Mike Leach and Lane Kiffin add plenty of intrigue to the SEC
The Magnolia State and the Egg Bowl rivalry between Mississippi State and Ole Miss hasn’t lacked for intrigue in recent years. However, the battle between the Rebels and Bulldogs got a little more intriguing this offseason. Ole Miss jettisoned Matt Luke after three years in favor of Lane Kiffin, while Mississippi State dismissed Joe Moorhead after two seasons for Mike Leach. These two teams combined for a 10-15 record last fall, but even with the coaching transition underway, both programs should be in the mix for a bowl in 2020.
To get ready for the 2020 season, Athlon Sports is discussing a handful of topics with a panel of editors and contributors. Our first roundtable for the upcoming year debates whether or not Leach or Kiffin will have a better debut in 2020.
Lane Kiffin or Mike Leach: Which Coach has a Better Debut in 2020?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
This is a close call. Both Ole Miss and Mississippi State should be in the hunt for a bowl game and are likely to be picked fifth and sixth in the SEC West this fall. For now (in the very early prediction), I'll take the Rebels under Lane Kiffin to edge the Bulldogs in the final standings. The offense has the makings of a potent group behind running back Jerrion Ealy and quarterback John Rhys Plumlee, and the top four wide receivers from 2019 (statistically speaking) return as well. The defense showed improvement last fall after a porous campaign in 2017. The line has to be retooled a bit, but six starters are back, including linebacker Lakia Henry (87 tackles). With the final tally likely to be close in the standings, Ole Miss getting Vanderbilt — arguably the SEC's worst team in 2020 — in crossover play and Mississippi State in Oxford could be a huge factor in determining which coach has a better debut. The Bulldogs have some serious firepower if running back Kylin Hill and quarterback K.J. Costello take off in Mike Leach's scheme, but the transition period might be easier in Oxford under Kiffin.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
Football in Mississippi this fall figures to be a lot more interesting and entertaining with Lane Kiffin and Mike Leach taking over the Magnolia State's two biggest programs. I like the fit for both schools but I think Kiffin has a slight edge when it comes to Year 1 over Leach. Kiffin's roster appears to be little more settled and Ole Miss has most of its key playmakers on offense coming back. Leach will be installing an entirely new offense at Mississippi State one that relies heavily on the quarterback, which will more than likely be someone who is entirely new to the SEC — Stanford graduate transfer K.J. Costello. The Rebels have farther to come based on how both of these teams fared in 2019, but I think the pieces are in place for Kiffin to finish ahead of Leach's Bulldogs in the SEC West standings, even if it's by just a game. It doesn't hurt that this year's Egg Bowl is in Oxford.
Ben Weinrib (@benweinrib)
I'm giving the edge to Mike Leach and Mississippi State for a few reasons. First, he's simply had more recent success as a head coach than Lane Kiffin. Of course, that's much easier done at Washington State than FAU, but the Cougars have appeared in the Top 25 each of the last five seasons. Additionally, the Bulldogs can expect much more consistent quarterback play with K.J. Costello than the Rebels can with John Rhys Plumlee. Finally, and potentially more crucially, Mississippi State has a much more forgiving schedule. Outside of their SEC West opponents, Ole Miss has to play ranked opponents Florida and Baylor, while Mississippi State has NC State, Kentucky, and Missouri.
Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB)
While I think Lane Kiffin has the better chance for some more sustained success at Ole Miss, Mike Leach could be ready to have the flashier debut with his new SEC program. Leach's style of play may be able to get off to a quick start with a favorable schedule that could see the Bulldogs enter their bye week without a loss, with a road trip to Alabama looming after the off week. Lane Kiffin won't have such a luxury with three straight games against Auburn, LSU, and Alabama before the second weekend of October. But sign me up for Egg Bowl week in the Magnolia State no matter how things go this season.
Nicholas Ian Allen (@NicholasIAllen)
Using my early CFB Winning Edge projections, it looks like Mississippi State has a higher likelihood of success in 2020. The Bulldogs rank No. 22 in the overall power ratings, while the Rebels come in at No. 36. State has an advantage in Roster Strength as well, and currently ranks 13th in terms of talent (adjusted for experience and career production), which is 18 spots higher than Ole Miss. Leach also has a slight advantage in the Head Coach ratings, in which he ranks No. 26 overall. Kiffin comes in at No. 34.
Based on those numbers, CFB Winning Edge has Mississippi State favored in eight games in 2020, with Ole Miss favored in five. However, there are a handful of toss-ups, including the Egg Bowl. We would currently make Mississippi State a 2.5-point favorite in Oxford, which equates to roughly a 56 percent win probability. The Rebels are also just a one-point underdog in the neutral-field season opener against Baylor. If Kiffin gets off to a fast start and leads his squad to victory in both relative coin-flip contests, seven wins are absolutely possible. Conversely, if State were to lose at Kentucky (the Bulldogs would be favored by less than half a point against UK in Lexington), a six-win season could be in store for Leach in Year 1.