Who wants to have the better 2015?
That’s the essential question facing Mississippi State and Ole Miss, as the two teams who, at one time, had playoff aspirations must now must turn their attention to bowls that neither saw coming. They’re not bad bowls, mind you, but they’re not where they’d hoped to be only a few weeks ago.
So better to think of New Years Eve as the beginning of another push toward the playoff, rather than the last leg of a 2014 campaign that left both camps wanting.
“Guys get a feel for the future,” said Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen of the extra practices bowl games allow. “There are guys [who] were kind of in redshirt-mode this year or backup mode where they’re not involved. This is kind of a reminder, when I pull out the seniors and call up the first and second-team defense, offense or special teams, those guys are now in that rotation.”
And there are a lot of those seniors to be replaced, as many as 15 in the two-deep depth chart. There’s also the possibility that linebacker Benardrick McKinney and running back Josh Robinson turn pro a year early.
Said Mullen, “It’s a huge wake-up call for those guys in the sense of urgency they need to have in practice ... for their future.”
Mullen joked that the Bulldogs would “party like it’s 1941” -- the last time the program went to the Capital One Orange Bowl. But as exciting as the return trip to Florida and the opportunity to play Georgia Tech might be, what’s really at stake is momentum.
Last year, coming off a thrilling win over Ole Miss, Mississippi State pounded Rice in the Liberty Bowl. Dak Prescott emerged as a playmaker at quarterback, the defense began winning the line of scrimmage more frequently and that forward progress carried over into the next season when the team got off to a 9-0 start for the first time in program history.
Maybe now, coming off two losses in their past three games, a strong finish is even more vital for the Bulldogs’ hopes of moving forward.
Ole Miss, on the other hand, doesn’t need to establish momentum as much as retain it. The Rebs, who looked down in the dumps after losing to Arkansas, 30-0, turned it around on the final day of the regular season by knocking Mississippi State out of playoff contention with a 31-17 win in Oxford.
Now coach Hugh Freeze and his staff must prepare for another playoff hopeful in TCU. The Horned Frogs, feeling snubbed from the final round of four, should come out for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl with something to prove.
“It's a bit ironic [TCU coach Gary Patterson is] brining in one of the top offenses and we're bringing in a top defense,” Freeze said. “He's the guru on the defensive side I've wanted to learn from."
Ole Miss’ offense has been humming all season long, but next year’s outlook is in doubt with quarterback Bo Wallace set to graduate.
That means it’s up to freshmen Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade to make a push during bowl prep. If they don’t use those practices to make an impression, Freeze could look outside the program to find his QB of 2015.
Meanwhile, coordinator Dave Womack should already be looking to retool the Landshark defense for next season when Serderius Bryant, DT Shackelford, Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt will have all moved on.
Given the way Feeze and his staff have recruited the past few years, there’s plenty on talent on campus to reload on. But until we see it in action, as we might against TCU, how good Ole Miss’ defense will be in 2015 is unknown.
While it’s right to want to finish the 2014 season, what lies ahead is more important than the final score.
The Orange and Peach Bowls should be fun, but for two teams in Mississippi State and Ole Miss that have come within earshot of the playoff, it’s about gearing up for the next run.