Expectations are fickle things.
By nature, they provide limits to our discussions, but do not add to them.
Expectations do not fill the box; they just determine its size.
Heading into the 2010 college football season, the box labeled “Mississippi” may be as big as it has ever been.
Each of the three FBS schools—Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Southern Miss—are heading into seasons that could well determine the direction of their football programs for the next several years.
How those seasons play out—and the after effects successful ones could have in particular—make 2010 a year of lasting consequence.
Ole Miss: Are the Rebels just pretending to be the third best team in the SEC?
The litmus test for determining liars among the Ole Miss Fans these days is to ask them if they were surprised by the first two years of Houston Nutt’s term as head coach.
Not even the most fog-eyed faithful had the stones to predict 18 wins and two Cotton Bowl trophies in the two years directly following Ed Orgeron’s 10-25 stint as Ole Miss’ head coach.
Those 18 wins are third best in the conference overall, and include nine wins in conference; good for fourth best behind Florida, Alabama and Georgia.
Ole Miss is also the only SEC team other than the Gators and the Tide to finish each of the last two seasons ranked in the Top 25.
In conference play, the Rebels are the only team to finish in the Top-four in both total offense and total defense each of the last two seasons.
In total defense, Ole Miss finished fourth in 2008 and third in 2009.
In total offense, the Rebels finished third in 2008 and first—yes, first—in 2009.
Remember, that is in conference play. That is not counting pay-to-play FCS games or lesser FBS programs.
Knowing all this, why is it so hard to declare Ole Miss the third best football program in the conference right now?
Mostly, it is because they are Ole Miss: They will win a game they are not supposed to—Florida in 2008—and they will also lose a game they are not supposed to—Mississippi State in 2009—and it has always been thus.
That inconsistency has been as much a part of Ole Miss’ football legacy as Hotty Toddy.
It is also why 2010 is so important to Houston Nutt and his team.
Attrition hit the Rebels hard on the offensive side of the ball. The total number of career starts for next year’s unit is likely to be less than 50 for the group.
That is not many if it was just the offensive line, much less the entire offense unit.
Inexperienced players are inconsistent players, but if the Rebels are going to continue to lay claim to being the third best team in the SEC, the new faces need to find a way to focus not just week-to-week, but play-to-play.
With each of the two closest teams in the race for third right now—Georgia and LSU—having experienced their own downturns in the last two years, it is not necessary for Ole Miss to finish third in the standings to still be in the race.
But the Rebels do need a winning season. A seven or eight win season and a trip to a mid-level bowl should keep them in the conversation, especially if they can break even in conference and beat LSU for the third straight year.
Mississippi State: Can the Bulldogs change the conversation?
It is fun to be a Bulldog right now.
In Dan Mullen, MSU has a coach with a top-flight resume, who has shown the ability to get talented players into programs and coach them at a high level and who has near perfect-pitch when it comes time to speak to the fan base.
For a program that has not produced a coach with an overall winning tenure since Darrell Royal’s two seasons in the mid-1950’s, Mullen’s 5-7 start in the first year of an ominous rebuilding project matched or exceeded the high end of realistic expectations he entered the job with.
Thumping a ranked Ole Miss team in the Egg Bowl provided a signature win for the season and injected pride and identity into a program that has found both in short supply in recent years.
Accordingly, hyperbole has started taking root, with some of the Bulldog faithful projecting the next logical step as a trip to Atlanta for the conference championship.
How about we start with a bowl game?
For all the positives in and around Mississippi State Football right now—and there are plenty—there is one retort that has haunted the program:
“Yeah, but you guys turn your pads in by December 1st every year.”
Since playing the Havana Athletic Club in 1912 in that year’s Bacardi Bowl—played in Havana, Cuba—the Bulldogs have gone to just 13 other bowls, including two in the past 10 seasons.
While the counter cannot be turned on its ear in a single season, getting to a bowl game this year is the first step in the process.
Regardless of what is said, who is signed or how the Egg Bowl turns out, nothing is more important to Bulldogs this year than needing their pads come December.
Mississippi State and Dan Mullen garnered some attention from the national college football audience last year.
The task now is to keep it.
Southern Miss: Can the Golden Eagles do more than just compete?
You would think a program with 16 consecutive winning seasons would get a little more respect, especially from the home-state crowd.
Such is life in Conference USA.
Only recently has the national conscious began to recognize its bias towards Non-AQ programs and conferences, though most of the leniency awarded has been reserved for BCS Bowl Busters and the handful of conference teams that have played them close.
Despite the success of such teams in some high-profile bowl games, a larger stigma of inferior competition throughout the season has relegated the opinion of the better programs into a particular category:
Respected, but not feared.
Southern Miss is arguably the poster child for such teams.
The Golden Eagles have earned a reputation as a good team—especially on defense—that will test your mettle and that should not be overlooked.
That said, Southern Miss has not broken out with a signature win in front of a national audience that signals the program is ready to shed its historical classification and jump into the realm of programs that must be paid attention to.
Truthfully, opportunities to do so are few, which is why this year’s season opener at South Carolina—a Thursday night game on ESPN—needs to be one the Golden Eagles seize.
With many predicting this will actually be the year that Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks breakthrough and win the SEC East, no one will pick USM to do anymore than they have always done in big games:
Play tough and cover the spread.
In one of the real ironies of modern times, nothing yields less respect than consistency.
Sneaking into Columbia and snatching a win is not impossible. The Gamecocks will be untested in the season and incumbent QB Stephen Garcia—barring an unlikely summer of praise by Spurrier—will enter the game on eggshells.
