College Football: The Mississippi Renaissance

It's not an oxymoron; Ole Miss and Mississippi State have the Magnolia State on the move

Dak Prescott of the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Credit: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The actual first sentence of a sports-section brief in the New York Times, from September 16, 1992:

Coach JACKIE SHERRILL apologized yesterday for allowing the castration of a bull in front of his Mississippi State football team, and the school's president promised that such an incident would not occur again.

The state university of Mississippi has fielded a football squad in the far-flung burg of Starkville since the late 1800s, and until last Saturday, one might argue that the most compelling yarns to emerge out of the program over that entire span revolved almost entirely around livestock. Mississippi State football has occasionally been serviceable and has occasionally even been decent but has never really won anything big, at least not since that time they went unbeaten around the time Fantasia was released.

But last Saturday, the Bulldogs followed Katy Perry's hallucinogenic waste of a perfectly good plate of corn dogs by thrashing a very good Texas A&M team, thereby forcing themselves into the College Football Playoff picture, and pushing a quarterback named Dak (rhymes with Ack) to the front of the Heisman Trophy race.

Odd things happen all the time in college football, but nothing odder than last Saturday, when our preseason expectations were shattered by a series of upsets that felt as counterintuitive as a goofy pop star from Santa Barbara wrestling an elephant head off the noggin of Burt Reynolds' old college roommate. A few hours after Mississippi State piled it on A&M, the University of Mississippi upset Alabama on a last-minute interception, defeating the Crimson Tide for the first time since 2003. Ole Miss is a football program that's known more for its heritage, both the complex and the beautiful, but suddenly, as we careen toward the first-ever playoff in this sport, the Rebels are undefeated and relevant within the present moment.

In the end, five of the top eight teams in the Associated Press poll lost games this weekend; in the end, eight of the ten teams at the top of this list of college football programs with the most revenue lost their games on Saturday (a ninth, Florida, squeaked rather gawkily past Tennessee). In the end, the state of Mississippi, which barely seems populous enough to contain one major-college football team, let alone two, is now front and center; and in the end, we were once again reminded that, as much as the NCAA and the powers-that-be attempt to gerrymander college football's power structure in favor of the top teams, it remains the most thoroughly unpredictable sport of them all.

I mean, you could see Ole Miss trying to get here. You could see it in 2013, when the Rebels and coach Hugh Freeze scored one of the best recruiting classes in the country, a shocking enough coup that many of us immediately assumed (fairly or unfairly) there had to be an underlying current of impropriety. And you could see Mississippi State, under a former Florida coordinator named Dan Mullen, attempting to replicate those Tim Tebow-era Gator teams with maybe 50 percent of the talent. But the hierarchy above both programs seemed too strong to break through: Both Ole Miss and Mississippi State are in the SEC's West division, a seven-member cabal that has put through a team to the national championship game six times in the past seven years. How do you get past Alabama and Auburn and LSU and a surging Texas A&M program? How do you compete with a lower profile and fewer resources in a state that's one of the least populated (and the poorest) in the South?

The answer, of course, is that you innovate. And so Mullen pulled in quarterback Dak Prescott as a three-star recruit a few years ago, largely because he saw in him the nebulous leadership qualities that had once fomented the Cult of Tebow; and now he's constructed an offense around Prescott's size and skills, an offense that can put up the points to compete with high-scoring teams like A&M but is also physical enough to wear them down. And at the same time, Freeze built his Ole Miss team around top-tier recruits like defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, entrusting his offense to a hit-or-miss emotional lightning rod of a quarterback with the Faulkner-esque moniker of Bo Wallace.

It's too early to know whether this Mississippi renaissance is anything more than a half-season anomaly, but it still shows us the tantalizing promise of college football: That creative thought can still elevate a team above its station, and that the inherent power structure is dynamic and forever shifting, no matter the obstacles. When those of us from elsewhere in America think of Mississippi, we conjure up the old South, and all the discomfiting baggage that comes along with that imagery. We think of a state with severe political and economic challenges, a state that has not been and most likely never will be associated with progressive thought. And this is what was so wonderful about last weekend: Every time you think the status quo is fixed and unchangeable and rigged in favor of the richest of them all, something happens to make you realize that change, however small, is still possible.       

Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb