With the nation watching, both Ole Miss and Mississippi State came up with enormous wins on Saturday and were rewarded with top-five poll rankings. “College GameDay” had never been to the state before, and now it’ll be there two straight weeks.
In my August trip to England, I wrote, “In a continent that has seen wars, plagues, and disaster, you don’t tear down and rebuild your history; it is what it is, and you live your life around it.” Your history is never past, but it’s still history. That defines everything you see in England. Here’s where this awful thing happened, and next to it is one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see.
As strange as it feels to say, perhaps no state resembles England in this regard more than the Magnolia State, right down to its scenery, tortured past, and use of a popular sport to both propagate divisions and build bridges with the rest of its region.
There was no complicated past in the state on Saturday. No dredge through gray matter. There was only a blissful present.
With unprecedented national attention honing in on the state’s two major schools, both Mississippi State and Ole Miss came up huge. The Bulldogs walloped previously undefeated Texas A&M, while the Rebels knocked off top-ranked (in one poll, at least) Alabama.
The state of Mississippi has housed plenty of good football teams throughout the last century. Most of them came from Oxford; here’s your annual reminder that former Rebel head coach John Vaught (190-61-12 in 25 seasons, 10 AP top-10 finishes, a 65-7-4 run from 1957-63, one of the best teams in the sport’s history in 1959) is the most underrated coach of all time. But Mississippi State won an SEC West title once, and over the last 25 years, Ole Miss has finished ranked seven times while MSU has done so five times.
That teams from Mississippi are good is no surprise for the college football landscape, even though it doesn’t happen every year. But teams from Mississippi being this good, at the same time, is stunning. As Spencer Hall said in a Fox Sports 1 bit last week, “The state’s really too small for two football programs this size.”
The successes of the Rebels and Bulldogs have been of a zero-sum nature. By my count, the Mississippi schools have finished just four seasons simultaneously ranked, in almost eight decades of polling: 1941 (No. 16 MSU 8-1-1, No. 17 Ole Miss 6-2-1), 1957 (No. 7 Ole Miss 9-1-1, No. 14 MSU 6-2-1), 1992 (No. 16 Ole Miss 9-3, No. 23 MSU 7-5), and 1999 (No. 13 MSU 10-2, No. 22 Ole Miss 8-4). Only once have both teams finished in the top 15.
Well, they currently tie for third in the new AP poll. And the numbers should back that up; when the F/+ advanced-stats rankings come out later Monday, it’s likely that both will be in the top five (Ole Miss was fifth last week, MSU seventh). Yes, we’re only midway through the season, and the SEC West gauntlet could ensure that both fall with a couple of losses. But we’re in uncharted territory here.
So how did this happen? How did we get here? Let’s look at some of the people directly involved with the simultaneous rise of two programs that never rise simultaneously.
For two different SEC programs, Houston Nutt perfected the art of succeeding while portending imminent doom. He inherited a bit of a mess from Danny Ford at Arkansas and reached the top 10 (before a late fade to 9-3) in his first year, and he won at least eight games six times in 10 seasons. He inherited a complete mess from Ed Orgeron at Ole Miss (the Rebels had won 10 games in three seasons) and immediately engineered back-to-back nine-win campaigns.
Eventually the novelty wears off. Through disorganization, drama, and a lack of discipline, his teams went 6-18 in 2010-11, and he was dumped.
After aiming for SEC experience in hiring Nutt, Ole Miss took the road less traveled in replacing him.
Hugh Freeze had been Orgeron’s tight ends coach and run game coordinator in Oxford, Freeze’s place of birth, for three seasons. But when Orgeron was run out of town, Freeze ended up as head coach at Lambuth University for two years. He went 20-5 with the Eagles, then spent a year as Arkansas State’s offensive coordinator before assuming the head coaching duties in Jonesboro and going 10-2.
The more responsibility he gained, the more he succeeded. But still, when hired, he was a 42-year-old with one year of FBS head coaching experience and seven years of any college coaching experience. Few Rebel fans were blown away.
The guy knows what he’s doing. He’s known for his stellar recruiting, but being an ace recruiter didn’t help him win 10 games in his first year on the job at ASU. He knows how to coach the talent he recruits (and the talent he inherited from others), and he put together a staff that was equal parts charismatic and tactically gifted.
His calling card has always been offense, and his offense still has a ways to go in terms of consistency, but it only has to be good enough to get out of the way of a fast, unforgiving defense. It was indeed good enough on Saturday against No. 3 Alabama.
Successful coaching requires long-term execution in a short-term universe. It requires you to build a skyscraper while knowing that you may not make it to the finish.