South Carolina’s defensive front presents the biggest challenge when considering the inexperience on the USM offensive line, but the spread offense the Golden Eagles run—when run properly—can hide much of that.
A loss in Columbia has little bearing on the rest of USM’s season. But what does a win do?
Does it propel the Golden Eagles to the forefront of the C-USA race? It certainly puts the rest of the conference on notice.
Does it bring attention to the tradition that Jeff Bower built and Larry Fedora has continued? A win does more than that, it validates it in a way even a conference title does not.
Does it affect recruiting? Winning in Columbia when Ole Miss could not? You are darn right it does.
Southern Miss has built enough tradition and earned enough respect.
It is time to make everyone else a little scared, and the Golden Eagles have that opportunity in their first game of the year.
Super Preps: Is next year’s senior class the best ever from Mississippi?
Time will ultimately reveal the answer to that question, but any time spent on the discussion of next year’s FBS prospects in Mississippi will at some point—probably rather quickly—turn into a historical comparison.
The surest sign that the class is both deep and talented is that an attempt to list the top prospects and the AQ universities they are receiving attention from would take a couple of single-spaced, small font pages.
The group still has another season of thinning-out to do, but the uniqueness of this class—as compared to earlier ones from Mississippi—is the variety of positions that are included.
There have been several years when three or four top prospects have emerged in one or two positions, but it is hard to remember one in which almost every position could have one of the top 20 or 30 players in the nation call Mississippi home.
Mississippians have long argued that the level of in-state talent has been overlooked. Last year’s study revealing Mississippi trailing only Louisiana in production of NFL players per capita attests to that.
However, a larger consciousness of that fact is yet to emerge, particularly outside the West Division of the SEC.
Ideally, all these players would commit in-state and do so early, preventing an awareness of their talents from reaching other geographies until it was too late.
But that is not the world we live in, and those who do not currently know how good these players are will by next signing day.
Where these players end up playing their college ball—especially in light of offers from schools outside the South—is a major storyline for football in Mississippi next year.
The Perfect Storm: Could all three universities need a new head coach in 2011?
I have never been accused of fatalism, nor am I prone to wild speculation as a means to an end. But there is a very reasonable path one can take that has each of the schools listed above in need of a new head coach after next season.
Especially if all do well in 2010.
That Houston Nutt is a flirt is no secret. There are few head coaching vacancies that—true or not—Nutt’s name does not come up as having had a conversation with.
Despite the playfulness, Nutt spent a decade in Fayetteville with Arkansas and did not even try to get more money from Ole Miss after talking to Kansas this past season.
Nutt’s 93-56 record since becoming a head coach in the SEC is quite the sales pitch to a program looking for a new direction, and even if Nutt does not go looking for greener grass, he is certain to get a few calls.
A call Ole Miss fans should be leery of is one from T. Boone Pickens and Oklahoma State.
I know I am rehashing an argument I made in an earlier piece, but it still makes sense that replacing Mike Gundy—a former Cowboy quarterback—is easier done by bringing in another former Cowboy QB in Houston Nutt.
The $400 million dollars in donations from Pickens is a big, fat bully waiting to jump on Gundy, and another season playing third or fourth fiddle in the Big 12 South might not be enough to stay the fight.
With the resources, the new facilities and a chance to coach his alma mater, if OSU does make the call, there might not be much that could keep Nutt in Oxford.
Few outside of the Mississippi State program expect Dan Mullen to be long for Starkville either.
Do not take that to mean that Mullen is looking for the first train out, but rather that his pedigree and first year success at MSU has moved him from watch list to probable short list status for the right kind of opening.
If Mike Sherman’s Texas A&M team fails to make significant strides this season, the Aggies will be looking for a new coach, and it is hard to imagine that Mullen’s name would not be quickly put near the top.
Mullen’s version of the spread would play well in the Big 12 South. He has proven the ability to bring in both the type and level of talent he needs to run it despite tough competition, and there is no shortage of either in the Lone Star State.
He has shown an intuitive knack for handling and inspiring a spirited fan base, and no one has ever accused Aggie Fans of being anything less.
In a Texas college football landscape where there is one prince—Mack Brown—and everyone else in the state is a relative pauper, Mullen’s media savvy and deft use of his pulpit could be just the antidote for an Aggie program in need of defibrillation.
Mullen would not even have to buy new ties. Maroon works just fine in College Station.
However, since Austin is slightly southwest of Aggieland, Mullen might have to find a non-directional way to avoid calling the University of Texas by name.
Texas A&M is just one opportunity that could spring up that Mullen would make a lot of sense for. What happens if Les Miles does not make it another year in Baton Rouge? Or if Michigan needs a coach and Miles is not on the list?
Does Mullen get a call from either of those programs? It is not a stretch to think so.
Also certain to get some type of interest is USM’s Larry Fedora. His named was mentioned with possible openings this past offseason, and is also on the proverbial coaching-star-in-waiting list according to many pundits.
Unfortunately for Southern Miss Fans, it is not so much if as when Fedora finds another home. He is just thought of too highly not to get an opportunity from a school in a BCS conference in the immediate future, and—as always—there will be more than a few looking for a new head coach after next season.
Another coach on this carousel to consider is Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix. Depending on the timing of any of these possibilities, Nix—who played and has coached at Southern Miss—is the prime candidate to fill either vacancy in Oxford or Hattiesburg. What if Fedora leaves first, Nix accepts, and then Nutt gets a late offer from OSU?
No matter where on the map your team finds itself, there is a good chance that what is going on in Mississippi this year could be knocking on its door.
Jeb Williamson covers Ole Miss Football as a Feature Columnist for the Bleacher Report. He welcomes and appreciates all comments. Click here for a list of his other articles.