One of the biggest reasons why the SEC West is thought to be the best division in college football is the head coaches. Nick Saban’s arguably the greatest coach ever. Ed Orgeron looks to have built a superpower in Baton Rouge that ain’t going away any time soon. Jimbo Fisher got $75 million to mold Texas A&M into his image and hopefully create the juggernaut he had at Florida State. And don’t forget about the Gus Bus on the Plains.
And then you have the Mississippi schools who just went NUTS with it. It started in December when Ole Miss made a wow hire by bringing Lane Kiffin back to the SEC, and we thought that’d be the craziest hiring of the winter. That was until Miss State went LEEROOOOOYYYYY JENKINS on the world and one-upped that by bringing in the pirate Mike Leach.
2020: 6-7 (3-5), 51st S&P+
Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator: Mike Leach
Defensive Coordinator: Zach Arnett
Can Leach’s air it out philosophy work in the SEC? I have my doubts. Will it be a pain in the ass having to deal with it though? Absolutely. Mississippi State’s ceiling in the West will probably forever be between the second or fourth best team in the division. I’m not sure there’s a mountain Leach can climb in Starkville that Dan Mullen couldn’t in nine years.
All that said, college football is a beautiful game. Stupid and drunk as hell, but beautiful. And I’d be lying if I said I have no fears at all about getting into a shootout with a Mike Leach-led Clanga team in Starkvegas. For however long Leach is the man in charge at Mississippi State, I’ll live in fear of losing to a 2-3 Bulldog team by like a 49-45 score.
There’s a difference in what Joe Brady and Steve Ensminger did to the LSU offense and what Leach will try to bring to Mississippi State. LSU always had the athletes to run the kind of offense it had in 2019. It may not have had the quarterback to make it look like the Death Star that it was last season, but it could have been 70 percent of 2019. But to bring the air raid into the SEC? I don’t know if the philosophy meshes or if State has the athletes to be more than just a super frisky but middling team.
Running the show for Mississippi State this year looks to be K.J. Costello, a graduate transfer quarterback from Stanford. Costello started 25 games in Palo Alto and was a second-team All-Pac 12 quarterback in 2018. He wasn’t able to build off that success in 2019 however, and had his season cut short by injury. But now Costello comes to Starkville already familiar with Leach dating back to their Pac-12 days. And if it counts for anything, Costello has the second most starts in the division behind Kellen Mond.
You have to be able to run the ball in the SEC and luckily Leach inherits one of the conference’s best backs. Senior Kylin Hill is back after a career year that landed him on the AP’s First-Team All-SEC. Hill ran for a 1,350 yards last season and 10 touchdowns. Hill did have some total dud performances last season, though For Whom the Cowbell Tolls managing editor Landon Young says that’s owed to poor play calling by Joe Moorhead. But still, Hill had five games where he was held under 50 yards. Against Tennessee he had 13 yards and that wasn’t even his season low if you can believe that; his worst outing came in the Music City Bowl against Louisville where he had 3 yards on 7 carries.
A challenge Mike Leach will have in 2020 is installing a wide open passing attack while basically starting over entirely at receiver. State loses its first, third and fourth leading receiver from last season. To counter that, the Bulldogs signed Malik Heath, the No. 2 JUCO wide receiver in the class and Lideatrick Griffin, a top-five prospect in Mississippi.
Defensively things could be rough for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs were No. 1 in America in total defense in 2018, but now they’re losing the core of that unit to the draft and graduation, like cornerback Cam Dantzler, linebackers Willie Gay and Leo Lewis, and defensive end Chauncey Rivers. After giving up about 270 yards per game in 2018, the Bulldogs allowed 399 last season.
State is also transitioning to new defensive coordinator Zach Arnett’s 3-3-5 defense. Arnett comes to Mississippi State after an impressive stint at San Diego State. In the two seasons under Arnett, the Aztecs were first in both rushing yards allowed and yards per carry and only allowed teams to score 30 twice.
2020 Mississippi State Schedule
September 5: vs. New Mexico
September 12: @ North Carolina State
September 19: vs. Arkansas
September 26: vs. Tulane
October 3: vs. Texas A&M
October 10: BYE
October 17: @ Alabama
October 24: @ LSU
October 31: vs. Auburn
November 7: vs. Missouri
November 14: @ Kentucky
November 21: vs. Alabama A&M
November 26 (Thursday): @ Ole Miss