Kelly Price/Courtesy of MSU Athletic Communications

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  • Mississippi State is one of the hardest places to create a sustained winner in all of college football. Joe Moorhead thinks that he can bring a "championship standard" to Starkville.
By Andy Staples
June 11, 2018

Joe Moorhead has done most of this stuff before. He hasn’t done it on this particular line of latitude, and he hasn’t done it with as many zeroes in his team’s annual budget, but the basics of his job as Mississippi State’s head coach aren’t all that different from what he did two jobs ago as Fordham’s head coach.

Find good players. Convince them to play for you. Outscheme opponents. Win. Those requirements are the same from Division III to the top of the FBS. Of course, it is nice to have a gleaming, nearly new football building tucked away on the corner of Mississippi State’s campus instead of sharing a wall with a squash court that was used every weekday by elementary schoolers. Moorhead’s tights ends coach isn’t also the video coordinator. “We probably had 10 total people in our staff room at Fordham—and that might be an over-exaggeration,” Moorhead says. “Then you sit down at your first one here and there are 35.”

But the basics haven’t changed, and the two years Moorhead spent as Penn State’s offensive coordinator have allowed him to acclimate to the size and scope of a Power Five program. He’s also learned about chasing recruits every school in the country would want. So as he takes over a roster ready to win now, Moorhead chuckles at the idea that he’ll experience some kind of culture shock his first time coaching below the Mason-Dixon Line. “I think the regional aspect to recruiting and coaching is incredibly overblown,” Moorhead says. “If you can coach, you can coach. If you can recruit, you can recruit. Being from somewhere can help, but I don’t think it guarantees success, nor does it preclude it. If you can’t do those things, it doesn’t matter if you’re from Mississippi or Mars.”

Moorhead can rattle off the names of coaches who came South and won. Nick Saban hadn’t coached college football in the South until he took the LSU job prior to the 2000 season. Ditto for Urban Meyer and the Florida job prior to the 2005 season. Combined, those two have won eight national titles as SEC coaches. (And Meyer has one more at Ohio State.) Moorhead’s former boss James Franklin hadn’t coached in the South until he came to Vanderbilt and worked his own kind of miracle by winning nine games two years in a row at the SEC’s traditional doormat. 

What Moorhead is proposing for the Bulldogs is equally ambitious, because it would require overcoming decades of history as well as the quite fully operational Saban 82 miles east in Tuscaloosa. Moorhead, who inherits one of Dan Mullen’s best Mississippi State rosters, doesn’t want to merely continue what Mullen did. Moorhead wants to take the next logical step. “The challenge to me is elevating us from good to great,” Moorhead says. “Part of the attraction of the job is the ability to compete for and win the SEC championship. That’s where we haven’t been great.”

Mullen laid ample groundwork in nine seasons in Starkville, and Moorhead is grateful for that. “Coaches leave for one or two reasons—because they’re doing a good job or because they’re doing poorly,” Moorhead says. “In this case it was the former rather than the latter.” But Moorhead is quite matter-of-fact about the Bulldogs’ competitiveness in their own league. Mississippi State has only finished above .500 in SEC play once in this century. That was in 2014, when the Bulldogs debuted at No. 1 in the first College Football Playoff ranking and finished 6–2 in league play and 10–3 overall.

The question isn’t whether Moorhead can make the Bulldogs a frequent SEC—and, by logical extension, national—title contender. It’s whether anyone can. For much of his time in Starkville, Mullen was the SEC’s second-best coach behind Saban if degree of difficulty was factored in. To take a perennial also-ran in one of the nation’s toughest division to No. 1 in the nation—even for a week—is impressive. It will take a truly special coach to make the Bulldogs legitimate contenders in the SEC West on an annual basis. That man will have to go toe-to-toe with Saban, Gus Malzahn and Jimbo Fisher, all of whom have more resources, better tradition and equal or better natural recruiting territories, and beat them.

Perhaps Moorhead is that coach. Mississippi State cornerbacks coach Terrell Buckley, who played for such a coach (Bobby Bowden) during Florida State’s 14-year run of top-four finishes in the final Associated Press poll, came to Starkville in 2016 to work with Mullen and remains on Moorhead’s staff. Buckley loves the attitude Moorhead has brought. “He has this saying that we use—a championship standard. Going to a bowl game, eight or nine wins, that’s awesome. That’s awesome. But that ain’t what we’re about now,” Buckley says. “We want to get in the playoff. We want to win championships. … The attitude from the top down is we’re here for one reason and one reason only—to win championships.”

That is a bold vision, and it probably is the only attitude a staff can have if it hopes to overcome decades of history and continue the ascent that Mullen and his staff started. Moorhead has done a turnaround. He took over a Fordham team that had gone 1–10 in 2011, went 6–5 in 2012 and then went 12–2, 11–3 and 9–2 the next three seasons. But what he’s proposing at Mississippi State is more difficult. “The requisite talent is here, but what are the things we can do as a program to bridge the gap from a team that’s good to a team that can win the SEC?” he asks rhetorically. The gap between good and great may only be two or three wins, but those wins are far more difficult to secure than the five or six wins that take a team from bad to good. Because those wins have to come against programs that are also good or—even tougher—already great.

