Bowl season is winding to a close, and in Mississippi, things are looking up after a couple of dominant performances by what people used to call the doormats of the SEC.
All of a sudden the doormats look much more stable and complete than some of the so called traditional powers.
How well exactly did State and Ole Miss fare with the eyes of the nation upon them?
Even better than the scores indicated.
Mississippi State 51,
NC State 28
Mississippi State got things going on December 30 in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, North Carolina, against the North Carolina State Wolfpack.
It was the last ride for the greatest player in Mississippi State football history, Dak Prescott.
Not only would it take a good offensive performance to defeat the Wolfpack, but it would take an equally great defensive performance, and the Bulldogs’ defense would not let Dak down.
On the very first play of the game, MSU redshirt freshman linebacker Gerri Green picked off a Jacoby Brissett pass that set up the Bulldogs’ first score, a 14-yard touchdown pass to Fred Ross.
The first four drives offensive for NC State went as followed: interception, punt, interception, and turnover on downs.
Aside from one busted play that resulted in an 82-yard touchdown pass to Pharoah McKever, a defensive end turned wide receiver, the Mississippi State defense was sound and rattled the NC State offense all day.
Mississippi State racked up five sacks, two tackles for loss, and two interceptions in a strong defensive effort.
The linebackers, Gerri Green, Richie Brown, and Beniquez Brown in particular, were exceptional, accounting for three sacks and an interception.
Brissett completed 12-of-28 passes (a mere 43% passing) for 214 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Without his 82-yard touchdown pass, he was 11-of-27 for 132 yards (4.9 yards per attempt) and two interceptions.
Brissett also rushed for 67 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries, which was good for only 2.6 yards per carry.
The Bulldogs did allow 210 yards on the ground (Nyheim Hines- 70 yards on 13 carries; Jaylen Samuels- 53 yards on three carries), but their dominance against the pass more than made up for it.
As good as the defense played, the real hero in the Belk Bowl was, of course, Dak Prescott.
In his swan song performance as a Bulldog, Prescott completed 25-of-42 passes (60%) for 380 yards (nine yards per attempt) with four touchdowns and an interception.
Prescott was also the leading rusher for MSU with 47 yards on 12 carries.
The senior quarterback broke virtually every quarterback record that Mississippi State had over the course of his career and took them to new heights. As a starter, he led the Bulldogs to three straight bowl games, including last year’s Orange Bowl.
Prescott made the Bulldogs relevant. MSU was routinely ranked in the new playoff ranking, peaking as high as number one in the nation for a while last year. He became the darling of the Southeast and his huge personality was matched only by his exceptional play on the field.
The dynamic duo of Fred Ross and De’Runnya Wilson also impressed in the win, accounting for a combined 170 yards receiving, 33 yards rushing, and three touchdowns.
Wilson impressed so much that he declared after the game that he would forgo his senior season and enter the NFL Draft.
Brandon Holloway has been emerging as the go-to guy in the backfield for State, and he did nothing in the Belk Bowl to hurt his standing. He rushed for 41 yards on 13 carries and caught four passes for 78 yards and two touchdowns.
Although the final score was 51-28, the game was never really that close. The Wolfpack scored a touchdown as time expired to close the gap slightly, but it did little to appease their fans who expected a close game.
Ole Miss 48,
Oklahoma State 20
In their third meeting in 12 years, the Ole Miss Rebels for the third time trounced Oklahoma State in the postseason.
After last year’s massacre by TCU, the Rebels had a lot to prove and a lot of doubters waiting to pounce had they come out with the same lack of passion that was seen a year ago.
Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze and the leaders of the Ole Miss football team would not allow that to happen.
What happened was a 48-20 game that was in question for roughly five minutes.
On the first possession of the game, Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly got a bit trigger-happy and launched the ball downfield to Laquon Treadwell (more on him later), who was double-covered, which ended in an interception. It was one of the few bright points for Oklahoma State on the day.
A couple of drives later the Ole Miss offense started to click, and that meant bad news for a Cowboys team that has struggles to stop even the most pedestrian of offenses.
After kicking a field goal on the previous drive, Kelly finally hit the big play, connecting with senior Cody Core for a 31-yard touchdown.
On the next two Ole Miss drives, Kelly hit Treadwell for back-to-back scores of 43 yards and 10 yards, respectively, giving them a 24-3 lead.
A Gary Wunderlich field goal gave them a 27-3 lead at the half.
The second half was more of the same with Treadwell catching his third touchdown of the day and Jordan Wilkins bursting through the line for a 36-yard score.
Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss’ stalwart left tackle, even got in on the action by catching a backwards pass from Kelly and strolling into the end zone, a reward for a season well-played.
Kelly, who earned the Most Outstanding Player in the Sugar Bowl for his performance, finished the day 21-of-33 (64%) for 302 yards (9.2 yards per attempt) with four touchdowns (the one to Laremy was technically a run) and one interception.
Kelly also led the ground attack with 73 yards on 10 carries, including a long of 43 yards.
Treadwell ended the day with three catches for 71 yards and three touchdowns to go with a 45-yard pass to running back Jordan Wilkins.
Senior Cody Core finished his Ole Miss career with a bang, catching four passes for 91 yards and a score.
As strange as it sounds, it wasn’t a receiver that led the Rebels in receiving, it was tight end Evan Engram, who caught six passes for 96 yards.
While Kelly and Treadwell were the stars of the game, the dominant fashion of the victory has to be credited to the defense.
The explosive Oklahoma State offense was held to 20 points (seven of which came in garbage time near the end of the fourth quarter). OSU continually tried to run east and west against the lightning-fast Rebel D, something that really no one has done against them all year. It resulted in eight tackles for loss, repeatedly putting them in tough situations.
The Rebels racked up three sacks in the win and multiple hurries that forced incompletions, rattling Mason Rudolph, a quarterback that seemed un-rattle-able (not a word, but I digress).
Although it was a total group effort, seniors like Mike Hilton, who was in on seemingly every big defensive play, and C.J. Johnson, who had 1.5 sacks in the game, deserve a ton of credit for leading the defense.
It was the impressive bowl performance that Hugh Freeze needed on his resume to keep the momentum his program has built going.
The wins gave Mississippi State a 9-4 record on the year and Ole Miss a 10-3 season.
Dan Mullen has proven to be arguably the best coach in Mississippi State football history, but the question moving into next year is, “What now?”
Dak Prescott’s storied career in maroon and white has come to a close, and it is time to begin the next chapter.
You can’t replace a Dak Prescott, but MSU will hope to get 75% of his production from his successor. At this point, it looks to be a battle between Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley for the role.
The offensive future is a bit cloudy because Fred Ross has yet to make a decision on whether or not he will join junior De’Runnya Wilson in entering the NFL Draft. If he does return to MSU for his senior year, it will give the new quarterback one of the better targets in the SEC.
They will return players like Brandon Holloway, who has become their best running back, and Fred Brown, who may become the defacto number one receiver if Ross leaves, so the cupboard is not bare, but the Bulldogs will need to develop a more rounded rushing attack to account for the lack of Dak.
Another Bulldog with a big decision to make is defensive tackle Chris Jones. If he returns for his senior year, the defense for MSU, particularly the front seven with the aforementioned linebackers, will be a force. They should still be good if Jones leaves, but he is the biggest difference-maker up front for Mississippi State, and they will need all the help they can get with Dak not there to mask deficiencies.
Next year will be a rebuilding year of sorts for MSU, but even rebuilding years at State these days basically guarantee the Bulldogs a bowl. Mullen has MSU on a six-year bowl streak, and with a powerful defensive front and enough offensive weapons, I’d look for that streak to continue.
Recruiting has not always been Dan Mullen’s strongest asset as a coach, but where he lacks in recruiting, he excels in player development.
In his four years at Ole Miss, Freeze’s win total has increased each year, from seven to eight to nine to this year’s 10 win season.
And despite losing their “Big Three” in Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil to the draft, the expectations are still sky high.
But the expectations begin and end with Chad Kelly, who would be the best returning quarterback in the SEC.
Kelly is mulling over his NFL Draft options by this writing, but there is a cautious optimism that he will return.
And while it seems that draft decisions have hurt the Rebels, the only ones that have declared were the ones they knew they were going to lose. They have already received great news by Evan Engram, Fadol Brown, and Tony Conner.
The only one that remains is Kelly. For as Kelly goes, so do the Rebels.
If Kelly returns, Ole Miss will be one of the frontrunners for the SEC, but without him, the reigns will almost assuredly go to Shea Patterson, the number one ranked quarterback by virtually every publication. While everyone expects Patterson to be a star, he isn’t Kelly yet.
Kelly is the difference between a 7-8 win season in the middle of the pack and a 10-11 win season playoff implications.
As of this writing, the only thing that is for certain is that both MSU and Ole Miss are in the uncharted territory of becoming consistent winners, a far cry from the doormat days.