The Southeastern Conference Football Media Days will be more entertaining now that Mississippi State has hired the quirky and extremely quotable Mike Leach.
So will the Bulldogs’ series with Texas A&M.
Leach was 7-3 against the Aggies, including 3-2 at Kyle Field. Leach said the Game Day experience at Kyle Field is one of college football’s best, and his last trip here was 2008, which was before A&M’s move to the SEC and subsequent stadium expansion. It also was before A&M hired Jimbo Fisher.
Leach going against Fisher will be priceless: Leach brings his Air Raid offense that has allowed him to lead the country in passing 10 times, and Fisher has a pro-style attack that’s won three conference championships and a national championship.
Leach worked wonders at Texas Tech and Washington State, but he didn’t win a conference championship. Leach was highly successful at Texas Tech — 84-43 — partly because of his success against A&M. He was only 5-15 against Texas and Oklahoma during his tenure in Lubbock from 2000-09, which wasn’t awful considering those programs combined for 13 Top 10 finishes and two national championships over that span. A&M, by the way, was 3-17 against those teams.
Many have wondered if Leach’s style could be successful in the SEC. Well, we’re about to find out, and what Leach does against A&M will be pivotal.
Dan Mullen was successful at Mississippi State — 69-46 — despite going 0-9 against Alabama, 2-7 against LSU and 3-6 against Auburn. Mullen was able to hold his own against the rest of the SEC West, going 13-11 — including 3-3 vs. A&M — and dominated the SEC East by going 15-6.
A bright spot for A&M last season was sweeping the schools from the Magnolia State for the first time since Johnny Manziel left. That’s going to be hard to repeat with the addition of Leach and Ole Miss hiring Lane Kiffin. Think Mullen and former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze. Both lost their first two games against A&M then combined to go 6-1. They weren’t just beating A&M.
Five seasons ago on the first weekend of October all eyes in college football were on the state of Mississippi with sixth-ranked Texas A&M at 12th-ranked Mississippi State and third-ranked Alabama at 11th-ranked Ole Miss with College GameDay in Oxford. Ole Miss and Mississippi State both won.
Leach and Kiffin might not be able to duplicate the success of Mullen and Freeze, but their hires have energized their programs, much like when the Aggies hired Fisher.
It’s never dull in the SEC West, which will claim its eighth national championship since 2007 if LSU beats Clemson. It’ll complete an unbeaten dream season for LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, who won the Heisman Trophy in record-setting fashion. It also will allow Ed Orgeron to become the sixth active head coach to win a national championship, joining North Carolina’s Mack Brown, Kansas State’s Les Miles, Alabama’s Nick Saban, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Fisher.
Orgeron reportedly was LSU’s third choice to replace Miles, who was fired after starting 2-2 in the 2016 season. University of Houston coach Tom Herman used the LSU opening to get a better deal from the University of Texas, and Fisher stayed at Florida State.
But former LSU AD Joe Alleva told the Baton Rouge Advocate last week that Fisher wasn’t even an option, though the former LSU assistant at the time was 78-17 with the 2013 national title and a trio of Atlantic Coast Conference championships.
“I still have a lot of friends in the ACC,” Alleva told the Advocate. “I talked to them, and after that I didn’t want any part of Jimbo. I would never have hired Jimbo. He was never on my radar. Now, fans and some people in the department wanted him, but I never wanted him.
“I could have made a change [at the end of the 2015 season.] I recommended not to because I would have been forced to hire Jimbo. I would rather have had Les. But if I didn’t hire him, the outcry would have been ridiculous. So we had that meeting during the [Texas A&M] game, and I made the recommendation to keep [Miles].”
That’s when LSU, trailing at halftime, rallied for a 19-7 victory over the Aggies and Miles was carried off the field. Miles couldn’t build on that because his offense stunk, and he was gone the following season before the end of September. Orgeron finished the season going 6-2, capped by a 54-39 victory over A&M and a 29-9 victory over Louisville in the Citrus Bowl. Orgeron had the interim tag dropped between those two victories with all indications he wasn’t the top choice.
I get it. Alleva wants to look good for promoting Orgeron, who has certainly proven he was the right guy for the job. But Alleva admitting he couldn’t or wouldn’t hire Fisher along with whiffing on Herman doesn’t make him or LSU look good because they were the better choices at the time.
That being said, LSU fans are glad they have Orgeron instead of Fisher or Herman. And if Orgeron wins the national championship, it’ll put more pressure on Fisher, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn and even Saban, who has gone back-to-back seasons without winning it all. Throw in the addition of Leach and Kiffin, who was Saban’s offensive coordinator for three seasons and the SEC West will be as challenging as ever.