Mississippi State, like Mike Leach himself, remains enigmatic

STARKVILLE, MS - NOVEMBER 25: Mississippi State mascot “Bully” waves a flag before the game between the Mississippi State Bulldogs and the Ole Miss Rebels on November 25, 2021 at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Ms. (Photo by Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire)

Mississippi State football always seems to throw a curveball in some way. The curveball might generate a strikeout, or it might get swatted out of the yard for a home run. Whether the curveball is effective is anyone’s guess, but Mississippi State is the SEC school which simply defies easy categorization … much like its head coach, Mike Leach.

By Matt Zemek

Let’s take a deep breath and reflect on Mike Leach’s identity for a moment. Leach is simultaneously a coach many media members can’t get enough of. They love hanging onto his quotes and his different ways of conveying meanings. To be sure, Leach does not engage in conventional coach-speak, and the media’s embrace of him flows primarily from that point. A good quote buys a lot of leeway with the press in various professions, not just college football coaching.

Yet, while Leach is a media darling to a certain extent, he will often throw players under the bus. Remember the Texas Tech controversy involving Craig James and the Alamo Bowl game against Michigan State over a decade ago? Though Craig James was outed as an ignoble figure in college football and was certainly not the good guy in that scrap, it’s not as though Leach wore the white hat himself. He was also stained in that saga. Leach has had some ugly moments as a head coach which coexist with his memorably entertaining press conferences and quotes.

On the field, the enigmatic nature of Leach has endured just as much as his contradictory identity off the field. This has carried from Texas Tech to Washington State to Mississippi State.

Last year’s MSU team did not look like a typical Leach team. It did not play like a typical Leach team.

Imagine having someone tell you that a Mike Leach team would score an average of under 30 points per game. You would likely conclude that such a team was in big, big trouble, and that it would have a losing season, especially since Mississippi State played an FCS team, Tennessee State, and a Conference USA team, Louisiana Tech. If a Leach-coached team can’t average 30 points despite having a few relatively soft games on its schedule, that’s a problem.

In 2021, Mississippi State played Vanderbilt in its SEC schedule. The Bulldogs scored 45 points against the Commodores. They posted 35 against Louisiana Tech and 55 against Tennessee State. You can do the quick math there and see that MSU averaged 45 points in those three games.

Mississippi State football players celebrateThis means that in their other 10 games last season, including their bowl game, the Bulldogs averaged only 24.3 points per game (243 points scored). That included a surprising 43-point explosion at Auburn.

If you were presented with that information, you would think MSU would have endured a bloodbath. Maybe the Bulldogs would have won five games maximum in that scenario.
Instead, State won seven games.

Why? Mike Leach, passing game guru and master of the Big 12 shootout from past years, had a strong and legitimately good defense.

Mississippi State allowed under 26 points per game. The Bulldogs allowed 49 points to Alabama’s loaded offense … and that was the only time they allowed more than 34 points in a game all season long.

A competitive North Carolina State team which defeated Clemson last year was held to just 10 points in Starkville. Ole Miss’s terrific offense managed a modest 31 points in the Egg Bowl. A 10-win Kentucky team scored just 17 points against the Bulldogs. MSU whacked the Wildcats by 14 points. Mississippi State went into College Station for a night game and knocked off Texas A&M by holding the Aggies to 22 points.

Mississippi State’s defense was dependable and relatively consistent. It was the offense which held this team back and prevented it from realizing its full potential.

This was a Mike Leach-coached football team.

Curveball.

As the 2022 season arrives, the obvious point to make is that if Mississippi State can improve its offense, the defense – even with personnel losses from last season – has shown enough to merit respect in the SEC. MSU could rise in the conference’s power structure if its offense can evolve.

There’s a head coach who can do something about that.

The irony is not lost on anyone: When Leach left Washington State to come to MSU and the SEC, everyone wondered if his teams were going to be tough enough to hang in college football’s most cutthroat conference. The answer is that they ARE tough enough. They AREN’T explosive enough. Analysts figured Leach would be able to score, but they worried that his defense and overall playing style would leave Mississippi State exposed and vulnerable. The Bulldogs were going to be fun and exciting, but way too soft to compete at the highest level.

Instead, it has been the exact opposite. Leach’s teams have had gritty and resourceful defenses who have not allowed games to spiral out of control. This is not a world in which Leach’s teams are surrendering 45-point games with regularity and playing wild shootouts. MSU is losing because it is failing to score 30, not because it is failing to hold opponents under 40. It’s quite a plot twist for a coach and a program which have regularly zigged when the rest of the SEC expects the Bulldogs to zag.

MSU stunned everyone in 2014 when it attained the No. 1 ranking in the country, and then dramatically fell from that lofty perch just as quickly. In 1998, the Bulldogs found a way to win the SEC West, enabling them to say that unlike Ole Miss, Kentucky, and a few other longstanding SEC members, they have played in the SEC Championship Game. Mississippi State is simultaneously a program which has done more than one might expect, and yet has failed to seize huge opportunities when they have emerged.

The 2021 season was a microcosm of that. Can Mike Leach raise this team’s ceiling, even while the floor seems higher than many were prepared to expect in his tenure. Those who enjoy football betting will be excited about Mississippi State’s 2022 potential.

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