Eleven months ago, it was looking like Dan Mullen wasn’t going to be around in Starkville much longer. Once an up-and-comer with an impeccable résumé as Urban Meyer’s right-hand man at Bowling Green, Utah, and Florida, Mullen had taken the MSU head coaching job at age 36. In 2010, his second year with the Bulldogs, he engineered a nine-win season (the school’s first since 1999) and a New Year’s Day bowl win (first since 1941).
But the returns quickly diminished. The Bulldogs needed a late-season win over Nutt’s final Ole Miss team just to become bowl-eligible in 2011, and after a 7-0 start against dreadful competition in 2012, they lost five of six to finish the season, then went 4-6 to start 2013.
All you have to do is survive. Keep living, and you might not die. An overtime win over Ole Miss last fall got MSU to 6-6, and the Bulldogs’ Liberty Bowl romp over Rice gave them hope that an experienced 2014 squad could get the program rolling.
Bowl wins are terrible predictors of future success. We overreact to them every year — Team A looked great in its bowl, so it has momentum! Team B looked awful and is clearly doomed! In MSU’s case, we apparently didn’t overreact enough.
Aside from about 20 minutes against UAB, the Bulldogs looked suitably great against iffy teams early in 2014, then went to Baton Rouge and romped for three quarters over LSU before a late comeback attempt by the home team. And on Saturday, against No. 6 Texas A&M, MSU allowed an opening touchdown drive, then completely dominated.
Wommack has been around. He had already been a defensive coordinator for 16 seasons (at Bemidji State, Southwest Missouri State, UNLV, and Southern Miss) by the time he landed on Houston Nutt’s staff at Arkansas in 2001. He spent four years there, then showed up on the inaugural staffs for both Steve Spurrier at South Carolina (linebackers/defensive backs coach) and Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech (defensive coordinator).
The Yellow Jackets’ average Def. F/+ ranking with him in charge was 48th (it’s been 63rd since he left), but after two years there, he wound up at Arkansas State at the same time Freeze did. He installed an attacking 4-2-5 defense in Jonesboro, and it impressed Freeze enough to bring Wommack with him to Oxford.
The Rebels haven’t been able to run the ball consistently, and a lack of efficiency prevents them from doing what they want to do from a tempo perspective. But the speed of the defense is terrifying.
The Ole Miss defense is like if wasps were people sized.
— Ryan Nanni (@celebrityhottub) October 4, 2014
The Rebels ranked 78th in Def. F/+ the year before Wommack arrived; they improved to 34th in 2012, then 20th in 2013, and they are currently playing at a top-five level. Memphis averaged 5.8 yards per play against UCLA and 1.7 against Ole Miss. Alabama averaged 7.7 yards per play against Florida and just 5.3 against the Rebs.
Recruiting has improved under Freeze, and Wommack has one of the nastiest defensive lines in the country at his disposal. But he was making waves without five-star talent. Now he’s creating tsunamis.
The year before Collins took over as Mullen’s full-time defensive coordinator in Starkville, MSU had slipped to 54th in Def. F/+. After spending time under both Nick Saban (Alabama director of player personnel) for a year and George O’Leary (UCF linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator) for two, Collins spent one year renovating the FIU defense in 2010 (FIU Def. F/+ ranking in 2009: 108th; in 2010: 55th), then showed up as Mullen’s co-coordinator with Chris Wilson.
Collins’ first MSU defense as solo coordinator was one of control over aggression. The Bulldogs didn’t make many disruptive plays, but pursued the ball-carrier and hit really hard. MSU doesn’t haul in nearly as many blue-chippers as Ole Miss, but the Bulldogs were blessed with three former four- and five-star recruits at defensive tackle and were adept at caving in interior lines and freeing linebackers and experienced safeties up to swarm and prevent big gains.
In 2014, Collins signed a new contract and brought back most of last year’s defensive talent. The Bulldogs are still preventing big plays for the most part, but they’re making more this fall as well. After 74 tackles for loss, 12 forced fumbles, and 52 passes defensed in 2013 (Havoc Rate: 16.6 percent), the Bulldogs are on pace for 100-plus TFLs, 10-plus FFs, and 90-plus PDs in 2014. Current Havoc Rate: 20.3 percent.
Texas A&M came to Starkville averaging 8.0 yards per play for the season. The Aggies averaged 5.7 on Saturday, 5.3 after the opening drive.
As a defensive tackle, the former No. 1 defensive end recruit is doing just fine. You can’t tell it from the stat sheet (8.5 tackles, one sack, one pass break-up, one QB hurry), but that’s often the case with tackles. The Ole Miss line as a whole hasn’t provided much in the way of disruptive stats, but opponents are still only averaging 4.3 yards per carry (not including sacks). Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry combined to average just that on Saturday, and it prevented the Tide from leaning on the run in times of need.
Holy shit Robert Nkemdiche https://t.co/XeW1BuJg1k
— Jeff Gray (@Jeff_GraySBN) October 6, 2014
So yeah, the run front is pretty fierce, and Nkemdiche is one of the reasons for that. He is a brawler in the middle of the line. But his work as a recruiting catalyst might always trump whatever he will accomplish on the field.
Though he didn’t officially commit to Ole Miss until February 2013, Nkemdiche was long an Ole Miss lean, and he was seen as a major reason why other blue-chippers were visiting Oxford. Five-star receiver Laquon Treadwell (25 catches, 362 yards, four touchdowns in 2014) committed on January 17. Four-star receiver Quincy Adeboyejo (11 catches, 121 yards, one score) committed on January 25. And when Nkemdiche signed on February 6, so did five-star offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil. Four-star defenders C.J. Hampton and Demarquis Gates, members of the following class, committed right after Nkemdiche’s Signing Day; both are contributing as true-freshman backups.
Ole Miss signed a top-10 recruiting class in 2013, which helped the Rebels to sign a top-20 class in 2014 despite only decent results on the field. And Saturday’s win, in which Nkemdiche played a large role, could set up further recruiting success. Recruiting snowballs if you’re lucky, and for Ole Miss, Nkemdiche might have been Snowflake Zero.
The keys for Prescott in 2014 are obvious: stay healthy, and do something against actually good defenses. He was nagged by a foot injury early in 2013 and an elbow injury late, but he was also nagged by the fact that good defenses completely shut him down. He completed 63 percent of his passes at 16.3 yards per completion against Troy and Alcorn State, and he completed 65 percent at 13.8 yards per completion against Kentucky and Rice. In those four games, he had eight touchdown passes and no picks. And he rushed for a combined 293 yards against Bowling Green and Texas A&M as well.
Meanwhile, against Oklahoma State, LSU, and South Carolina, he completed 55 percent of his passes at 9.8 yards per completion with no touchdowns and five interceptions.
He did rush for 103 yards against LSU and 133 against Auburn; his legs are a clear threat. And he’s clearly tough enough, as proven when he led a comeback against Ole Miss with a wonky elbow. But we’re seeing some “dark horse Heisman!” hype for Prescott, and that won’t be justified until he does something, anything, against a good pass defense.
I was not in the front car of the Mississippi State quarterback’s bandwagon heading into 2014, and I had justifiable reasons for that. He was getting a bowl bump for beating up on an iffy Rice defense, and while there was nothing saying he couldn’t do well against good defenses, he hadn’t yet.
LSU’s defense also just got torched by Auburn’s offense. And it’s been a while since “Texas A&M” and “good defense” were synonymous. Still, Prescott went to Baton Rouge and completed 15 of 24 passes for 268 yards and rushed 20 times (not including sacks) for 117 yards. And when the Aggies came to town, he welcomed them by completing 19 of 25 passes for 259 yards and rushing 20 times for 97 yards.
Prescott has a prolific backfield mate in Josh Robinson (33 carries for 304 yards in those two games), his line is strong, and his receiving corps is deep enough that he didn’t even miss injured leading receiver Jameon Lewis on Saturday. (De’Runnya Wilson and Fred Brown picked up the slack with seven catches for 141 yards and two scores, and Brown dropped a sure third touchdown bomb in the second half.)
Like Freeze, Mullen earned a head coaching job with his offensive background, and like Freeze, his head coaching tenure has been highlighted by high-caliber defense. Heading into 2014, Mississippi State had not yet ranked better than 50th in Off. F/+ under Mullen.
But they were grading out awfully well heading into Saturday’s game, and it’s safe to say they’re grading out perfectly fine after it. Prescott is not the only reason for that, but he’s the face of the offense. And while “three or four times per game, [he] will make some crazy video game play that either works beautifully or fails miserably,” we’ve seen far more of the former than the latter this fall.
If that continues, then with their light-by-West-standards schedule, the Bulldogs could be the West favorites at this moment in time.
So now comes the hard part. You always have another game to play. And in the SEC West, you always have another heavyweight fight to prepare for.
After the momentous win over Alabama, Ole Miss’ celebration bouquet is a trip to face a scarred, scorned No. 14 Texas A&M squad. Mississippi State bids adieu to A&M and welcomes No. 2 Auburn to town.
Even if they play to the level of their current rankings, both teams could lose. And if there’s any letdown, physically or emotionally, they could lose badly.
But these teams have passed every test given to them in 2014, and Saturday’s results shouldn’t have been in any way surprising. Both Ole Miss and Mississippi State are exciting, physical, fast, experienced, and mean. They are for once good at the same time. They appear built for the long haul, but now they must prove that week after week.
And on the horizon, the biggest-ever Egg Bowl looms.