In the starting 22, Mississippi State absolutely has the requisite talent. If quarterback Nick Fitzgerald can return healthy from the ankle dislocation he suffered during last year’s Egg Bowl, Moorhead will have a bigger (6' 5", 230 pounds), faster version of Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley. The question is whether Fitzgerald can match McSorley’s accuracy or decision-making. And if Fitzgerald has any issues, backup Keytaon Thompson looked quite capable in the TaxSlayer Bowl win against Louisville.

Kelly Price/Courtesy of MSU Athletic Communications

 

Meanwhile, Mississippi State may have the SEC’s best interior defensive lineman and best pass rusher. Defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons (6-4, 300) can make an opponent’s play implode, while defensive end Montez Sweat (6' 6", 245) tied for the SEC lead in sacks in 2017 with 10.5. Moorhead’s most pleasant surprise since taking the job was learning that Simmons and Sweat won’t need to play every down for the Bulldogs to get a push up front. “You were impressed with the size and the speed and the competitiveness,” Moorhead says of his d-line. “But I don’t think it was until winter workouts and, more specifically, spring ball, where you see how deep and talented we are on the defensive line.”

What Moorhead will learn is that Alabama and Auburn are as deep and as talented in that position group. Every. Single. Year. But so is Ohio State, and Penn State acquitted itself quite well against the Buckeyes each of the past two seasons.

Nothing about coaching in the SEC should surprise Moorhead. He’s seen all of this before in one form or fashion. But knowing what’s coming doesn’t make the goal he has set any less lofty. If he can pull this off, he’ll be in very select company.

A Random Ranking

Rest in peace, Anthony Bourdain, a chef-turned-writer-turned-TV star who changed how we look at food. Here are my five favorite Bourdain moments.

1. Bourdain eats at Waffle House for the first time.

2. When high school football coach/former rapper Luther Campbell took Bourdain our for soul food in Miami.

3. When Bourdain went to the Clermont Lounge with Alton Brown.

4. When Bourdain and Sean Brock discuss Road House with Bill Murray.

5. When Bourdain got really catty about two of his fellow TV food show hosts.

Three and Out

1. Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray was selected ninth overall by the Oakland A’s in last week’s Major League Baseball draft. I was shocked at how many people didn’t realize that it’s possible to get paid to play one sport while maintaining NCAA eligibility in another. For those still wondering, read what I wrote about Murray and his particularly fascinating situation

2. SI’s Ross Dellenger explained how the SEC is preparing for legalized gambling in Mississippi and elsewhere.  

3. Brett McMurphy reported last week that beginning with the 2020 season, the Las Vegas Bowl likely will match a Pac-12 team with another Power Five opponent. The new Raiders stadium will be up and running by then, and the bowl likely will become a desired destination for fans in the Pac-12 and whichever conference signs on with the bowl. Here’s hoping it’s the ACC or the SEC. The Pac-12 already has bowl matchups against the Big 12 and Big Ten. Setting up an annual game against an ACC or SEC team would provide a cool intersectional matchup at the start of bowl season. While this is good news for the casual fan, it’s bad news for the Mountain West, which has been sending its champion to Vegas in years the champion didn’t make a New Year’s Six bowl.

What’s Eating Andy

I’m on vacation beginning Monday. Punt, Pass and Pork will return July 9, probably with a section detailing various beachside libations.

What’s Andy Eating

Having multiple locations doesn’t necessarily mean the food isn’t good. In fact, some chains need to spread their wings so they can bring their delicious offerings to every corner of the country. That’s why it’s time for another round of Chains That Should Go National.

Hopdoddy Burger Bar

Fuddruckers popularized the concept of the elevated burger chain — bigger burgers, more toppings, really good fries — but it has been up and down through the years. Red Robin has the catchiest jingle. The Counter has the best ordering system.

But the best burgers of this bunch are at Hopdoddy, which started on South Congress Avenue in Austin and has begun its march toward national domination. The place has spread throughout Texas and into Phoenix, Denver, Nashville, Memphis and Los Angeles. All I have to say is keep going.

I’d love the option to go anywhere in the country and get the El Diablo burger (with pepper jack, caramelized onions, habanero and serrano chiles and and red salsa) with a side of parmesan truffle fries and a bananas foster shake.

Bolay

This gluten-free chain started in south Florida and is working its way up the state and hopefully to the other contiguous 47. I laugh at the people who have gone gluten free for trendy reasons — rice and sorghum flours are no healthier than wheat flour—but as the husband of someone with Celiac disease, I’m thrilled these people keep demanding more gluten free options. 

We’re on high alert when we order at any new restaurant because eating gluten—even a small amount—can make my wife quite sick. But that isn’t an issue at Bolay. The risk of accidental exposure is gone because there are no wheat products to accidentally ingest. Plus, the food is fantastic. Get the lemon chicken and roasted Brussels sprouts. If you don’t have a wheat allergy, great. Get it anyway and then go find a bakery for dessert. But if you do have a wheat allergy, you’ll now have a place where the gluten-free menu is the entire menu. (And yes, they have cookies.)

Urban Cookhouse

This Alabama-based chain with outposts in Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas could probably sell only its signature orange sticky rolls and be a roaring success. It’s all I can do when I visit to keep from eating 10 of the soft, sweet, definitely-not-gluten-free delights. 

If you can avoid the call of the carbs, get the lime-marinated steak and rice or the wood-fired shrimp kabob. Then get another roll or two for dessert.

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