After winning their bowl games to end the 2013 season, injecting a little more momentum into 2014, Mississippi State and Ole Miss now have the pleasure of welcoming in two very challenging offseasons.
In fact, they could be the toughest ones yet for Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen and Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze.
Expectations will be much higher than before, as both teams appear to have the pieces in place to make a run through the SEC Western Division. Don't think either or both can? Well, check out the myriad questions swirling throughout the division. It's not so cut and dried in 2014, which means both Mississippi State and Ole Miss have a chance to play spoiler/dark horse.
Regardless of the shape of the rest of the division -- and the conference, for that matter -- the two SEC members from the state of Mississippi will enjoy more pressure, higher expectations and excitement in the months to come.
For Mullen and his Bulldogs, the end to the 2013 season showed promise going forward. After what seemed like a disaster of a season down in Starkvegas, the Bulldogs reeled off back-to-back overtime victories over Arkansas and Ole Miss to become bowl-eligible. This team was pretty much left for dead in the West after losing three in a row to begin November.
The Bulldogs lost by a combined 105-64 during that span and you could feel Mississippi State's loyal fan base starting to turn on its head coach.
Optimism was truly restored when the Bulldogs capped the season with a commanding 44-7 victory over Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. The victory gave Mullen four straight bowl trips and winning seasons. It now makes 2014 that much more difficult because Mississippi State's crazed fan base will only want more from Mullen, who is the only person to take the Bulldogs bowling three times. But those higher expectations shouldn't be a surprise when you see the talent Mullen has returning.
Not only do the Bulldogs return a stud, dual-threat quarterback in Dak Prescott, who could have a breakout season in 2014, but his top five receiving targets, including Jameon Lewis and his 923 receiving yards, are also back. Two offensive line starters, including All-American Gabe Jackson, will be gone, but the offense as a whole should be better next year with another offseason of work.
The defense loses a couple starters, but played pretty well down the stretch and could be in for a stronger 2014, just like the pressure.
And the same can be said about an Ole Miss team that will be three years into the Hugh Freeze era this fall. Despite having major depth issues the last two seasons and dealing with a handful of injuries this season, the Rebels have had back-to-back bowl trips, bowl wins and winning seasons under Freeze. Couple that with the growth and maturity of last year's stellar recruiting class, and Ole Miss also has a recipe for success in 2014.
But as linebacker Serderius Bryant told me before the Rebels' 25-17 victory over Georgia Tech in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, if Ole Miss is really going to take that next step and compete for championships, it has to make the leap in 2014. That means eight wins could be viewed as a disappointment, both inside and outside the program.
The questions about depth will still linger this fall, but it will be tough for the Rebels to fall back on that. Fans won't take lightly to many excuses in 2014, not with the 2013 class getting older and a handful of starters returning. Freeze's plan has worked to this point, and now it's time to push a little further.
To do that, the offseason has to be a true success. Quarterback Bo Wallace has to cut down his turnovers and erratic play. A running back has to step up and Laquon Treadwell has to expect even more attention from defenses. All this will be helped by a more demanding spring, summer and fall.
Both of these teams have the pieces in place to hit double digits in wins in 2014, and anything less could be looked at as a down season, which isn't a bad thing. Two programs that aren't yet at the big-kid table in the SEC are expected to at least see it this season -- maybe grab a roll. The pressure shows excitement and it also shows the growth these teams have achieved under Mullen and Freeze.
That growth means 2014 could be special, but it all starts with how both coaches approach their toughest offseasons to date.