An abrupt change of fortune for the state of Mississippi

Mississippi State is coming off back-to-back losses to BYU and Kentucky, and now has to win four of its last five games to gain bowl eligibility. Mark Zerof/USA TODAY Sports

On this day two years ago, the first ever College Football Playoff rankings were released. The top four? Mississippi State, Florida State, Auburn and Ole Miss.

Now obviously, only Florida State from that group actually made the playoff. And the eventual national champion from that season, Ohio State, was all the way down at No. 16. But what a season it was for the state of Mississippi. Two teams in the top four, and while neither made the playoff, both still went on to play in a New Year’s Six Bowl.

This year’s rankings debut next Tuesday, but don’t expect to see either Mississippi State or Ole Miss. They are fighting just to become bowl eligible.

For Ole Miss, it’s been a combination of injuries, a struggling defense and a rigorous schedule. The Rebels will host No. 15 Auburn on Saturday, their sixth Top-25 opponent in eight games. Two of those teams have dropped out since Ole Miss played them, but three of their four losses to this point were against top-20 teams (Florida State, Alabama, LSU).

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn knows a thing or two about how difficult it is stay on top in the SEC. His Tigers played for a national championship in 2013, but two seasons later they finished 6-6 and won just two conference games.

“In this league? It’s real hard,” Malzahn said. “You’re talking about an Ole Miss team, they’re very talented. I told our guys, ‘Don’t let record deceive you.’ They’re one of the top groups in our league.

“And in this league, it doesn’t matter who it is. Every week, anybody can beat anybody. It’s a grind. It’s a survival of the fittest. You can’t just be talented. You have to be mentally tough. You have to be mentally disciplined in your staff, your players. To have a chance to be successful in this league, it takes all that.”

Despite a 3-4 record, the Rebels are still capable of beating every team remaining on their schedule, especially with Chad Kelly at quarterback. However, if they lose to Auburn and Texas A&M, two top-15 teams, they can’t afford to slip up again or they won’t even play in a bowl game.

This is a team that has played in back-to-back New Year’s Six bowls and was ranked No. 11 to begin the season.

Mississippi State’s postseason hopes look even bleaker. The Bulldogs are coming off back-to-back heartbreaking losses to BYU and Kentucky, and now they have to win four of their last five games to gain bowl eligibility -- which won’t be easy considering they still play Texas A&M, Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss.

What happened? How does a team ranked No. 1 in the country two years ago fall to the point where they might win only three games this year?

It begins with losing a certain quarterback who will be starting for the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. Dak Prescott set just about every record he could while at Mississippi State, and now that he’s gone it might take a couple years for the program to bounce back.

It wasn’t just Prescott, though. The Bulldogs had four defensive players -- Preston Smith, Benardrick McKinney, Chris Jones and Will Redmond -- drafted in the first three rounds of the last two NFL drafts. That kind of talent had been hard to find in Starkville. And though Dan Mullen has recruited better in recent years, it’s still not easy to replace.

Let's be honest. We will probably never see another season like we did in 2014 when both flagship universities in the state of Mississippi were at the top of the college football world at the same time.

But two years later, it shouldn’t have come to this. Not this fast.