The runs by Mississippi State and Georgia Tech to a New Year's Six bowl game have seemingly come out of nowhere. Both programs' coaches were under heavy scrutiny last season. Both programs entered 2014 as afterthoughts in their respective conferences. But the Capital One Orange Bowl in Miami will provide a great opportunity for one of these teams to end the season with a signature win on Dec. 31.
So who's done more with less this season? SEC reporter Greg Ostendorf and ACC reporter Matt Fortuna debate about Dan Mullen and Paul Johnson -- both of whom won league coach of the year awards in 2014.
Ostendorf says Mullen: It's not easy to win at Mississippi State. Before this season, the program had just two 10-win seasons, and the Bulldogs have been playing football since the early 1900s. Ironically, the first time they won 10 games (1940) was the last time they played in the Orange Bowl. And now it's all come back full circle -- thanks to Mullen.
He's turned Mississippi State, a perennial doormat for other SEC teams over the years, into a legitimate contender. And to think, just last season the Bulldogs had to rally against rival Ole Miss to become bowl-eligible. If they lost that game, there's a chance Mullen might have been gone. Now he's one of the top candidates for coach of the year, and the only way he's leaving is if he takes a promotion and leaves for a bigger program.
Don't get me wrong. I like Johnson. I like that he's stuck to his offense despite the criticism over the years. But Mississippi State's offense ranks top 10 nationally in yards per game, and not one starter was ranked in the ESPN 150 recruiting rankings.
Quarterback Dak Prescott was a three-star recruit coming out of high school. Thanks to Mullen's tutelage, he was one of the SEC's best players this season. He threw for 2,996 yards and rushed for 939 yards and was tops in the conference with 37 total touchdowns.
The same goes for running back Josh Robinson, a two-star recruit in high school, and wide receiver De'Runnya Wilson, who was a better basketball prospect than he was a football prospect. The Bulldogs' roster is littered with players who weren't given a chance by other SEC programs, and now those same players are knocking off the league's top teams.
And that might be the difference between Mullen and Johnson. Georgia Tech had a great season and nearly took down Florida State in the ACC title game, but Mississippi State won 10 games playing in the SEC West, arguably the best conference in college football. The Bulldogs beat teams such as Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M when nobody gave them a chance.
Fortuna says Johnson: It's not always so easy to win at Georgia Tech, either. Just ask Johnson, who was candid last offseason in saying that the tone in the Atlanta area surrounding his program was often too negative. Sure, the Yellow Jackets are going to their 18th straight bowl game this season, but there always seems to be a ceiling with them. Heck, in a summer poll on ESPN.com, 55 percent of voters said that "something needs to change around the program." And those fans were given two other choices in the poll, not just one.
Moreover, Johnson lost more than a dozen non-senior players this offseason for a variety of reasons. That, coupled with no wins over rival Georgia since a victory in Johnson's 2008 debut, made for a cloud of uncertainty around Georgia Tech entering 2014. The Jackets were picked to finish fifth in the Coastal Division in the preseason ACC media poll.
Instead, Johnson gave his critics one more shove to the side, earning a four-year contract extension in the process.
Mullen may not have had an ESPN 150 recruit on his offense, but he has company: Johnson did not, either. (Nor did he on defense.) All the Jackets did was finish second nationally in rushing (333.62 yards per game), a further testament to Johnson's system -- regardless of the recruiting obstacles, academic or otherwise, that may hamstring him in the crowded, fertile Atlanta area.
He brushed off the sudden departure of starting quarterback Vad Lee, who would've been the only ESPN 150 recruit on this roster, and helped turn a redshirt sophomore, Justin Thomas, into one of the most efficient signal-callers in the country. He overcame stretches without go-to backs such as Zach Laskey and Charles Perkins. His defense overcame its flaws by making big plays, forcing 27 turnovers, which was tied for 16th nationally.
As good as some of those wins by Mississippi State looked at the time, they dimmed considerably once everyone's body of work was complete: Auburn finished ranked 19th, LSU 23rd and Texas A&M unranked. Georgia Tech closed the season by beating No. 17 Clemson and by winning at No. 13 Georgia. Reigning national champion Florida State had to play arguably its most complete game of the season to finally fend off the Jackets in the ACC title game. And the Seminoles won by just two points.
Mississippi State, of course, was last seen losing to rival Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl, an indignity that, in the eyes of some, will cast this otherwise remarkable campaign in an entirely different light.
With both overachieving teams entering this finale off a loss, perhaps we will get a definitive answer to this question between the Bulldogs and Jackets when the dust settles on the Sun Life Stadium field, right around the time the ball drops to close 2014.