Magnolia State rivals have sights on moving up in SEC West
Home to seven of the last eight national champions, the SEC West is as tough a division as any in college football. Moving up in its ranks is a daunting task, one that rivals Mississippi State and Ole Miss share as they deal with heightened expectations.
Hugh Freeze (left) has stocked the Rebels with two highly-rated recruiting classes, while Dan Mullen's Bulldogs are coming off a fourth straight bowl berth.
USA TODAY Sports
By Cory McCartneyFOX Sports South
GREENSBORO, Ga. -- The Magnolia State coaches' personalities couldn't be any more different.
Mississippi State's Dan Mullen is energetic and excitable with an accent born of New England, while Hugh Freeze is laid back, a product of the Little Easy. But where the men contrast, the place in the SEC pecking order is the same.
Theirs are two programs fighting to take the next step in arguably the most daunting division in college football: the SEC West.
"I think both of us are good teams," Freeze said earlier this week during the Chick-fil-A Challenge golf event at Reynolds Plantation. "Does that mean you're going to win on a given night in our league? No, but I think we can."
Both programs have shown promise heading into the fall, the Bulldogs' behind a dynamic quarterback in Dak Prescott and a veteran defense, while the Rebels have an influx of game-changing players thanks to a two-year recruiting boon. But getting that talent to translate into success is a different monster entirely.
"You've got to have some of those breaks go your way," Freeze said.
That hasn't always happened on the field for either coach when it comes to conference play.
Mullen's Bulldogs have made it to four straight bowl games and he's 4-1 in the Egg Bowl vs. the Rebels, including last season's 17-10 overtime win in Starkville. However, Mississippi State has yet to finish better than fourth in the division under Mullen (coming in 2009 and '12) and is 1-16 against division heavyweights Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M, beating only the Tigers in '12 when they went winless in league play.
Ole Miss has won three SEC games in each of Freeze's seasons, putting it no higher than fifth, which it did in the coach's first season. The Rebels did pull off a shocking 27-24 win over then-No. 6 LSU last year in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium and lost to Texas A&M by just three points the past two seasons, but Freeze has seen his squad beaten by a combined scored of 58-14 in two games vs. Alabama.
"That's the SEC West, the SEC West has won seven of the last eight national championships, so a lot of programs, the next step is to win a conference championship," Mullen said. "That's a big next step, and our guys, that's what our focus and our goal is, to go find a way to do it."
For Freeze, that includes adding what he refers to as "SEC depth," especially on defense, where teams in the league often go three-deep. It's been a focus of his last two recruiting classes, which have ranked 10th ('13) and 18th ('14) by Scout.com and included the Class of '13's top-ranked player in defensive end Robert Nkemdiche and the No. 9 safety in 2014, C.J. Hampton.
Freeze is already seeing the benefits of his latest crop of recruits, with seven enrolling early to go through spring practice, including Hampton, defensive end Marquis Haynes and linebacker Christian Russell.
"This spring was the first time we were able to have competitive battles, which I don't think you can replace that, making a guy go out every day to work to be his best," Freeze said. "We're definitely a better team now than we were two springs ago."
That should certainly be the case on offense, where the Rebels have the SEC's returning leader in passing yards in senior Bo Wallace (3,346 yards, 18 touchdowns and a 64.8 completion rate) and sophomore receiver Laquon Treadwell (72 catches for 608 yards and five scores) and tight end Evan Engram (268 yards and three TDs on 21 catches).
The strength of the Bulldogs lies with a defense that was 18th in FBS (349.3 yards per game allowed) and returns 22 of the 25 players that saw action in '13, led by linebacker Benardrick McKinney, who had a team-high 71 tackles last season season and 173 the last two combined. The buzz, though, revolves around Prescott.
The league's active leader in rushing TDs by a QB with 17, Prescott ran for 829 as a sophomore to go along with 1,940 passing yards and 10 scores. He also threw seven picks and completed just 58.4 percent of his attempts. Mullen is looking for refinement out of his QB, in how he runs the offense and how he improvises.
"Just to do a good job, manage the offense and just do what he does well," Mullen said of his hopes for Prescott. "We expect him to make plays with his arm and plays his legs and create on his own, but do it kind of within the offense. Do it when he needs to; when he doesn't, manage and lead the offense."
The level of expectations have changed at Mississippi State. With just one bowl appearance in eight seasons before Mullen's arrival, just getting to the postseason was the push. Then he did it four straight years. Now there are dreams of moving the program to new heights.
"We've kind of hit what everybody thought the max expectations were, but it was it was kind of the baseline to catapult us to compete for a SEC West championship," he said.
Freeze is dealing with similar heightened goals, as crops of incoming stars and have excited a fan base that's starving to become consistently relevant in the division.
The next step is the biggest for these two programs and in both Oxford and Starkville, there exists reality and there exists hope.
"Nobody's getting worse in this league," Freeze said. "But I know we're better."