History shows 2 things: Mike Leach's Year 1 is inevitably frustrating, but better days should follow
Mike Leach at Mississippi State was billed as a new scientific experiment in the life of one of college football’s most interesting personalities. Besides the obvious “Leach in the SEC” storyline from an on-field standpoint of how the league adjusted to the Air Raid, it was supposed to be a fascinating psychological study. How would Leach handle cranked up weekly pressure to produce? How would his players respond to his unique, often blunt form of criticism? How would he be perceived by a fan base that wanted sustained success like it had with Dan Mullen?
A lot of those questions have been answered in pencil already, and not in a good way. To say that Leach’s Year 1 train has gone off the rails since that record-setting debut against LSU would be an understatement. Besides being 1-3 with an offense that ranks No. 88 of 101 FBS teams, MSU reportedly had 7 players leave the program in the last week, including 2 quarterbacks and first-team All-SEC running back Kylin Hill.
If Year 1 was billed as an experiment, Leach and MSU have been more like a combustion than a firework.
It’s fair to question how Leach is going to use Year 1 to recruit to his system in an uber-competitive region of the country. From not being able to find a quarterback who can execute his offense to watching his star tailback go from all in to all out in a matter of weeks, this wasn’t the culture Leach was hoping to establish. It’s also probably not a great sign that even receivers like former Alabama transfer Tyrell Shavers reportedly left the program.
Nobody could have predicted that MSU’s offense would have been this hot and (mostly) cold to start the year, but as for the year of turmoil, perhaps we should have seen this coming.
In many ways, this was the most diabolical combination of ingredients for combustion. Some were outside of Leach’s control.
For example, MSU has the look of a team that desperately needed a normal offseason. Normal spring reps in an entirely new system could have been beneficial, and the Bulldogs could have used some favorable nonconference games to get some more realistic confidence. Instead, MSU opened the year with an unsustainable performance against an LSU defense that was physically and mentally unprepared. Everything came easy. Too easy.
To go from such a high to this kind of low is, well, stunning. We know that clearly, the LSU game is the outlier for Year 1 so far, but it’s also the outlier for Leach’s typical first years.
In his first year at Texas Tech, Leach went 7-5 overall, but 3-5 in the Big 12. In those 5 regular-season losses, Texas Tech never hit 24 points. The Red Raiders only hit that mark vs. Power 5 competition against 3-win Oklahoma State and 4-win Kansas. They couldn’t even hit 14 points against a North Texas squad that went 3-8, but that was part of a 4-0 start in which Texas Tech didn’t face a Power 5 opponent. The Red Raiders weren’t even on national TV until the regular-season finale when they faced eventual-national champ Oklahoma.
Again, that’s a little different than an all-SEC schedule with 2 of the first 4 games being on national TV.
Go back to Leach’s Year 1 at Washington State. After Bill Moos got Leach off his bike in Key West to head up to Pullman, it was a forgettable season. The Cougars lost their first 8 conference games and finished 3-9. They were held to 17 points or less in half of their games, and 4 times they were held to single digits. That included the season-opener against BYU, where Leach’s debut was spoiled by Taysom Hill and a 6-point offensive output.
Read the lede from the AP story after the BYU game:
New Washington State coach Mike Leach says his team is closer to playing well than his players might think.
He says it’s just a matter of eliminating the bad, being a bit more consistent with the good and remaining confident.
“We’ve got to be a mentally tougher team,” Leach said following a 30-6 loss Thursday to Brigham Young. “When something negative happens, we can’t have all these basset hound-looking faces on the sidelines.”
Washington State crossed midfield only six times and got inside the red zone only once.
“Any time we were about to ignite or catch fire, something negative would happen,” Leach said.
That day also marked the first time since 2006 at Texas Tech — he coached there until 2009 — that his offense was held without a touchdown. The 2020 loss against Kentucky marked Leach’s first time as a head coach that his offense was held without a point.
Before Leach arrived at MSU, he was 4-13 vs. Power 5 competition in his first seasons. His offense averaged 22.4 points in those contests. Compare some of the raw numbers and it’s actually pretty similar to what we’ve seen in the past.
It was natural to chalk up Leach’s Year 1 struggles to taking over non-powerhouses. Sure, that’s part of it. Leach went to a Washington State program that was 4-28 in conference play under the previous regime. MSU has higher expectations, but it was still a team with 1 winning record in conference play in the 21st century, and after a pandemic-fueled offseason, a conference-only schedule awaited. Despite what we saw against LSU in Week 1, Leach was always going to have an uphill climb in Year 1 at MSU.
Joe Moorhead didn’t recruit an Air Raid offense, and neither did Dan Mullen. MSU hadn’t had a top-100 passing offense in the previous 3 years, but Leach wanted to establish his style, and 18 years as a head coach with 12 seasons with 8-plus wins undoubtedly played a part in him trusting his process after the early struggles.
Did he do it to a fault? Definitely. His refusal to establish any sort of ground game against 3-men fronts is Leach being Leach. MSU is dead last in FBS in rush attempts per game. That’s baffling for a program that cannot pass-block 3-men fronts and has been held to 3 offensive touchdowns — along with 10 interceptions and 4.7 yards per attempt — in its last 180 minutes of football. Instead, Leach continues to rotate quarterbacks in hopes that one of them will click.
That’s exactly what Leach did in Year 1 at Washington State with Connor Halliday and Jeff Tuel. It didn’t matter to Leach that his team plummeted to that 8-game losing streak against Pac-12 foes.
The difference, of course, was that Washington State and Mississippi State are different places. MSU just fired a coach who had a winning record (14-12), consecutive bowl trips and consecutive Egg Bowl wins. Mullen, who entered with low expectations, delivered a top-15 season in Year 2 in Starkville. The hope, of course, is that Leach can do the same.
The good news for MSU is that while Leach’s first seasons have been filled with mostly frustrating times, quarterback battles and roster overhauls, those Year 2 strides were noticeable at Texas Tech and Washington State.
Leach’s Texas Tech team might not have won more games, but his offense went from No. 61 to No. 22. In his second season at Washington State, the offense improved by a full 11 points per game. More important, Washington State had its best season in conference play in 7 years and it went to its first bowl game in a decade.
That’s why Leach is going to continue to trust his process, for better or worse. He wasn’t hired to turn MSU into a juggernaut in Year 1, and if the first half of 2020 is any indication, he won’t come close to doing that. Time will tell if his roster overhaul — some of which will be his choice and some won’t — will allow MSU to make the Year 2 jump that we’ve seen in other places.
One would have to think that better days are ahead for Leach in Starkville, though that’s not likely this weekend with MSU walking into Alabama as a 30-point underdog. This all-SEC schedule won’t do MSU any favors any time soon. As demoralizing as Year 1 could get, keep something in mind.
The Leach experiment is far from over.