Mississippi State outside wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. made a fine point when he said that the biggest thing the team has going for it heading into this season is Mike Leach's track record as a head football coach.
Leach has left both college programs he's been the head coach of much better than he found them -- and these are programs that garnered virtually no recognition before he got there.
With one season down at Mississippi State, the second one and those to follow could be significant for the Bulldogs under Leach.
Washington State and the "second-year effect"
Looking particularly at Washington State, there's a notable jump between Leach's first and second season with the Cougars.
In their first season under Leach back in 2012, the Cougs went 3-9 overall, 1-8 in Pac-12 play. The second season was a different story, though, when Wazzu finished out the year with a 6-7 overall record (4-5 in the conference) that saw them become bowl eligible for the first time in a decade.
Also that year, Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday set school and conference records for passing with 4,597 yards through the air (regular season and bowl stats combined). The team led the country in both passing offense and total offense.
The Cougars had four winning seasons (all consecutive) in Leach's time in Pullman, with their best finish coming in 2018 when they recorded an overall record of 11-2 with a 28-26 victory over the Iowa State Cyclones in the Valero Alamo Bowl.
Leach had a 55-47 overall record there in eight seasons, helping the team to six bowl appearances and a national ranking. In the eight years before he was with the team, the Cougars had a 29-66 overall record with no bowl appearances and had never seen the national rankings.
Lubbock hasn't been the same since Texas Tech parted ways with Mike Leach in the final days of December 2009. What's meant by that is that the Red Raiders finished ranked five times under Leach, but have yet to do so since he's been gone.
Over 10 years at Tech, Leach guided the team to an overall record of 84-43, and a bowl game appearance in every one of those seasons. Of those bowl game appearances, the Red Raiders won five of them (they also won the Valero Alamo Bowl in 2009 after Leach coached them to an overall record of 8-4, but the game was played after he was gone from Tech).
Three of the seasons under Leach were nine-win ones with one 11-win finish. Tech's best season was the 2008 season when the team cracked its way into the country's top-10 in the nation and Leach was named National Coach of the Year.
Looking back at the 10 seasons before Leach got to Tech, the team had a 59-65 record and went to just five bowl games. They hadn't found a place in the top-25 rankings, either.
Former Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell broke multiple records and finished out his career at No. 2 on the NCAA career passing yards list (15,793 yards), also breaking the career NCAA passing touchdowns record (134).
Running backs have found success in the Air Raid and are perhaps better prepared for the NFL than those from any other scheme given the versatility it demands from then.
Under Leach at Tech, running back Taurean Henderson totaled 303 receptions, which ranked first in NCAA history among running backs and No. 4 overall at the time.
Current State of the Bulldogs and the Progress That Hasn't Received the Respect it Should
There's not much that's eye-catching about a 4-7 overall finish between the regular season and the postseason. But as with all things in football, the numbers and the stats sheet never tell the full story.
If you look at the circumstances that surrounded the Bulldogs in 2020, what they were able to accomplish is far more impressive than it is underwhelming. Every team in the nation was up against a special type of adversity amid the coronavirus pandemic, but it didn't affect them all the same.
MSU was one of the youngest teams in the conference (it still is this year), and the Bulldogs were transitioning from two schemes that couldn't have been more different on either side of the ball. The Air Raid couldn't be much more different from the RPO-based scheme the Bulldogs were using before that heavily utilized a running quarterback.
To make the learning curve even steeper, this was far from a normal offseason, so these entirely new concepts were mostly learned over Zoom. After the season got underway, there was some weeding out to do, with players who weren't bought into the scheme and those who didn't find success in it opting out (or opting out for other reasons) or transferring. And even on top of all of that, there were several instances in which the Bulldogs took the field shorthanded, playing below the 53-player threshold.
Despite all this, playing an SEC-only schedule within the toughest conference in college football, the Bulldogs were able to open the season by putting the country on notice with a 44-34 upset victory over the defending national champion LSU Tigers and ended out the year with two consecutive wins. Some of the games that were lost down the stretch were winnable ones against stout competition like Georgia as MSU seemed to start getting its bearings as a team.
As we mentioned before, this is very much still a young team -- but the Bulldogs have come a long way since this time last year.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Bulldogs have promise at quarterback with Will Rogers returning for his second year in the system with freshman Sawyer Robertson, who already has experience in the Air Raid from high school, on the roster. There have been some changes made to an offensive line that struggled last year, but has mostly had a good camp.
MSU also has a group of wide receivers that looks to be well-rounded and a pair of versatile, do-it-all running backs who have been placed on the Doak Walker Award watch list ahead of the season.
On defense, the Bulldogs have one of the best (if not the best) secondaries in the nation, a talented linebacking corps with standout Aaron Brule within it, and have shown a pass rush ability that has continuously improved and impressed throughout camp.
Between all of this and what Leach has accomplished with much smaller programs in the past, there's a lot to be optimistic about in Starkville.