Where does the state of Mississippi go from here?
Football has always been a big part of the culture in the state of Mississippi, but the state’s two flagship programs — Ole Miss and Mississippi State — haven’t always given fans much to cheer about.
Prior to this season, the two schools combined to post just two 10-win seasons and zero conference championships in the last 50 years. They’ve never had a Heisman winner between them, and they spent years as the proverbial punching bags of the SEC.
The programs are built on the same pageantry and tradition as many of the other great football schools throughout the country, but they’ve rarely delivered results the Magnolia State can take pride in.
That all changed this season.
Mississippi State has already reached the 10-win plateau, and when the Heisman voting is unveiled it’s likely Dak Prescott will be the school’s highest-finishing finalist ever.
Ole Miss is just one-win shy of 10 wins, and it’ll have a chance to earn that win on a big stage in a premier bowl game this winter. The Rebels can also hang their hats on two top 10 wins over Alabama and Mississippi State, two schools that combined to lose just once otherwise all year.
For each school, the 2014 season marks one of the best in program history, and never before have both schools risen to such prominence at the same time, forcing the nation to give Magnolia State football the attention it’s craved for generations.
This season is almost finished, however, and the fear throughout the state is both programs will regress to their old ways after another flash in the pan. The question on the minds of fans throughout the state is simple: Where do both programs go from here?
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest both schools will regress next season.
Mississippi State is going to lose a lot of experience and a lot of star-power off this year’s team, including 19 seniors and potentially Prescott and Benardrick McKinney as well. It could also lose its head coach, Dan Mullen, to greener pastures in the coming years. (To clarify, when I say greener pastures, I am indeed making a pun about money.)
Mullen has been adamant about how much he loves living in Starkville and coaching at MSU, but throw enough zeroes onto a paycheck at a school with more tradition than MSU, and you’d have to think Mullen will follow the money.
Ole Miss was able to retain its head coach, Hugh Freeze, earlier this week, but it is going to lose its quarterback of the last three years, Bo Wallace, and its two most dynamic defensive backs, Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson, after the bowl game. Unlike the Bulldogs and Damian Williams, the Rebels quarterback situation is a complete mystery moving forward, which is almost always a sign of impending regression.
So how can both schools avoid a regression? How can they use this season to remain power programs in the big, bad SEC?
The answer is simple: Act like you’ve been there, because, frankly, now you have.
These two programs need to approach the future the same way teams like Alabama and LSU will. They need to create a buzz around the program throughout the offseason. They need to recruit the best players in America as if they’re all realistic targets (Robert Nkemdiche sure was). They need to continue paying their coaches big money and upgrading facilities to show they’re committed to pursuing SEC championships on a regular basis. They need to assert that losing is no longer acceptable.
Both schools have already begun heading down that path. Mississippi State made some tremendous additions and renovations to Davis Wade Stadium, creating a home atmosphere rivaling the best the conference has to offer.
Ole Miss just ponied up big money to keep Hugh Freeze in Oxford, and it’s likely that Freeze will only stand to improve his already impressive recruiting record as prospects now know he’s at Ole Miss for the long haul. It also has renovations to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium scheduled down the line.
But the Magnolia State’s flagship programs need to continue those trends moving forward. Mississippi State will eventually have to pay big money to keep other schools from luring Mullen away. Both schools may need to upgrade their football facilities beyond the stadiums they play in on Saturdays.
Fans need a reason to maintain their excitement. Recruits need a reason to believe they can be just as successful at Ole Miss or State as they could be at Alabama, Georgia, LSU, etc. The SEC practically sells itself, but these schools need to prove they’re among the highest class of programs in the conference, not just members lucky to share an association with the brand.
This is all very expensive, but it’s the cost of sustained success in the realm of college football. Both programs are set up to regress next year, but they also have the pieces in place to build from this season.
If they take steps toward selling this year’s success to future recruits, and toward using this year’s increased revenues to finance better facilities and long-term contracts for coaches, they could make the daunting but rewarding rise to greatness.
Just look at the University of South Carolina. The Gamecocks were a football laughing stock until Lou Holtz arrived in the late 1990s; nowadays a 6-6 season is considered a disaster compared to the newfound expectations in the Palmetto State.
Building greatness out of nothing is not impossible in the SEC, and both the Rebels and Bulldogs are already in the process of doing so. If they follow the steps laid out in the paragraphs above and leverage this season’s magical runs as a starting point for growth, championships might not be far off for either school.
This offseason will be pivotal for both teams, because how Ole Miss and Mississippi State follow this season’s success will ultimately determine where both programs go from here.