Undefeated in Mississippi Part 1

How coaching and attitude adjustments lead to Mississippi State and Ole Miss's historic seasons in the making.

When you think about the Southeastern Conference there are so many prominent programs that come to mind. This is a conference that has dominated as of late. Alabama, Auburn, Florida, and LSU have combined to win seven of the last eight national championships. Tennessee also won the title in the late 90s. Georgia has had their share of top flight teams and the same can be said for South Carolina.

It seems as though there is a team or two from the SEC that’s always contending. That’s the beauty of the league – there’s always so much depth and each and every year it seems as though four, five or even six teams are factors.

This season is the same and yet it is different. It’s different because teams like LSU and Florida are down. It’s the same because programs like Ole Miss and Mississippi State are up.

Someone from this league is always making noise and right now it’s downright deafening out of the state of Mississippi.

Who would have ever imagined that Mississippi State would be ranked as the No. 1 team in the country and Ole Miss No. 3?

There were always glimmers of hope that the Bulldogs and Rebels would break through, beat the bullies in the SEC and compete for a trip to Atlanta for a chance at the title. But on only one occasion over the past two plus decades has one of these programs ever made it to the Georgia Dome with a chance to win the conference championship. That was a Jackie Sherrill led Mississippi State team back in 1998.

Over the past few weeks, these two teams from the Magnolia State have beaten LSU, Alabama, Texas A&M (twice) and Auburn. They are both unbeaten and sitting atop the ultra-competitive SEC West with everything at their fingertips. Both teams control their destiny and fate. How awesome would it be for everything to come down to the Egg Bowl, the annual regular season finale between these two bitter rivals?

We are roughly half way through the 2014 season and the state of Mississippi is the talk of the college football world. How cool is that?

It’s refreshing and it’s fun.

Most people though are asking how did this happen? How did these two mediocre programs rise up the ranks of the S-E-C and college football world and do it so quickly?

ATTITUDE

Dan Mullen took over in Starkville in 2009. He came by way of the University of Florida where he served as the Gators offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer. So this is a guy who knew who to win and win big, especially in a league like the SEC. He also knew how to run an effective offense and develop players.

But it took time. Mississippi State has always been a club that’s been kind of knocking on the door. But they seemed to always fall a little short.

This season the approach was a little different. A ton of starters and experience were coming back to the Bulldogs. They had a great off-season and wanted to approach each and every game of the 2014 season as a ‘revenge’ game.

The first Mississippi State hurdle was LSU in Baton Rouge. There the Tigers won and won convincingly. It did wonders for their psyche. This blue collar team now knew they had the mental toughness to beat a perennial power in their backyard. Mississippi State left Louisiana a very confident team and over the span of the next two weeks they beat Texas A&M and Auburn, a pair of top ten teams.

For the Rebels, that attitude change started when Huge Freeze got the job in late 2011. His initial primary goal was to solidify the morale of the team and change the culture of the football program. Close to half the team (29 players) was on academics probation and on the verge of failing out. It took some time, as most of his team did “buy in” that first season. The ones that didn’t and wanted to do things their way were slowly weeded out. And in the end, of all those players in academic trouble, Ole Miss only lost one.

RECRUITING PHILOSOPHY

Typically when there is a coaching change it’s because that team is losing. When you are losing it’s typically from not really having the talent to compete and win. Therefore it takes time to turnover a roster and recruit the kind of players you need for your schemes and ultimately win.

For Mullen and Mississippi State, the ideals they share in terms of recruiting seem much different than many of the college football powers. They recruit to fit and try and find the ideal prospect that specifically fits the skills set they are looking for at every single position on the team. They must always be student-athletes of high character. At the end of the day, this is a program that could care less about the number of stars next to a recruits name because they trust their evaluations.

The other thing that Mullen and his staff do exceptionally well is to recruit the family or people that are close to these prospects. They sit down with each and every one of them and explain the meaning of being committed to Mississippi State University. They do a nice job of just developing the relationship which turns into trust.

Case in point: quarterback Dak Prescott. He’s was a three-star recruit from Haughton (La.). No big time schools wanted but Mississippi State. Early on he only had offers from the Bulldogs and programs like Louisiana Tech, Memphis, North Texas and Louisiana-Lafayette. Much of the credit needs to go to Mississippi State assistant John Heavesy. He was Prescott’s primary recruiter who pounded the tables in Starkville that this was the guy. They offered him over the summer and Prescott committed and held his word, even when LSU eventually offered.

