulldogs didn't waste their off-season crowing about finishing No. 15 in the final AP poll: Check the final SEC West standings. "When you look at them, it's crazy," he says, "but we finished next to last in the West. There ain't too much to brag about." So Ballard has no problem with Alabama, LSU and Arkansas grabbing all the preseason headlines in the division. Besides, he's accustomed to being overlooked.
Lightly recruited out of Pascagoula (Miss.) High, Ballard was academically qualified to play Division I ball out of high school but chose to attend Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College with the hope that a school bigger than Jackson State—his best offer out of high school—would grant him a scholarship. Even after becoming one of the nation's best junior college backs, he was still ignored by most schools in the SEC, ACC and Big 12. But not by Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, who listened when MGCCC coach Steve Campbell bragged that Ballard made his team go. "He's not the fastest player out there; he's not got the most dynamic moves; he's not a monster big back," says Mullen. "He's just a great football player."
Ballard's best attribute may be his nose for the end zone. Last season he had 19 rushing touchdowns, which is two more than Alabama's Mark Ingram rushed for in 2009, when he won the Heisman Trophy. At 5'11" and 220 pounds, Ballard is no goal line vulture, though. He ran plenty between the 20s, gaining 968 yards and averaging 5.2 yards a carry for the year, even though he didn't find his groove until midseason. This year the Bulldogs know what they have. "Things have gone a whole lot smoother," Ballard says. "When I first got here, I was just trying to learn the playbook."
Plus, defenses that load the box to stop Ballard will risk being carved up by senior quarterback Chris Relf, the SEC's best run-pass threat, who will also have his top three receivers back. If the Bulldogs' defense, which must replace all three starting linebackers, can keep opposing offenses in check, Ballard & Co. can climb way up the standings in college football's best division.
1 at Memphis
10 at Auburn
24 Louisiana Tech
1 at Georgia
8 at UAB
15 South Carolina
29 at Kentucky
19 at Arkansas
In the final three games of 2010, he completed 51 of 73 passes for 793 yards and six TDs with just two interceptions.
Last season the 5'10" wideout led the Bulldogs with 634 yards on 44 catches. He also had five touchdowns.
The team's top returning tackler (93 last year) leads an experienced secondary.
Coach Dan Mullen (3rd year)
2010 Record 9--4 (4--4 in SEC)
Final AP Rank 15
Returning Starters 15
Offense 8, Defense 7
KIM KLEMENT/US PRESSWIRE (BALLARD)
The other SEC schools ignored the hard-charging Ballard when he was coming out of junior college, but he has their full attention after 19 rushing TDs in 2010.
SHELBY DANIEL/ICON SMI (MITCHELL)