Expectations has been a buzzword in the state of Mississippi for the past month.
Whether the topic has been Mississippi State, Ole Miss, or MSU vs. Ole Miss, message boards, Twitter, and radio and television broadcasters have been in overdrive to keep up with the anticipation for what could be the state’s best college football season in a long time. You have to go back to 1940 to find the year when MSU (10-0-1) and Ole Miss (9-2) combined to have the most victories in a season. MSU beat Ole Miss 19-0 on Nov. 23, 1940, to help secure a berth in the Orange Bowl. It closed the unbeaten season with a 14-7 victory against Georgetown to finish the season ranked No. 9 in the nation.
The closest MSU and Ole Miss have come to matching that mark was 1999, when MSU reached double-digit victories for only the second time in program history. A 17-7 victory against Clemson in the Peach Bowl helped MSU finish 10-2, while Ole Miss beat Oklahoma 27-25 in the Independence Bowl to go 8-4.
These days, teams regularly play at least 12 games in the regular season, so it says something about the consistency of MSU’s and Ole Miss’ programs that they have been unable to match or to eclipse the 1940 record. That may change this season because coach Dan Mullen and coach Hugh Freeze have plenty of talent at their disposals to make a run, even in the Western Division of the Southeastern Conference, where Alabama (No. 2), Auburn (No. 5), LSU (No. 13), and Texas A&M (No. 20) were ranked in the USA Today preseason poll. Ole Miss came in at No. 19, while MSU, at No. 29, was one of four SEC teams also receiving votes.
On paper, the rosiest predictions for this season could leave MSU and Ole Miss with nine victories each entering the Egg Bowl on Nov. 29 in Oxford, which likely would help the schools tie the 1940 mark and position them to break it in their bowl games.
Coaches don’t think about that kind of stuff. However, they do have to deal with a litany of questions that involve expectations. On Friday and Saturday, Freeze and Mullen deftly handled all of the poking and prodding by the media designed to get them to say something new.
In Oxford, Freeze talked about a program that returns 16 starters and 58 lettermen, including senior quarterback Bo Wallace, a former standout at East Mississippi Community College in Scooba. Freeze said Wallace’s right shoulder is healthy, which has added to his arm strength. He said Wallace has gained 15 pounds and has a deep group of wide receivers, led by former Noxubee County High standout Vincent Sanders and sophomore Laquon Treadwell.
Like MSU, Ole Miss is coming off a bowl victory, a 25-17 win against Georgia Tech in the Liberty Bowl. The 8-5 finish was a step up from a 7-6 record in Freeze’s first season. It also helped distance the program from the 2-10 stumble in 2011 in coach Houston Nutt’s final season in Oxford.
Six years ago, Nutt helped build excitement at Ole Miss with a nine-win season that included a 45-0 victory against MSU. A victory against Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl followed, as did another nine-win season and a victory against Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl in 2009. But that momentum quickly fizzled with back-to-back losing seasons.
Freeze knows where his program was, is, and wants to go. He doesn’t see why it can’t make the jump from good to great.
“There is nothing wrong with being good,” Freeze said. “We’re striving to be great. How do we measure that? I don’t know. People will measure it with wins and losses. I try not to get caught up in that. I will measure it by the preparation, the attitude, the little things that we do, and then continue to recruit.
“(Going from good to great), I don’t know if that occurs this year or if it takes one more class to get us to that point.”
In Starkville, Mullen was downright bubbly at his team’s media day. The sixth-year coach has plenty of reasons to be optimistic. His program is coming off three-straight victories, including two in overtime (one against Ole Miss), and a thrashing of Rice in the Liberty Bowl. Mullen also has 18 starters and 57 letterwinners returning, led by leaders like junior quarterback Dak Prescott and junior linebacker Benardrick McKinney on both sides of the football.
Mullen knew Saturday at least one question about expectations for 2014 was coming. After all, the first question he fielded last month at SEC Media Days was about expectations. He set the tone by saying “expectation” or “expectations” five times in his answer. He continued that theme as he talked while standing in front of a podium in the Leo Seal Jr. Football Complex, which opened in January 2013.
“I don’t know whether you build it or not, but I think this team, they look at each other, with all of the guys, the work they have put in, the experience, how much they have all played, the team has extremely high expectations of themselves,” Mullen said. “In our program, there are extremely high expectations. I don’t think we concern ourselves as much with outside expectations because I don’t know how anybody could have expectations on the outside when they haven’t been working out with us and they haven’t seen the guys train during the summer or all the work they have put in. I think our guys know what they have put in and what the expect out of themselves and our program.
“I love it. We embrace those expectations within our program, and I am proud. I think our guys have worked hard, and I am proud that they feel they we have a championship-caliber team.”
If you harken back to the “Spread the Fun” days when Mullen first arrived, the longtime assistant coach, who gained notoriety as the offensive coordinator at Florida under head coach Urban Meyer, didn’t have any problem putting MSU in the same sentence with SEC championships. He said his goal was to build a program that could get to Atlanta to compete for the league’s biggest prize. Five years and 36 victories later, Mullen has a new 80,000-square-foot facility and a renovated stadium. He also has shown he has a knack for recruiting the top talent in the state of Mississippi and developing the two- or three-star recruits into players who can contribute in the SEC. All of those things add to the excitement of fans, who have been breaking down the schedule since it was released to see how many wins MSU can get this season.
You get the sense Mullen and the Bulldogs sense that enthusiasm and want to deliver, especially with a roster packed with depth and potential that could be Mullen’s best at MSU.
“In (the players’) mind-set, going into a season they don’t want to be good enough to just make a bowl game. They want to play for more than a bowl game at the end of the season. They want to go compete for a conference championships,” Mullen said. “That is the team we want to have and what we have tried to build here as a program. It is a tough challenge. I think someone put a poll on my desk that had five teams in the (SEC) West in the top 20 in the country. No other conference has five teams in the top 20. We have five in our division. That is always a tough challenge.”
There were times when that challenge would be too much for MSU and Ole Miss. This year, though, you get the sense things could be different. Maybe the construction at both campuses is feeding the optimism. Everything in Oxford and Starkville looks great and creates a feeling that each school is going about things in a first-class manner. In Mullen and Freeze the Bulldogs and Rebels have coaches who appear to know how they have to build their programs and what are the best ways to utilize their resources to compete with Alabama, LSU, and the other titans of the SEC.
Years ago, it was safe to expect MSU and Ole Miss to notch a six- or seven-win season. If things don’t fall the right way or it injuries hit, the Bulldogs and Rebels could find themselves in that situation, especially in the best league in the country. But everything about this season has the look and the feel of something big. Now it’s time for MSU and Ole Miss to cash in on the expectations.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.