I was going to do a really really long list of what ifs that would last six weeks or so. Then I decided I could not handle such an undertaking and so I've narrowed the list down to six. To start us off - what if the 2001 and 2001 football recruiting classes had lived up to the hype and not been full of knuckleheads.
We all know the on-the-field results prior to 2001...they are the days you look back at with fond memories. '97-'00; 33-15, SEC West Championship, two bowl victories. Then JWS went for broke in '01 and signed 12 junior college players that ended up destroying the program. On paper, it was a good class....in reality it was a nightmare. A preseason #18 team ended 3-8 that year. The 2002 class had just as much talent via the high school route...but only about half of them lived up to the billing - and many others contributed to the demolition of the program. But what if these two classes had at least been decent teammates, what if they would have lived up to their potential?
The West is the division right now, but in 2001 the East was more powerful. Nick Saban was able to elevate LSU back to a SEC Championship, but they were the only ranked team from the West that year. Part of the reason - Mississippi State was supposed to be good. Everyone between LSU and MSU ended the year 7-5; those should have all been wins but only Ole Miss was. BYU was #10 and 11-0 when they came to Starkville but the Dawgs almost beat them anyway - if this team were better, I believe we win that one. Basically, State should have won every game except at #2 Florida and vs. LSU. The Tigers won the West with a 5-3 record that year, State would have been 6-2 and had their 2nd division championship. It's likely the Bulldogs would have lost to #2 Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game and gone on to play Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. The Vols would've gone to the Rose Bowl and played Miami (FL) for the national championship.
Heading into 2002, Mississippi State would've likely been equally ranked when heading to #15 Oregon in the season opener. Would Kevin Fant have accepted that discount on the tires? Probably so, and Kyle York still would've started and State was probably doomed in that game. The rest of the games - I don't see why the Dawgs wouldn't have gone 9-3 that year. The West wasn't that great - Alabama won the division with a 6-2 record, but couldn't go to the SEC Championship Game since they were on probation. 2003 was a 2-10 disaster, but it certainly shouldn't have been.
Basically, what I'm saying is, if the 2001 and 2002 recruiting classes could've lived up to half their potential we could've been looking a sustained run of success from '97 to the mid-00s. The Western division didn't end the season with three ranked teams in it until 2005...the opportunity was there. How long would Jackie Sherrill have stayed before retiring? I have to think he would've been the head coach until he was 65 (2008). And '08 was the year Croom was fired, could we have had Mullen anyway?
Those six years from '01-'06 were tough to take, and those two recruiting classes were the center of the problem. It's too bad all that talent was wasted, but it was.