Who's better positioned for the future, Ole Miss or Miss. State?
Ole Miss and Mississippi State are two of the original members of the SEC, dating back to the 1933 season. Still, neither program has had many stretches of sustained success in the SEC, or at least not in the last half-century.
But both programs have begun to emerge as relevant factors within the national landscape of college football in recent years, and both took a huge step closer to the nation’s elite in 2014.
Last year alone, Mississippi State won 10 games for only the second time since World War II and earned its first-ever No. 1 ranking in school history. Ole Miss topped four 10-win teams (including three conference champions), took down No. 1 Alabama and hosted College GameDay for the first time ever when ‘Bama came to town.
Both schools represented the SEC in New Year’s Six bowls, and beyond Alabama (the conference champion) the Magnolia State’s two SEC schools were the most accomplished in the entire SEC last season.
It’s become quite a rarity to find both Ole Miss and MSU thriving to such an extent in the same year; after all, MSU hasn’t won the SEC since 1941, and Ole Miss hasn’t won the conference since 1962. That’s two 50-plus-year droughts for two of the SEC’s original members. Again, to see both schools so wildly out-perform expectations in the same season is like seeing a Jersey Shore character pass on bottle service at the nightclub — it just doesn’t happen.
The question now becomes: Which of these two schools will be better able to capitalize on its recent success and sustain that success in the coming years? Both programs are trending positively, perhaps more so than most other teams in the conference. But which of the two has a better chance at entrenching themselves among the SEC’s elite for the next decade?
We’ve broken down this historic in-state rivalry based on four criteria to try and determine which school is better set up for long-term success in the SEC. Take a look at our findings:
As eluded to above, both schools are producing on-field results that are virtually unprecedented in their respective football histories. MSU didn’t just win 10 games and earn its first No. 1 ranking ever, but it also reached a school-record fifth straight bowl game under head coach Dan Mullen.
Ole Miss, meanwhile, didn’t just win nine games, but won four of those games against four of the nation’s toughest teams, all with double-figure win totals. Many of those Rebel victories came in high-profile nationally televised games, and those victories only furthered Ole Miss’ national perception in addition to elevating the team to as high as No. 3 in the polls after beating Alabama.
Edge: Ole Miss. The Rebels improved their record from 2-10 the year before Hugh Freeze arrived to 7-6 in his first year, then to 8-5 and eventually a 9-4 mark last season. Ole Miss has spent large chunks of the last two seasons in the national rankings, and it still doesn’t seem like the Rebels have peaked in the Freeze era.
MSU may be in the midst of a five-year bowl streak, but it just snapped a three-year losing skid against ranked teams during last year’s magical run. Thus, Ole Miss gains a slight edge thanks to its ability to take down ranked teams like LSU in 2013 and Alabama last year.
Both programs have incredibly likable coaches who have also justified themselves in the SEC with eight winning seasons between them in nine combined seasons on the job. However, both coaches took completely different paths to reach where they are today.
Mullen was a longtime assistant who made a name for himself as Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Utah and Florida. Mullen coached the likes of Alex Smith and Tim Tebow, was a member of two national title teams and is now the man credited with finding and developing Dak Prescott into the SEC’s premier quarterback.
Freeze, meanwhile, was coaching Michael Oher’s high school football team less than 15 years ago in the Memphis, Tenn., area, and was hired as an assistant at Ole Miss when Oher signed there. He worked his way up the coaching ladder, making head coaching stops at Lambuth (Div. III) and Arkansas State before landing back at Ole Miss as its head coach.
Both men are known for their abilities in player development. Mullen’s background is more relevant to player development as a former position coach, while Freeze has served primarily as a head coach, instead working his way up the levels of amateur football to arrive in the SEC.
Edge: Mullen. Freeze brought more head coaching experience to his current job than Mullen brought to Starkville, but Mullen is a proven talent developer at the game’s most important position: quarterback. You think he hides his work with Smith and Tebow from future quarterback recruits? That seems unlikely.
