NCAAF
October 8, 2020
BY Bryan Zarpentine

Mississippi is the Most Interesting State for College Football

Take out a map and see if you can locate the most interesting state for college football in 2020. Obviously, it’s not California, Ohio, or Michigan. Surprisingly, it’s not even Florida, Alabama, or Georgia.

The most interesting state for college football at the moment is the Magnolia State itself, Mississippi.

To be fair, the level of college football in the state isn’t nearly as high as it was in 2014 when both Mississippi State and Ole Miss were ranked among the top-five teams in the country for most of October. But thanks to the arrival of three big-name coaches at Mississippi schools, all eyes are on the state to see how things will play at.

With Mike Leach at Mississippi State, Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss and Deion Sanders at Jackson State, the Magnolia State has three programs that will be worth watching closely in 2020 and beyond.

Air Raid Invades the SEC

Leach’s arrival at Mississippi State this past summer might be the greatest experiment in SEC history. Leach has become well-known for his pass-heavy spread offense known colloquially as the Air Raid offense. Leach’s success with his offense speaks for itself. He led Texas Tech to a bowl game in each of his 10 seasons with the Red Raiders, averaging more than eight wins per season. During that time, Texas Tech finished the year in the top 25 five times. 

Leach had similar success during his eight years at Washington State. He inherited a program that had won nine total games in the four years before his arrival. He turned the Cougars into a perennial bowl team that averaged over eight wins per season over his final five years and finished the 2018 campaign ranked No. 10 in the country.

However, outside of Leach’s two years as the offensive coordinator at Kentucky in the late 1990s when Tim Couch was the quarterback in Lexington, the SEC has never seen the Air Raid offense. Since those two seasons with the Wildcats, Leach has had nearly two decades as a head coach to perfect his offense, altering it when necessary to remain a step ahead of opposing defenses.

Of course, he now brings his offense to the SEC, a conference filled with elite defensive teams. Pass-heavy offenses have always found success in the Big 12 and the Pac-12. But even with spread offenses taking over college football, the SEC has always been a league that’s played in the trenches. It’s a conference where elite defenses eat middling offenses alive. While Leach’s teams are accustomed to throwing for 400-plus yards and scoring 40-plus points on a weekly basis, offenses like that are a rarity in the SEC.

In a way, Leach is the ultimate SEC outsider. He has always emphasized offense over defense and passing the pigskin rather than running the rock.

Almost everything about Leach clashes with what we’ve come to expect from teams in the SEC. He’s also taking over a program that’s typically toward the bottom of the SEC totem pole. Mississippi State has only one SEC championship, which came in 1941. The Bulldogs have also made a lone appearance in the SEC Championship Game, with that coming in 1998. 

With the Bulldogs' upset victory over LSU to open the 2020 campaign, Leach certainly made a big splash in his debut as an SEC head coach. Unfortunately, he quickly spoiled it by losing to Arkansas the following week.

Moving forward, it’ll be fascinating to see if Leach’s famous Air Raid offense can turn Mississippi State into a perennial contender in the SEC. The odds are stacked against him, but it will be a curious experiment to watch unfold.

Third Time is the Charm

For Kiffin, the coaching vacancy at Ole Miss was the siren call. Barely two years earlier, Kiffin had signed a long-term deal with Florida Atlantic to remain the head coach in Boca Raton through the 2027 season. What more could a person want than to live in Boca Raton and have a fairly low-pressure job coaching the sport you love? But when the SEC came calling, Kiffin couldn’t help himself and had to take a shot at finding success in the country’s best conference.

This isn’t Kiffin’s first SEC job. After a disastrous 5-15 tenure in the NFL with the Raiders, Kiffin’s first head coaching job in college came at Tennessee in 2009. Naturally, he brought a lot of bravado to Knoxville. Like most new coaches, he promised he would turn the Volunteers into a winning program and talked about big plans for the future. 

But as we know, Kiffin stayed at Tennessee for only one season before jumping at the chance to coach USC. Amazingly, in such a short time, Kiffin managed to make enemies within the league. He falsely accused former Florida coach Urban Meyer of recruiting violations. He also told Alshon Jeffery that he would spend his life “pumping gas” if he chose South Carolina over Tennessee. Jeffery ended up at South Carolina, where he was an All-American before becoming a Pro Bowler and Super Bowl winner in the NFL.

After Kiffin was fired at USC less than four years into his tenure, he returned to the SEC after taking a job as the Alabama offensive coordinator. In three seasons directing the Crimson Tide offense, Kiffin helped Alabama win three SEC titles and one national championship. It was enough to get him another chance to be as a head coach at Florida Atlantic, where he led the Owls to two Conference USA championships in three seasons. 

While he could have spent the rest of his career at FAU and built one of the best mid-major programs in the country, Kiffin took on the challenge of coaching Ole Miss. Taking the Ole Miss job isn’t exactly the path of least resistance. Taking the easy road — or the high road, for that matter — isn’t in Kiffin’s DNA. After his brief stint at Tennessee and his failure at USC, he wanted to prove that he was a good enough coach to make it in the country’s best league.

Well, we’re going to find out just how good of a coach Kiffin can be. The Ole Miss program has been in shambles since Hugh Freeze resigned in July 2017 amid a scandal and NCAA sanctions being levied against the Rebels. For the past 50 years, Ole Miss has struggled to become a contender in the SEC and has yet to reach the SEC Championship Game. 

Knowing the mountain he faces to make the Rebels a heavyweight in the SEC, most are just waiting for Kiffin to fail while also seeing how long it takes for him to make new enemies or get himself into trouble running his mouth. Whether things turn out good, bad, or ugly for Kiffin at Ole Miss, there’s no denying that it’ll be must-see TV.

It's Prime Time in Jackson

Last but not least, there is Deion Sanders, Mr. Prime Time himself. Sanders is undoubtedly one of the most electric college football players in history. He’s also one of the few athletes who has played two pro sports at the highest level simultaneously. On top of that, there have been few athletes over the last half-century with a bigger personality (read: ego) than Sanders. Suddenly, with little warning, Jackson State announced Sanders as its new football coach last month.

Most people don’t realize that Sanders has been coaching high school football in Texas since 2012. Most recently, he was the offensive coordinator at Trinity Christian School, helping that program win state championships in 2017 and 2018. However, Sanders has no experience as an assistant at the college level, making this a huge leap for his first job as a college head coach.

Without question, Jackson State has created an incredible buzz around its football program by hiring Sanders.

The Tigers will no doubt see a boost in recruiting and fan interest with Sanders roaming the sidelines and calling the shots. But it’s worth asking if Neon Deion knows what he’s getting himself into. 

Jackson State has an incredible fanbase that expects the Tigers to be one of the pre-eminent programs in the SWAC. Between 1972 and 1996, the Tigers won 13 SWAC championships. They also won at least a share of the SWAC East Division crown six times between 2007 and 2013.

However, the 2013 season was also Jackson State’s last winning season. That’s a lot of losing for a proud fanbase that’s starting to grow impatient. There will be expectations for Sanders to turn things around right away, which is a lot to ask of someone who’s never been a head coach at this level before. If Sanders isn’t up for the task, things could get away from him quickly and the decision to hire him could backfire on Jackson State.

Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until February for Sanders to coach his first game at Jackson State after the SWAC postponed its season. But when the Tigers start playing games, there’s no question that there will be more eyes on the program than ever before.

It’s not out of the question that Sanders being a head coach will be an unmitigated disaster. On the other hand, Sanders isn’t all that familiar with failure. If he gets the Tigers back on track, the state capital of Mississippi could be home to a rising star in the coaching ranks.

Photo: Getty Images