For three of Mississippi State's most important football players, 2011 is about improving both personally and as a team.
Senior running back Vick Ballard, a nominee for preseason All-SEC, said that despite leading the SEC in scoring in 2010, he needs to get better. In fact, he said things like SEC Media Days can cause people to become complacent.
"I'm self-motivated," Ballard said. "When you have a lot of people talking to you it's hard to stay humble. I try not to let it get to me."
Ballard said he thinks he's one of the top running backs in a conference stacked in the backfield, but he said it is a foolish exercise to pick one above the rest.
"I don't think you can just rank us as one, two, three, four, five," Ballard said. "You gotta look at what aspect of their game you're looking at."
One aspect Ballard is trying to improve upon, he said, is his power running. In fact, he even mentioned a divisional rival as someone he looks to for tips.
"The one running back I like watching is [Alabama's] Trent Richardson because he's real powerful," Ballard said. "That's the one aspect I want to improve on."
Often last year Ballard would share his opinion that he is a rhythm back, meaning he needed consistent carries to be at his peak. He believes that he will have that opportunity in 2011, but said it wasn't always so easy in 2010, his first season at MSU.
"The first three games last year I maybe had like 15 carries in all," Ballard said. "It didn't make me mad, I just knew that I was a rhythm guy. I need a couple carries to get myself going. The first [big] game I had, I had 20 carries against Florida. Every game after that I felt myself getting better and better, adjusting to the speed of the game."
Ballard said he constantly has something to prove, having been under-recruited throughout high school and into junior college. Also, Ballard said, he has to be careful with LaDarius Perkins in the backfield, saying the rising sophomore pushes him every day.
Senior quarterback Chris Relf, entering the season as the unquestioned starter for the first time in his career, said he has been doing everything he can to continue the success he had passing at the end of 2010, when he passed for over 200 yards in three straight games.
He said he has been throwing with his receivers three times per week this summer in an effort to build chemistry and make sure everyone knows the offense.
"We try to work on the basic offense," Relf said. "I go out there and just tell the guys, 'What we do out here is going to determine what we do in the game.'"
Like Ballard, Relf was a nominee for All-SEC in the preseason ballot for the media. The reserved Relf, however, said he isn't overly-concerned with the media types have to say.
"I really don't pay attention to all that," Relf said. "I just try to be the hardest working quarterback in the country. I just feel that there's never too much work I can do in the film room or on the field." He also said the attention isn't going to his head.
"I'm the same old Chris. I know the offense really good," Relf said. "I'm going to lead this team, maybe the rest of the guys will follow."
The buzz also centered on a player who did not get much media attention in 2010. That's just how it is for defensive linemen though, Fletcher Cox said.
The junior defensive tackle will be the centerpiece of defensive coordinator Chris Wilson's unit in 2011, and Cox said he still will be in 2012.
Despite talk that the talented junior could leave for the NFL after this season, Cox said that is not an option for him.
"No, sir. I'm gonna graduate," Cox said. "I'm gonna play four years at Mississippi State."
Next year, of course, will be his third. Cox also said that with defensive end Pernell McPhee now graduated and with the Baltimore Ravens, Wilson will look to him as the leader of the defense, whether it's good or bad.
Cox, whether willingly or not, knows he is the leader now.
"Coach Wilson looks at it as me," Cox said. "If something happens, he'll look at me, like, 'Why did that happen? You're supposed to be the leader.' He'll also look at Josh [Boyd] and [Sean Ferguson], us three that have played in the SEC."
As for what he's doing to improve, Cox said Boyd, who he considers to be like a brother, helps push him as a fellow defensive tackle, saying they talk trash back and forth and are always competing, both in the weight room and on the field. Cox said he has also spent time by himself on the field.
"I go out three times a week later in the day and work on my pass rush," Cox said. "Things that we'll be doing when coaches get back."