During a season in which Mississippi boasted two of the country's top three college football teams, we explore the question that has frustrated Rebels and Bulldogs for a century.

The week after winning their biggest football games in recent memory, Ole Miss and Mississippi State shared the Associated Press’s no. 3 overall ranking as well as the cover of Sports Illustrated. It was the most Mississippi aspect of a decidedly un-Mississippi turn of events: even in a moment of unprecedented singular triumph, the bitter rivals could not escape one other.

History tells us that Ole Miss and MSU — as much as each wants to distinguish itself from the another — are two evenly-matched schools riding opposite ends of the same seesaw. Going up requires the other team to go down. Their individual successes have almost never occurred at the same time.

That’s what makes this season’s simultaneous success so improbable. For the second straight week, MSU is America’s top-ranked team, and Ole Miss is no. 3 for the third week. The Rebels and Bulldogs have played 13 games between them. The outcome: 13 wins, zero losses. Four of those victories have come against opponents ranked in the top eight at kickoff.

To underscore the rarity of what we’re witnessing, consider these facts:

  • Prior to this season, the last time both schools spent time in the AP top 20 was 1999. In the intervening 15 years and 260 polls, either Ole Miss or MSU had been ranked in 85 weeks (32 percent of the time). But the two schools have only appeared in the same poll 9 times (3 percent).
  • The last time both teams were ranked in the AP top 15 was October 4, 1958. Appearing in the top 10 together is a new phenomenon — much less the top three.
  • The last season in which MSU and Ole Miss both finished in the AP top 15 was 1957.
  • Since 1957, there have been 41 seasons in which at least one of the Mississippi schools finished with a winning record, but they’ve both finished the season above .500 only 11 times. In the other 30 seasons, Ole Miss has had the superior record 20 times, though the schools are split at 10 apiece since 1970.
  • There have only been eight seasons in the past 50 in which Ole Miss and MSU have combined to win more than 60 percent of their games. (By contrast, Auburn and Alabama have done so in each of the past eight years.)
  • The combined 13 wins so far this season is as many or more than in 19 of the past 20 season-ending Egg Bowls. Since 1940, Ole Miss has gone into Egg Bowl ranked 19 times and MSU nine times, but both teams have been ranked on only four occasions (1999, 1992, 1957, 1941).

Why is this year different? 

Hope springs eternal on the gridirons of Oxford and Starkville, but it rarely survives past August two-a-days. This season, it’s alive and well into late October.

Is it a fluke, a statistical blip, a momentary planetary wobble that has thrown off gravity’s downward pull on Magnolia State football? Or are we seeing evidence that Mississippi can finally produce two championship-caliber college football programs in the same year?

Before I go any further, allow me to have a word with any Southern Miss fans who have made it this far into the article. Yes, I’ve left you out. It’s nothing personal. You can rightfully claim to be the state’s superior football program for the last decade and probably longer. I pose the question this way based on the anomalous success of Ole Miss and State this season as well as the stratospheric orbit that the SEC has come to occupy in the ranks of college football. Despite your recent struggles, I would love Mississippi to have three top-flight programs. 

Mississippi’s football success has historically been constrained by three factors: population, money, and leadership. But recent changes may help explain why Ole Miss and State are performing above their long-run norms — and why it may be sustainanable for the foreseeable future.

Population

Perhaps the truest coach-speak cliché is, “Recruiting is the lifeblood of a program.” Every year, schools have 25 scholarships to give out to qualified “student”-athletes, with an overall roster capped at 85. To compete in the SEC, you need a quality two-deep, at least, at every position.

Unfortunately, Mississippi’s schools suffer from an arithmetic problem. Mississippi has roughly 3 million people — 1.6 million fewer than Louisiana, 1.8 million fewer than Alabama, 3 million fewer than Missouri, and 23 million fewer than Texas. Arkansas is the only state in the SEC West that has a similar population, but its 2.9 million people only have one major college football team to support.

It’s long been lamented in Starkville and Oxford that if Mississippi only had one major team, the way LSU or Arkansas dominate their states, we’d compete for championships every year. Based on Mississippi’s production of football talent, that’s probably true.

The below map and table show both the quantity and caliber of college football players produced by of the SEC’s 11 states — along with their populations and teams among the Power 5 conferences. Between 2008 and 2013, Mississippi sent an average of 42 players a year into the FBS (D-1) ranks, including an average of four of country’s top 100 high school recruits, based on Athlon’s composite rankings.

Mississippi clearly punches above its weight in the quality of its athletes, but it simply doesn’t have the population to support two top-tier SEC programs with Mississippi players alone. Sort the above table by “FBS recruits/schools” or “Top 100/schools” and you’ll see a rough sketch of the SEC hierarchy: the schools from Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, Texas, and Alabama are at the top, with Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and South Carolina in the middle-to-low ranges and Kentucky in the basement.

