As the 2020 season approaches, ushering in a new decade of college football, I found myself thinking about this past decade of college football. Specifically, I found myself thinking about the past decade of Mississippi State decade and how far the program has come in only 10 years.
Before 2010, Mississippi State football had become a doormat of the Southeastern Conference in the early to mid-2000s, and with the exception of 2007, the Bulldogs didn’t record a winning season from 2001-2009. The lackluster play on the field, thanks in part to NCAA sanctions and player discipline, set the program back substantially. Gone were the ‘90s when Mississippi State football had seemingly peaked. Gone were the days of Jackie Sherill. And gone was the winning culture. It all seemed to come to a head at the end of 2008 when the Bulldogs were taken to the woodshed by our dear rivals in Oxford, Mississippi, 45-0. Out went head coach Sylvester Croom and in stepped some guy who had been the offensive coordinator at Florida during both of the Gators national championships during the mid-2000s and helped groom Tim Tebow into a Heisman-winning quarterback.
Some guy named Dan Mullen.
Mullen stepped into a disaster of a program, yet, somehow the Bulldogs seemed to have a solid year in 2009, going 5-7 including an upset over No. 25 Ole Miss, 41-27. The foundation was laid going into 2010. The excitement in Starkville, Mississippi, was palpable. Within a few years, the fans expected to see the Dawgs back playing at a very high level.
Then the season came.
I still remember the season opener of 2010. I was 8 years old and in the infancy of becoming a State fan. I remember being so happy watching Chris Relf and Vick Ballard help easily defeat Memphi, 49-7. I was bouncing off the walls with every score. I was hooked. Then a few days later on a Thursday, I remember getting checked out of school at lunch so that we could go to Starkville that night and watch State take on Cam Newton and the Auburn Tigers. Though the Bulldogs would narrowly lose to the eventual undefeated national champions, I had an absolute blast. I guess you could say 2010 was the year I fell in love with Mississippi State football.
But enough about my personal experiences.
Keeping with the seemingly annual tradition, the Bulldogs would be soundly beaten in Death Valley by the LSU Tigers, 29-7, for the 10th year in a row. The Bulldogs sat at 1-2 after three games, but fan morale was still extremely high. It wasn’t like State had lost to two FCS programs: these were two really good teams.
The following week, the Bulldogs would beat Georgia, bringing the season mark back to .500. They would then win their next game over Alcorn State and follow that up with a revenge win over Houston, who had upset the Bulldogs on Homecoming the season prior.
Then, the Bulldogs entered The Swamp to face Coach Mullen’s former employer - the Florida Gators.
The game would be a defensive struggle, but the Bulldogs would prevail, 10-7, in what was deemed a minor upset. This brought the Bulldogs record to 5-2, meaning the Dawgs were only one win away from becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2007 and only the third time the program would do so since the start of the new millennium. Despite nearly being upset themselves the following week, the Bulldogs held on to defeat UAB, bringing them to the six-win mark, gaining the team bowl eligibility. The winning streak would continue the following week as the Dawgs would defeat cross-division rival Kentucky.
The six-game winning streak would be ended the next week in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, at the hands of the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide. The Dawgs would also lose the following week to Arkansas, bringing the season mark to 7-4 heading into the Egg Bowl.
Headed into the Battle for the Golden Egg, it was clear that Mississippi State was the favorite. as the Ole Miss Rebels were limping into the final game of their 2010 season after an abysmal campaign that saw the Rebels lose to an FCS program, as well as an embarrassing loss to Vanderbilt, which was the Commodores lone conference win of the season. The game was closer than anticipated, but Chris Relf took over and made his mark on the program in the process. Also worth noting is the play of receiver Chad Bumphis, who quite literally sacrificed his body during the game, breaking his collarbone after making a stellar diving catch. The Bulldogs would win the game 31-23, securing the Dawgs second consecutive win over the Rebels, as well as their first win in Oxford since 1998.
After posting a truly impressive 8-4 regular season record, the Bulldogs would be placed in the Gator Bowl opposite of one of the blue bloods of college football, the Michigan Wolverines. The Bulldogs would flat out embarrass the Wolverines, winning 52-14 in a dominant win. The bowl win would bring the final season record to 9-4, nearly doubling the previous season’s win total. This sharp turnaround of the program was the biggest turnaround in the conference that year, and would help christen the rebirth of Mississippi State football.
So you may be asking yourself: Why are we revisiting this seemingly insignificant year from a decade ago?
This season may be one of the most important in school history.
After over a decade of being losers or, at best, average on a yearly basis, suddenly Mississippi State football was back. The Bulldogs were within three points of beating the eventual national champion. They took a really good Arkansas team to double overtime. They beat an Urban Meyer-coached and Tim Tebow-quarterbacked Florida team in The Swamp. This season also would see the slow emergence of guys like Fletcher Cox and Derek Sherod, two guys who would go on to be first-round draft picks. 2010 would start a streak of bowl appearances that carried through the entire decade, something the program had never accomplished before. This season was the start of some of the best years of Mississippi State football. And I don’t even think I have to say what a nine-win season did for recruiting.
So, here we are a decade later. Ten more bowl appearances to our name. seventy-nine more wins added to our win total. Many more draft picks. Five weeks spent as the No. 1 team in the country.
All of those things I just listed are in due thanks to 2010. Without 2010, who knows where this program would be. That’s not to say that the program would not have turned around eventually, but without the turnaround coming when it did, I truly do not think this program would have the bowl streak, or the amount of draft picks, or as many wins as we have now. And we certainly wouldn’t have spent five weeks at No. 1, as the 2011 recruiting class was the predominant class on that 2014 roster. Without the stellar 2010 season we had, who knows where guys like Dak Prescott, Josh Robinson, Darius Slay (not on the 2014 team but it goes without saying why he’s included), Benardrick McKinney, Taveze Calhoun and Preston Smith end up signing. We owe much of the 2014 success to our 2011 recruiting class. And we owe much of the success of the 2011 recruiting class to the success of the 2010 season.
Looking back across the last 10 years of Mississippi State football, it’s clear to see that the 2010s were very good to the Bulldogs. The foundation was laid and built upon. The decade certainly didn’t end the way we wanted, but the future looks bright as we begin the 2020s.
And we can thank the 2010 team for expediting the rebirth of the program.
Until next time,