2020 has been one of the most bizarre, tense, frustrating, confusing, stressful, and weird years in recent memory. I think we can all agree that if we never heard words like “pandemic” or “COVID-19” that never will be too soon. Politics have clouded the truth in virtually every area of 2020, from the virus to the truth behind social justice warriors rioting and looting various cities in our beloved America. But nestled away here in the sweet air of the Magnolia State is one of 2020’s rare highlights, a buzz that has now reached nearly a fever pitch. College football season in Mississippi is here, and for many of us it comes at a time we need it most.
Southern Mississippi has been playing football for a few weeks now, and the Golden Eagles have already been dealt a blow by the resignation of longtime head coach Jay Hopson. Interim coach Scotty Walden may be the answer long term (I think he’s the guy for the job) but in the current climate who could possibly know what to expect?
There are three college football programs in the state where we at least have some idea of what to expect this season. The results on the field are difficult for virtually anyone to predict (although that’s what I’m supposed to do) but if history has told us anything about the three individuals leading these three programs, it’s that they succeed at whatever they put their minds to. The three programs I’m referencing are of course Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and now Jackson State,
Let’s start with Ole Miss. If you’d have told me this time last year that a fake pee celebration in the Egg Bowl by one of Ole Miss’ best offensive players would result eventually in the removal of head coach Matt Luke-a lifelong Ole Miss Rebel in every single possible way-I wouldn’t have believed it. Then if you’d have told me that in that process, Ole Miss would attract and HIRE one of the brightest offensive minds college football has ever seen in Lane Kiffin, I would’ve asked why you started drinking so early that day. Kiffin has his past and what some would call his baggage, no doubt something his detractors and opponents have and will try to use against him.
But Kiffin has hit it head on when talking about his past and hasn’t been evasive in talking about it when asked. He embraces it as part of what molded him. He feels it made him who he is now as a man and as a head coach. If you haven’t read the piece from “Athletes for God” written by Kiffin on his experiences and what matters to him NOW, I urge you to check it out here: https://www.athletesforgod.com/lane-kiffin/page-1
Kiffin’s time at Alabama as offensive coordinator under Nick Saban and then his success at Florida Atlantic are tools and experience that will no doubt aid him in his time at Ole Miss. You don’t sit under one of the best coaches the game of football has ever seen and not take something away from that experience. Pair those things along with the outstanding staff that Kiffin has assembled in Oxford and the roster full of young, raw talent and you could have a recipe for something special. The fan base has been hungry for a head coach that has that “it” factor. Kiffin has had it from day one.
In Starkville, there is also a ton of excitement about the upcoming season. Back in November after Lane Kiffin was named head coach at Ole Miss, you began hearing rumblings about Mississippi State also making a change. The school certainly wouldn’t make a change so swiftly after heaping public praise on Joe Moorhead for the Egg Bowl win, would they? Well they did. And in January after an extensive search, Bulldog athletic director John Cohen hit a home run with the hire of Mike Leach. If you aren’t intrigued by Mike Leach upon simply hearing him speak, I don’t know what’s wrong with you. He’s such an interesting person in how he views not just the game of football but…the world. His weekly press conferences have become must-see TV from his opinions on which Pac-12 mascots would win in a fight to his love for pirates. But make no mistake by the easy-going approach in the press conferences-the guy is a proven winner.
Leach, who’s known for the “Air Raid” offense, took his previous school Washington State to a school record five straight bowl games. Before Leach’s arrival in Pullman, Wazzu had only won nine games in four years under previous coach Paul Wulff. Leach won 55 games in eight years at WSU. His Cougars led the FBS in passing yards four of the last seven seasons. His success at Texas Tech is well documented also, winning over 80 games in Lubbock in his 10 seasons there. Leach has waited patiently for his opportunity to coach in the SEC. He interviewed for the Arkansas job last year and nearly landed the Tennessee job two seasons ago. Leach has his chance now with the Bulldogs.
What will the product on the field look like? I’ve been asked that a hundred times since both Kiffin and Leach have taken their respective posts as head coaches. For Leach, he inherits a full quarterback room that was so full he’s moved one of the quarterbacks to wide receiver (Garrett Shrader has moved to the wide receiver position) Think about that. You have to be pretty smart and, well, let’s use the word “gutsy” to take last year’s Egg Bowl starter at quarterback (who won the game by the way) and move him to wide receiver. That is what you get with Mike Leach. He’ll always think outside of the box and that could be exactly what this program needed when they hired him.
So Lane Kiffin and Mike Leach stole national headlines when both ended up as head coaches in the state of Mississippi, in the same conference, and the same division. They will meet every season in what should be one of the most entertaining games every Thanksgiving weekend. What Kiffin and Leach did to steal the national spotlight away from Alabama, LSU, Clemson, Ohio State, and many others was and has been fun to watch. How much crazier and exciting can it get here in Mississippi college football? Well, let’s ask #21.
#21. PrimeTime. Deion Sanders. When my friend Noah Newman, sports director at WJTV 12, began reporting that Sanders was indeed going to be named the next Jackson State head football coach, I was floored. Because if Noah runs with something it’s pretty much surefire. Then it actually happened. The 21st day of September, #21 was named the 21st head football coach in Blue Bengal history. Deion Sanders. Head football coach at Jackson State. Mind blown. First Kiffin. Then Leach. Now PrimeTime? Say what you want about my home state, and who knows what the end results will be for all three coaches, but Mississippi is killing it with the names of those three head coaches.
Sanders is one of the most iconic figures in all of professional sports. He’s an eight-time Pro Bowler and two-time Super Bowl champion. His 14 seasons in the NFL playing for the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, and Baltimore Ravens are peppered with highlights of Sanders and his signature shuffle. Sanders is still the only player to have played in a Super Bowl and a World Series. There’s no doubt about his place in history as a player at both the professional and collegiate level, but this is an entirely different game as a head coach, especially for someone who is a head coach for the first time at any level.
The one thing we do know about Sanders is his commitment to excel in whatever his hands touch. His career in broadcasting excelled beyond what many critics believed it would, and now he gets a chance to prove he can be successful in the coaching ranks also. This isn’t lining up against Michael Irvin or Jerry Rice one on one, but Sanders will approach his tenure at Jackson State with the same attention to detail and off the charts competitiveness that made him one of the game’s all time greats. How will he recruit against Kiffin and Leach here in Mississippi? How will he receuit against other SWAC coaches? What big names will be a part of his staff? How soon will the team buy in to his way of coaching? All of these are valid questions but the one thing that’s already been answered is what kind of impact the hire of Sanders has already had on not only Jackson State but the Magnolia State as a whole. Once again, the state of Mississippi is stealing the national headlines.
Who knows what this season will hold for Ole Miss and Mississippi State, both playing a 10-game conference schedule in the toughest division in the toughest league in the country. Both teams are young in several key areas, both are led by first-year head coaches and new staffs, and both programs get a key test right out of the gate this Saturday. Due to the SWAC moving their games to the spring, we’ll have to wait to see “Coach Prime” in action on gameday at Jackson State. But I hope that we Mississippians embrace the big names at all three programs and regardless of how this story ends at each school, it’s gonna be a heckuva ride watching the pages being written each week. All happening right here in our own backyard.