Mississippi could join the top tier overnight if one school chose to unilaterally dismantle its football program, but let’s assign that the likelihood of Ed Orgeron being elected Ole Miss homecoming queen.

The only other option is to recruit, recruit, recruit — first by locking down the state of Mississippi and then bringing in top talent from other states.

Ole Miss and State have followed that formula to near-perfection when assembling the current teams. Almost every one of Mississippi’s top ten recruits in the past five years signed with Ole Miss or State. Many of those home-grown players have gone on to stardom, including Ole Miss’s Tony Connor (South Panola) and MSU’s Chris Jones (Houston).

Recruiting Top ten players determined by composite rankings from 247sports.com

Recent years have also seen an improvement in out-of-state recruiting. Historically, the out-of-state players at the Mississippi schools haven’t been blue-chip caliber (earning four or five stars out of five from one of the major recruiting services). Every now and then, Ole Miss or State could find an undiscovered star (Patrick Willis, Tennessee; Dexter McCluster, Florida) or a family connection (Eli Manning, Louisiana; Michael Oher, Tennessee), but Ole Miss and MSU rarely stole away a player that Alabama, Georgia, LSU, etc. really wanted.

That, too, has changed. Half of Ole Miss’s signees during Hugh Freeze’s three years have come from outside Mississippi, including seven highly-recruited four- or five-star players. Ole Miss’s 2013 recruiting class set the standard: the no. 1 national high school players at three different positions, all from states that do not border Mississippi. Each of those three are starters (Robert Nkemdiche, Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell) who have, if possible, exceeded the hype. Overall, four of the Rebels’ five leading tacklers and four of the five top receivers are from out of state.

Mississippi State, while doubling-down on the in-state rivalry (“This is Our State,” “The School Up North,” etc.), has still managed to pull the keys to its potent offense — QB Dak Prescott, RB Josh Robinson, and WR De’Runnya Wilson — from neighboring states. In total, State has recruited 34 percent of its signees from outside Mississippi in the past three years, including three four- or five-stars. While MSU has not pulled in the same star power as Ole Miss, they have consistently signed underrated players who become outstanding performers in Dan Mullen’s scheme.

Ole Miss and State need to maintain their elite scouting and recruiting ability if they are going to continue to compete in the SEC’s top tier. Without enough quality players from Mississippi to fill out two rosters, there’s a necessity to sign quality out-of-state prospects. If the success of the past few years can be sustained, then we may be witnessing the beginning of a “new normal” for both programs. If not, then look for a quick regression to the long-run norms.

Money

Mississippi isn’t just the smallest state in the SEC; it’s the poorest. And despite the patina of “amateurism,” big-time college football operates on money.

ExpensesAD Data from USA Today

The SEC is a no-limit poker table with the highest ante in the room. In 2013, SEC schools spent $163,000 per year for every scholarship athlete ($150,000 more than they spent per regular student). As you can see in the chart on the left, SEC schools accounted for six of the top 13 NCAA athletic budgets in the country in 2013. Ole Miss (36) and Mississippi State (54) were among the bottom four in the conference (Vandy was not listed).

Luckily, Ole Miss and State got their seats at the table early, and they get a huge check every year — $20.9 million in 2013-14 — from the SEC revenue sharing deal. That’s expected to double in the next two years once the profits from the new SEC Network being to roll in, likely taking both inside the top 30 budgets nationally.

In effect, sharing the SEC revenue allows the Mississippi schools to afford the ante to get in the game. They may not match Alabama or Florida dollar-for-dollar anytime soon, but athletic budgets are likely subject to diminishing returns above a certain point. Your 100-millionth dollar isn’t going to make as much difference to your success as your 75-millionth, which wasn’t as valuable as your 50-millionth, and so on.

You’d still prefer to have more rather than less, but as in most things, there seems to be a baseline level at which you have “enough” to compete. Ole Miss and State arguably fell short of this threshold until recently, unable to keep up with other schools’ salaries or facilities.

Take the example of former Ole Miss coach Tommy Tuberville, whom the Rebels paid $450,000 in 1997. When Tuberville flirted with leaving for Arkansas to the tune of $850,000, Ole Miss could only muster a counteroffer of $600,000. As all Ole Miss fans remember, he ultimately bolted to Auburn later that year for the sum of $900,000 a year.

Those figures seem quaint in today’s market, but Ole Miss, just off of probation, couldn’t match the resources of its more affluent SEC West competitors. In the years since, costs have skyrocketed, but the resource gap has closed. Ole Miss and State can now afford to keep pace on the big-ticket items that put them in the game for top talent on the field and sidelines.

