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Mississippi Rising: What A Saturday For Ole Miss And Mississippi State! And We’ll See You On Thanksgiving Night

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Mississippi State coach Mike Leach and Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin should have met Saturday at midnight in Slate Springs, Mississippi — a town of about 100 or so equidistant between their Starkville and Oxford schools.

There is a flour mill, a saw mill and a post office for money orders in the Slate. Surely, there is also a moonshine mill somewhere nearby, and they could have toasted one of the best Saturdays in Mississippi college football history.

No. 15 Ole Miss beat No. 11 Texas A&M, 29-19, in Oxford, and Mississippi State upset No. 17 Auburn, 43-34, in Auburn after trailing 28-3 in the second quarter.

They should not hate one another as neither coach has any prior allegiance to either school, though each is heavily invested now, and the other way around. Leach, 60, is from Susanville, a small town (much bigger than Slate Springs) in northeast California. He grew up in Cody, Wyoming, and went to Brigham Young, graduating in American Studies. He never played college football.

Kiffin, 46, was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, and lived many places from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to Buffalo, New York, as his dad is well-traveled college and NFL defense assistant coach guru Monte Kiffin, who now is an analyst at Ole Miss. Lane went to high school in Minneapolis and played quarterback at Fresno State in California.

Could you imagine the conversation between these two?

“How did we get here?”

“What are we doing here?”

Teaching their spin on the West Coast offense on the Delta in their own unique, American way is what they’re doing.

Leach directed the biggest comeback in Mississippi State football history Saturday afternoon as the Bulldogs (6-4, 4-3 SEC), outscored Auburn, 40-6, from late in the second quarter on. Ole Miss (8-2, 4-2 SEC) manhandled the hottest team in the SEC West Saturday night, breaking its four-game winning streak that started with a 41-38 upset of No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 9.

Oh, and before the game, Kiffin was guest picker from The Grove in the heart of the Ole Miss campus on ESPN’s College GameDay.

He predicted his and Leach’s win.

“Mike Leach is the best offensive coach in America,” Kiffin said. “I’m taking Mississippi State.”

It was a nice thing to say, particularly since Kiffin may be the best offensive coach in America. Either way, they may just be No. 1 and 2 in Mississippi and in America.

Lane Kiffin
Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin looks on during the game against Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Get your tickets now for Thanksgiving Night in Starkville — Ole Miss at Mississippi State at 6:30 p.m. on ESPN.

Not since, Oct. 11, 2014, has Mississippi had a greater Saturday in college football. On that day, No. 3 Mississippi State beat No. 2 Auburn, 38-23, in Starkville after ESPN’s College GameDay was on the State campus. And in College Station, Texas, No. 3 Ole Miss, which had beaten No. 3 Alabama the week before, beat No. 14 Texas A&M, 35-20.

The next day, State (6-0, 3-0 SEC) was the No. 1 team in the country, and Ole Miss (6-0, 3-0 SEC) remained at No. 3. State ended up losing three games to finish 10-3, but it reached the Orange Bowl – its first New Year’s Day affair since 1998. Ole Miss finished 9-4, and eight of those wins were later vacated because of various recruiting violations in coach Hugh Freeze’s regime. Within a few years, both coaches were gone, but hey, it was great when it happened.

Neither coach could be long for either stop at the moment. Of the candidates being mentioned for LSU’s new coach, Kiffin may be the best and brightest with decreasing baggage off the field – particularly when compared to what has been happening around LSU for years.

And Leach is the pirate master and captain comeback all in one. He broke his own school record for comebacks as his State team fell behind 34-14 to Louisiana Tech in the opener and won 35-34.

Who knows? Both make a lot of money and are enjoying the ride at the moment. The Mississippi Mud of a season should be savored while it’s mousse and while it lasts.

“I’m going to get on a bus and I’m going to ride for four hours to Starkville, Mississippi,” Leach said after the Auburn win. “Those of you who have never been to Starkville, Mississippi, haven’t even the fragment of imagination of what you’re missing tonight.”

He dined on a filet, as in Chick-fil-A, after Auburn blew the biggest lead in its history.

Leach won his fourth game away from Starkville over an Associated Press ranked team, tying the school record held by Emory Bellard, who last coached State in 1985.

State quarterback Will Rogers III threw six touchdown passes to break the school record of five last tied by K.J. Costello last season in a 44-34 win at defending national champion LSU in Leach’s smashing debut.

Rogers completed 44 of 55 passes for 415 yards, marking the seventh time a quarterback has thrown for 400 or more since Leach started at State in 2020. Before Leach, State had just 14 such games in history and just five in the previous 312 games.

Rogers was named the national offensive player of the week on Sunday by the Walter Camp Football Foundation. His 29 touchdown passes on the season ties him for the school record set by Dak Prescott in 2015.

And it wasn’t all offense. State’s defense under coordinator Zach Arnett held Auburn to -14 rushing yards in the second half and without a first down in the final 30 minutes. And defensive tackle Cameron Young blocked a field goal in the third quarter.

“I think the biggest thing is we didn’t get discouraged by the first half, and that would have been easy to do,” Leach said. “As simple as it sounds, we just played faster. We were tentative and played not to lose in the first half. It wasn’t any dramatic X’s and O’s. It was just mental.”

Ole Miss also got off to a large early lead at 15-0, and A&M came back to within 15-13, but then the Rebels pulled away with its defense, intercepting Aggies’ quarterbck Zach Calzada twice in the fourth quarter.

First, linebacker Ashanti Cistrunk picked Calzada at the Aggies’ 18-yard line and returned it four yards to set up a 13-yard touchdown run by tailback Snooper Conner for a 22-13 lead with 6:32 left. Then defensive back A.J. Finley returned an interception 52 yards for a touchdown with 4:50 left for a 29-13 advantage.

“All right, that was cool,” Kiffin said after his dual-threat Saturday on GameDay and coaching on a game day. “That’s a cool win. Just a cool day. I just kept thinking, ‘If we could just pull this off. I don’t care if it’s 2-0 or 52-51, just to get to 8-2 and to end a day of GameDay and the The Grove like it was with all the energy and everything, it would just be amazing.'”

And it was.

The Amazing Mississippi.

“I’m not saying we’re great, but it’s a step closer from good to great,” Kiffin said.

He was proud of his GameDay appearance as well, should this whole coaching thing not work out.

“I kind of didn’t want the Mississippi State game to go like I picked, but I did say what a great offensive coach Leach is, and it was high scoring,” Kiffin said. “So, maybe, I’ve got a career.”

Could you see Kiffin and Leach as regular GameDay hosts?

Live from Slate Springs?

Written by Glenn Guilbeau

Guilbeau has been on the LSU beat since 1998 with multiple outlets in Louisiana, prior to that he had covered both Auburn and Alabama. He won first place for his game feature on LSU's upset at Florida last season from the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA). He was also named Beat Writer of Year, by Louisiana Sports Writers Association in July; placed in three Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) categories – Beat Writer, Explanatory, Game Coverage – last spring. Guilbeau was also the FWAA first-place winner for columns in 2017 and was also the top overall winner in 2016 FWAA placing first for his game story, second in columns, and receiving honorable mention for features.

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