Meet unofficial winner of 2017 offseason in SEC: Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen
For college towns, Oxford has a reputation for being not only the best in the Magnolia State, but one of the best in America.
Starkville, on the other hand, isn’t so celebrated. While Ole Miss has The Grove and as charasmatic of a Greek population as there is at any institution, Mississippi State is often referred to as a suitcase school in a cow town.
Nevertheless, when it comes to football — the only thing that matters to so many people in Mississippi — the pendulum is currently swinging from the Rebels to the Bulldogs. In Oxford, former coach Hugh Freeze resigned last week under mortifying circumstances. Not to mention the fact that the NCAA has the program in its crosshairs ready to pull the trigger.
Meanwhile, in Starkville, coach Dan Mullen is chewing on a cigar with a pair of Yeezys kicked up on his desk as the unofficial winner of the SEC’s offseason.
Earlier this month at Media Days, Freeze’s opening comments were 17 minutes long. It was a desperate attempt to avoid the inevitable questions about a lawsuit that had been filed the previous day by one-time Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt.
Said lawsuit claimed defamation of character, as Freeze blamed Nutt for most of the NCAA violations that the Rebels had been charged with — all Nutt originally wanted from Freeze was an apology. A records request from Nutt’s lawyer for Freeze’s school-issued cell phone then uncovered a disturbing pattern of behavior involving escort services.
Less than two weeks before reporting to fall camp, Freeze emptied out his office to make room for interim coach Matt Luke.
When Mullen took to the podium in Hoover, he joked that every coach in the conference should have walk-up music like baseball players do before each at-bat. He prefers U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name.”
Half the questions Mullen fielded revolved around his growing legend as a quarterback guru. His present QB, Nick Fitzgerald, led the league in both total offense and total touchdowns — as a first-year starter, no less — this past season. His previous signal caller, Dak Prescott, is the NFL’s reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Media members still picked Mississippi State to finish sixth in the West, but at least it wasn’t seventh and dead last like Ole Miss.
It would be far from a shock if the Rebels completely went to pieces this season, as the coach who assembled them turned out to be a fraud. They already had very little to look forward to since a self-imposed bowl ban was announced in February.
Miraculously, no players have decided to leave the program — had field general Shea Patterson bolted, the flood gates may have opened — and seeker greener pastures elsewhere. That being said, if the NCAA’s hand of justice is heavy and levies more scholarship reductions and postseason banishment, expect a mass exodus.
Luke, a former walk-on with the Rebels and eventual captain, now has his dream job. It could quickly turn into a nightmare, though.
The Bulldogs, conversely, might be sneaky contenders in the division and extend its school-record streak to eight consecutive seasons going to a bowl game. Before Mullen’s arrival, the longest such streak was three from 1998-2000.
Most of the optimism centers on Fitzgerald, who is a dual-threat monster and borderline unstoppable when facing lesser competition. While he’s beaten up on his share of bottom-feeders — he’s thrown for as much as 417 yards in a single game and run for as much as 258 — he must find a way to be more effective against elite defenses.
But it wasn’t long ago when Prescott was considered just another spread-option passer. Mullen is largely credited for his development into a Pro Bowler at the next level.
Even if there isn’t much separation between Ole Miss and Mississippi State at this point, the gap can widen considerably in the near future. The Rebels keep giving up ground on the recruiting trail, while the Bulldogs continue to gain momentum.
According to the composite rankings at 247Sports, Ole Miss is projected to sign the No. 63 class in the country for 2018. Nine commitments are on the books — the decommitments started to roll in mere hours after Freeze’s resignation — but none rate higher than 3-stars. Every other team in the SEC has at least one 4-star commit.
With the situation as it is, those 5-star signees of recent vintage (like Patterson) in Oxford may be a thing of the past.
As for the Bulldogs, they’re in line to reel in the No. 20 class nationally based on the strengh of 18 total commitments. Two are 4-star prospects, including quarterback Jalen Mayden, with offers from several more high-profile squads.
For this particular cycle, there are 32 players in Mississippi rated 3-stars. Wide receiver Malik Heath is the sole 4-star recruit in the entire state — there are no 5-star studs like running back Cam Akers from a year ago. Among those 33 kids, Mississippi State has secured commitments from eight of them. Ole Miss has two.
And who knows how locked in defensive linemen Deuntra Hyman and Quentin Bivens are right now. Nobody would blame them for opening up their recruitment again.
Luke gave a passionate opening statement Monday at his introductory press conference, but we have no idea what kind of head coach he’ll be. Perhaps he’s the next Dabo Swinney and becomes a smashing success after starting out on an interim basis.
But maybe he’s the next John L. Smith, who took an 11-win Arkansas club from Bobby Petrino — his exit was even more scandalous than Freeze’s — and proceeded to lay a 4-8 egg. The Razorbacks responded by hiring Bret Bielema away from Wisconsin, while Smith has spent the last five years coaching in the doldrums of Division II.
Back to “Where the Streets Have No Name,” Mississippi State fans can feel sunlight on their face. Ole Miss supporters would be wise to take shelter from the poison rain.