After Mississippi State’s 44-34 opening win over LSU, Mike Leach’s offense was designated unbeatable, thwarting the defending national champion in the conference considered America’s toughest standard of college football.
Then the Bulldogs suffered three consecutive losses to Arkansas, Kentucky and Texas A&M, in which Leach’s offense averaged four yards per play. Last year’s Joe Moorhead offense averaged 5.94 yards per play vs. SEC opponents, and even winless Arkansas averaged 4.68. Most damning of all: In those three games, State scored 21 points. Total, not averaged. Leach was rendered a hapless fraud and his system bunk.
Is Leach a savant or a huckster? The reality is it’s neither: this is just the Mike Leach experience. Despite that, we have arrived a series of wildly vacillating takes on Leach for reasons germane to the inanity of 2020, but also because it’s Mike Leach:
First, the ceiling was set too high. Mississippi State trounced the defense of the defending national champions and Stanford transfer K.J. Costello set a single-game SEC record with 623 passing yards. Then the floor was set too low. The very next week, State helped moribund Arkansas break a 20-game SEC losing streak, falling 21-14. Costello threw three interceptions and MSU turned the ball over on downs in the red zone twice.
Both of these games had inordinate potential for extreme narrative-building because of the revised post-COVID schedule. You don’t normally open a year beating the national champion from your conference and then turn around to lose to the worst team in the league. State was originally supposed to open at home vs. New Mexico, and 2020 LSU’s problems (massive turnover, attrition and Bo Pelliini) would’ve been a known quantity if these two teams met on their originally scheduled date of October 24, this weekend. Even the Hogs might’ve been better understood in the third week of the originally scheduled season after playing Nevada and Notre Dame before coming to Starkville.
And there’s the Leach factor. By virtue of his own being and the media’s never-ending need to keep his personality larger-than-life, Leach demands polarization. He’s not a coach, he’s the swashbuckling pirate, the guy from TV, or the amazing, fun quote. That latter reason charms so many national media away from asking him anything of substance. I know this because I’ve been there. It also doesn’t help that only three Power 5 conferences are currently playing, providing less competition for national mindshare. There’s no Harbaugh or Clay Helton job security to debate, which makes a mic-friendly personality like Leach stand out even more.
But neither COVID nor Leach himself are the reasons we seem to be constantly revising incorrect narratives on 2020 Mississippi State: It’s SEC brain. The Air Raid is in no way new to the Southeastern Conference. And most first-year teams in this league are wildly inconsistent week-to-week, even the very best program.
Leach’s record told us this would happen. Just look at his last job at Washington State. Before a breakout nine-win year in 2015, the Cougars won 12 games in three seasons and only seven against conference opponents. During his first season in 2012, Wazzu opened Pac-12 play with six consecutive losses, culminating in a beatdown loss to a mediocre Utah team. Wazzu lost 49-6, Leach blamed the players, made the OL and DL do the postgame interviews as groups, told the media he canceled practice on Sunday, and instead did field drills and hazed the team until Marquess Wilson left.
Just for fun, here’s the rushing stats from that game eight years ago:
And here’s the rushing stats for Mississippi State’s loss to Texas A&M in 2020:
So: if Mississippi State seems to be approaching some kind of nadir, it’s not the first time a Leach program has dug this far down. Does that mean State is doomed to two more years of futility before the Air Raid can be consistently successful in the SEC, ever? Maybe. We don’t know.
We do know Washington State found halcyon days under Leach, winning nine or more games in a season three times and tying for the Pac-12 North division in 2018. They also knocked off a lot ranked Stanfords and Oregons and USCs who were more talented on paper and seemed asleep at the wheel until it was too late, which best describes a LSU program that by all accounts seems to be depreciating quickly relative to last season.
If you’re trying to create a referendum on Leach, it’s far less important to parse box scores than it is quotes. At every stop, he’s aggressively pruned his inherited rosters and not hid his frustrations with players when his teams lose. He’s already engaged in this in Starkville, declaring a “purge” could be necessary.
Running back Kylin Hill was absent vs. Texas A&M because of a reported one-game suspension after Hill’s alleged “actions and reaction” to the Kentucky loss. Aside from being one of if not the best players on State’s roster, Hill made history this summer by speaking out against Mississippi’s state flag, which contained the Confederate battle symbol. Hill’s outcry was credited with sparking the change in the same period of time Leach had to apologize for jokes about involving a noose on social media. That Hill, a senior running back recruited by Dan Mullen, would elect to stay on and participate in a Leach Air Raid, is worth mentioning.
So while it’s more than fair to criticize the malaise of MSU’s offense — especially considering the school just fired a coach who took the Bulldogs to bowls in both his seasons — it is neither unexpected nor strange. Despite their self-promoted mantra of a bigger and more meaningful stage, the SEC hasn’t really changed the strengths or faults of Leach or his offense. The league and its constituency does, however, pay far more attention to itself. That creates a much smaller margin for off-field error. Especially when you ask for the spotlight.