Another example is running back Josh Robinson. Like his quarterback Prescott, he was a three-star recruit in the 2011 class. He had mainly small school offers and ended up with the Bulldogs over the Rebels. The irony here is that LSU passed on Robinson and signed his high school teammate in Terrance Magee.

One of the best defensive players on the team and in the SEC is linebacker Beniquez Brown from Florence (Ala.). Auburn kind of wanted him but Mississippi State coach Geoff Collins recruited the heck out of him to get him to Starkville. Wide receiver De’Runnya Wilson is a similar story. He was a basketball star and late bloomer in football. The Bulldogs jumped all over him and gave him the opportunity to play both sports at Mississippi State. No one else would. The rest is history and he’s become one of their big playmakers on offense.

There are stories like those above littered up and down this Bulldogs roster. Mississippi State is not a team loaded with high end five and four-star recruits. They are players that this staff believed were the right fits for what they do. They trusted their evaluations and have done a very nice job in player development.

Much of the same can be said for Ole Miss. The Rebels however, won some major recruiting battles a few years ago. While they do recruit on a regional scale like the Bulldogs, Freeze is not afraid to go toe to toe with some of the big boys across the country for elite five-star talent. Two years ago he shocked the world when he went to the states of Georgia, Florida and Illinois to land huge recruits like defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Laquan Treadwell.

But you just don’t get and the ring and knockout the heavyweights with a lucky punch. It was critical that Freeze and Ole Miss come out and win. They did that in his first season and even went bowling. Did they contend for the SEC West? No, but Ole Miss showed very early on that this staff was on the right course. Early success was huge for Freeze and Rebel recruiting, especially with the big name recruits.

But it wasn’t all about the flashy five-stars. It was imperative for Freeze and his program to recruit character and football smarts as much as talent. They wanted to find the best players that understood how to play the positions that they were actually recruiting them for.

ALL SYSTEMS GO


To win in the SEC you must play defense. It’s that simple. I mean Texas A&M had had the league’s best offensive over the last two years and they can’t stop anyone. If you want to win your division and get to Atlanta and the Georgia Dome with hopes to make it to the playoffs, etc. you better be good on defense.

And a huge strength of these two programs are their defenses. For Mississippi State, they have an ultra-deep, aggressive and attacking style unit. Their front seven is as good as anyone in the country. They play hard and with a chip on their shoulder. Much of this success can be attributed to a defensive coach in David Turner. He became the Mississippi State defensive line coach when Joker Phillips was fired at Kentucky and he has done wonders in Starkville working with defensive coordinator Geoff Collins.

On the flip side in Oxford defensive coordinator Dave Wommack has been terrific. The Rebels play a 4-2-5 scheme. The previous staff employed the same alignment, which made the transition from Houston Nutt’s scheme to Womack’s scheme that much easier for the Rebel defenders. This is a smart unit. They are multiple. They are all the same page and understand where they need to be and what they need to do. Much of this is due to the teaching and coaching from Womack and the rest of this staff.

While their defenses can get after and stop opponents, it’s their offenses that are making a big difference. These teams are scoring points. They both run the spread attack and have two terrific triggerman in Prescott for Mississippi State and Bo Wallace for the Rebels.

In fact, you can go back and talk about all the important recruits but Wallace and Prescott were the two biggest for both schools. You can play defense and run the football and win some games. But good quarterback play can’t be overstated enough. Just ask yourself where would Mississippi State and Ole Miss be today without Wallace and Prescott running the show?

They both have shown the ability to distribute the ball to their respective play makers. When there teams have needed to make something happen this season these two have made the plays. And it’s not just them, they are complemented well and both offensive line units have done a nice job so far this season.

Every year there are great stories in college football. This season there are two brewing in the state of Mississippi as Ole Miss and Mississippi State have obviously done the right things in building their rosters and developing their players. The Rebels and Bulldogs are on a collision course. The winner will likely survive and advance in their pursuit of a championship. It’s been a great run that hopefully is a long way from being over.

See part 1 here.


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