Mullen is already developing Prescott’s replacement past this year in redshirt freshman Nick Fitzgerald, who was an absolute beast this spring, and he’ll likely continue to funnel in quarterback talent if Prescott and Fitzgerald continue to shine. When your head coach can generate star power at the quarterback position, a position at which Ole Miss has been far from dominant in Freeze’s years, it’s much more likely you’ll be able to sustain success in the future.
Ole Miss has a more obvious advantage in this area than any other mentioned in this discussion. Nine of the SEC’s 14 teams posted top-20-rated recruiting classes in 2015 (according to the 247Sports industry composite rankings), and both Ole Miss and MSU were among those nine teams. So while some of that recruiting success may stem from last year’s success on the field, it also may stem from the SEC’s brand as the dominant force in college football.
However, prior to this year Ole Miss had posted consecutive top-20 classes in 2013-14, Freeze’s second and third recruiting cycles in Oxford. In 2013, Freeze’s class featured four five-star prospects, and those four players are now the anchors of this year’s squad.
MSU, meanwhile, hadn’t posted a top-20 class since 2009, Mullen’s first year in Starkville. The Bulldogs have always been predicated on finding and developing hidden gems, but when you compare Mullen’s lone five-star signee in six years (Chris Jones) to Freeze’s four five-stars in just one class, the edge is pretty obvious.
Edge: Ole Miss (for all the reasons detailed above).
There’s a fantastic football culture at both schools, and certainly neither side has a definitive enough edge to cite it as a reason one school may sustain success for the next decade in the SEC.
Ole Miss has one of the nation’s top tailgating spots in The Grove; Mississippi State counters with an exceptional tailgating spot of its own in The Junction. Both schools seat just more than 60,000 fans in their respective stadiums, and both schools have undergone renovations on said stadiums to improve the fan experience at home games. Ole Miss has its legendary Hotty Toddy chant, while Mississippi State has its equally legendary cowbells.
Edge: Push. There’s not much separating the two programs. Both carry plenty of weight in the state of Mississippi, a state that is crazy about its football at all levels of the game. Your rooting interest depends on whether you were born into an Ole Miss family or a State family, or from where you earned your degree. But one thing all Mississippians have in common, no matter their team of choice: They’re all absolutely insane when it comes to football, and that is meant as a true compliment.
SUM IT UP
Alright, it’s time to determine once and for all which Magnolia State program is better suited to succeed in the SEC for the next decade-plus. The winner is… (drumroll, please) …
Overall Edge: Ole Miss. This was close, very close. But Ole Miss ascended to a New Year’s Six bowl last year in only Freeze’s third year on campus; it was Mullen’s sixth year at MSU, giving him a three-year head start to arrive in the same place at the same time as Freeze and his program. And considering Freeze took over a 2-10 Ole Miss team when he arrived, it’s not like he was able to take any shortcuts.
Both coaches have been fine recruiters, but Freeze has been better. Ole Miss will continue to attract better talent than its in-state rival if this trend continues, which certainly bodes will for Freeze and the Rebels.
Mullen is a better talent developer, but that is canceled out by the superior talent Freeze continues to attract (especially since it’s not like Freeze is a bad talent developer just because Mullen is more proven in that area).
Freeze began taking down ranked teams right away, defeating both LSU and Alabama when those teams were ranked in the top 10 in the country. Mullen went years without defeating a single ranked team before snapping that streak last year. Still, he has a history of falling short against the nation’s best opponents, while Freeze has a history of elevating his team in those moments.
If we’re talking about sustained success and contending for titles, that last part is crucial. Even if both teams were equally talented and developed, Freeze’s ability to navigate his team past the toughest obstacles in its path is why he’ll lead Ole Miss to title contention sooner than later. Until Mullen can prove he can do the same on an annual basis, Freeze will hold the overall edge.