Mississippi State’s Mullen and Ole Miss’s Freeze may get offers to coach higher-profile schools, but they may not be tempted by bigger paychecks. Mullen earned a base salary of $2.7 million in 2013, good for 23rd most in the NCAA, and Freeze’s salary was raised to $3 million during the offseason, putting him in the top 20. Both schools seem ready to increase their compensation as performance improves on the field.

Both schools are also in the midst of sizeable capital campaigns to upgrade their facilities. Ole Miss recently invested $12.5 million to enlarge and enhance the newly-named Manning Center, its $18 million indoor practice facility opened in 2004. The year before, Vaught-Hemingway Stadium’s south end zone expansion added 10,000 seats and a number of luxury suites to the facility. More luxury boxes will be added after this season, and the north end zone is due to be expanded after the 2015 season.

Mississippi State just finished a $75 million expansion of its football stadium that added 6,255 seats, ticking Davis Wade’s capacity just above Vaught-Hemingway’s.

There are no truces in the SEC’s arms race, as every team has invested as much or more in their facilities in recent years. But the rising tide of conference revenues has made money less of a constraint that it used to be in Mississippi.

DavisWae MSU’s Davis Wade Stadium recently received a $75 million expansion. (Photo courtesy of MSU Department of Athletics)

Leadership

Mississippians have a habit of looking at the aforementioned quantitative constraints as insurmountable, thus creating the far less quantifiable constraint of the self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s just so much that little old Mississippi can achieve, and we’re fooling ourselves by expecting more. One could make a very strong argument that generations of leaders at Ole Miss and MSU didn’t think they could possibly compete, and therefore they did not do the things that might have allowed the programs to overcome their obstacles.

Dan Mullen expressed his frustrations with that attitude in a recent ESPN.com profile:

During [Mullen’s] first month, he would make requests. One might be as big as a new football building, or as small as post-workout smoothies and energy drinks for his players. And he would get the same answer:

“We can’t do that at Mississippi State.”

Mullen called a meeting of the entire athletic department.

“I said it was all their fault that we had lost here,” Mullen said. “There was a strategy behind it. I don’t do much without a strategy. I really wanted to come and call everybody out. And I don’t know that within the structure of the athletic department, people … had been called out like that, especially [by] a young, 36-year-old Yankee. And to call them all out the way that I did, there was a lot of shock in that room.”

Once Mullen tore them down, he built them back up. But everyone was on the same page. Instead of telling him no, the staff knew it had better find a way to say yes.

Mississippi is a tight-knit state with little population turnover and a hidebound nature. As a result, Mississippi’s institutions of every stripe have typically been run by an amiable-but-insular group of Mississippi-born traditionalists whose aspirations have rarely extended beyond preserving the status quo. It’s more common to promote from within than to bring in “outsiders” whose loyalty and understanding of the local landscape is suspect.

Universities and their athletic departments are no exception. Credentials of coaches and athletic directors often included having played for the school during its “glory days” and “bleeding red and blue/maroon and white.” Not all of the hires made that way were bad — in fact, some were quite good. But the good ol’ boy mentality restricted the available talent pool and created an incestuous institutional culture. As other SEC athletic programs recognized the need to modernize and professionalize, Ole Miss and State placed tradition above competition. The result was a slow adaptation to the changing landscape of college athletics, most notably Ole Miss’s refusal to abandon its Confederate imagery — as many other SEC schools did — in the wake of integration.

In recent years, however, Ole Miss and MSU have taken strides to send off the good ol’ boys and replace them through national searches. Even though some of the athletic leaders at both school still possess some of the same characteristics as before (i.e., white male native Mississippians), they have generally shown themselves to be more ambitious and innovative than their predecessors. Now that there are signs of success on the field, aspirations among the fans have never been higher. Maybe little old Mississippi is capable of big things after all.

So have things changed for good? 

Yes and no. The traditional constraints are still working against Mississippi’s two SEC programs, but their effects have mitigated through strong leadership and good fortune. And in football as in anything else, success begets success. Morale has never been higher among the state’s most long-suffering fans. That means fundraising is at an all-time high, too. Top national recruits (not to mention celebrities… ahem, Katy Perry) who never would have donned Rebel red or Bulldog maroon in the past are now joining the Magnolia bandwagon. And for the first time in our state’s history, the country seems to be rooting for us.

Not every season will go the way this one has, but if seeing is believing, then we can now believe that Mississippi is capable of producing two teams that can compete on a championship level. Intra-state competition does not have to be a zero-sum game anymore; it can be used to make us all better.

In that spirit, let’s say it together: Hotty Toddy and Hail State! (…until the Egg Bowl, of course.)

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