When it joined the Southeastern Conference, Texas A&M had aspirations of competing for football championships against the likes of SEC West-rivals Alabama, Auburn and LSU, but the Aggies learned you also have to take care of Ole Miss and Mississippi State.
The Aggies did that at first, winning four straight games against the Magnolia State teams, but the Rebels and Bulldogs have combined to win seven of the last 11. A&M is coming off a 24-17 victory at Ole Miss and will try for its first Mississippi-school sweep since 2013 at 11 a.m. Saturday against Mississippi State (3-4, 1-3) at Kyle Field.
A&M knows by now it won’t be easy. The Bulldogs have beaten the Aggies (4-3, 2-2) three straight times.
“They’ve had a lot of good players and really good defenses in the past few years,” A&M quarterback Kellen Mond said. “It’s just another SEC team — any team can win an any given day.”
Former A&M head coach Jackie Sherrill, who also coached Mississippi State from 1991-2003, says he’s never surprised when the Bulldogs are good.
“They have players,” Sherrill said. “Mississippi State had three first-round players off the defense of last year’s team, and A&M felt that.”
Mond felt it several times in the 28-13 loss in Starkville, Mississippi on Oct. 27, 2018, getting sacked three times. He completed 23 of 46 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown with an interception.
Mississippi State’s defense was even better in its last trip to Kyle Field, corralling a pair of quarterbacks in a 35-14 victory on Oct. 28, 2017. Mond started but completed just 8 of 26 passes for 56 yards with two interceptions. The Bulldogs also sacked Mond twice before he gave way to Nick Starkel, who threw for 133 yards and a touchdown with one interception on 8-of-15 passing.
Mississippi State’s defense remains a strength this season despite replacing eight starters from a unit that led the nation in total defense, allowing only 263.1 yards per game in 2018.
“The guys up front all played against us last year, big, heavy guys who can explode and change the line of scrimmage,” A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said. “The linebackers are very talented. [Erroll Thompson] is as good as anybody in the league. [Willie] Gay, [Leo] Lewis, those other two linebackers are very gifted. The corner, [Cameron] Dantzler, is one of the best corners we’ll play all year long. He’s long, athletic.”
Once A&M joined the SEC, it didn’t long for the Aggies to find out what Sherrill already knew about the two Mississippi football programs. The Mississippi Delta is a fertile recruiting area, and the Rebels and Bulldogs pull their share of players from there as well as from East Texas and Georgia.
“All of them are the same because they’re timber areas or agriculture areas that help produce great defensive linemen,” Sherrill said. “You look at Georgia’s running backs. Where are they coming from? They’re coming from South Georgia. From Herschel Walker to [Nick Chubb, Garrison Hearst and Willie McClendon]. And if you look at the great defensive linemen from Auburn, where are they coming from? They are coming from South Georgia.”
That homegrown talent in the Mississippi Delta has served Ole Miss and Mississippi State well. In the last seven NFL drafts, Mississippi State had 22 players selected, including a trio of first-rounders. Ole Miss had 21 players drafted, four of them first-rounders. A&M, by comparison, had 28 players drafted, including seven first-rounders.
Most give credit to 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel for A&M’s 20-6 record in its first two SEC seasons. That included two sweeps of the Magnolia State teams as Manziel had 1,733 total yards of offense and 11 touchdowns in four combined games against Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Wide receiver Mike Evans also played a big factor, and all but one of A&M’s starting offensive linemen from the 2012-13 teams were drafted into the NFL including first-rounders Luke Joeckel, Jake Matthews, Cedric Ogbuehi and German Ifedi. And the only one who wasn’t drafted, center Patrick Lewis, played in the NFL for five seasons, so the Aggies had the offensive front to handle Ole Miss and Mississippi State’s defenses.
“It’s very simple,” Sherrill said. “In this league, if you don’t have the offensive linemen and defensive linemen ... I don’t care how good the skilled people are. Now Johnny made up for a lot of it, but Johnny also had the benefit of those guys in front of him.”
Mississippi Football 101
A&M didn’t have much firsthand knowledge of the Ole Miss and Mississippi State football programs when it joined the SEC.
A&M and Ole Miss had met four times but only twice in the previous 90 years — in 1975 in College Station and in 1980 in Jackson, Mississippi. The Aggies and their fans knew a bit more about Mississippi State because Emory Bellard, A&M’s head coach from 1972-78, also coached the Bulldogs from 1979-85. And Sherrill did more than call Mississippi State home for 13 seasons — he led the Bulldogs past the Aggies in the 2000 Independence Bowl, winning 43-41 in overtime in the snow in Shreveport, Louisiana, on Dec. 31, 2000.
“Everybody had a different perception of Mississippi,” said Sherrill, who also played for Alabama and Paul “Bear” Bryant from 1962-65. “Certainly when you look at the SEC, you’re going to look at Alabama, LSU, Tennessee, Georgia, Auburn and Florida. For a period of time, those were the schools, all the way back to when I was playing in the ’60s.”
Former Ole Miss coach Johnny Vaught, a Texan who graduated from Fort Worth Polytechnic High School and played for TCU, helped change that by leading the Rebels to five SEC championships (1954, ’55, ’60, ’62 and ’63) and going 19-2-4 against Mississippi State. But Ole Miss’ rise didn’t last, and when the SEC expanded in 1991 and added South Carolina and Arkansas, the historically predominant six schools remained the key programs and controlled the conference.
When the Aggies and Missouri joined the SEC in 2012, neither of the Mississippi schools had been enjoying much success, both living in the shadow of their conference mates. Auburn won the national title in 2010 behind Cam Newton. Alabama won the 2011 national championship despite finishing second to LSU in the West. That same season Arkansas went 11-2 and finished No. 5 in the country under former coach Bobby Petrino. The Razorbacks also beat the Aggies 42-38 on Oct. 1 that year at AT&T Stadium for a third straight win in the series. Georgia, meanwhile, won the SEC East title in 2011, and South Carolina went 11-2 for the first of its three straight 11-win seasons under former coach Steve Spurrier.
A&M was jumping into a hornet’s nest of a conference, the nation’s best by what seemed like leaps and bounds, but the Magnolia State seemed like an afterthought throughout Aggieland as Aggie fans’ excitement grew over annual meetings with Alabama, LSU and the rest of the SEC royalty.
And who could blame them? While the best of the SEC was dominating college football, Mississippi State and Ole Miss quietly finished in the bottom of the SEC West in 2010 and ‘11.
“So when you jump into the SEC, you’re not concerned about the lower half of the league,” Sherrill said.
This year’s struggles by Mississippi State and A&M get back to talent and experience, Sherrill said.
“Now Mississippi State’s not in the same boat they were last year,” Sherrill said. “A&M’s not in the same boat they were last year, simply because of losing the guys to the next level.”
A&M had seven players drafted into the NFL with four more from last season's team on current NFL rosters.
“Everybody is clamoring about A&M,” Sherrill said. “But when I started analyzing A&M at the beginning of the year, my first thought was [not good].”
Sherrill studied the team’s roster and depth chart and found the simplest thing fans and media often overlook.
“Five scholarship seniors with only one as a starter was a recipe for struggles,” Sherrill said. “I said this early in the year, ‘If we go 7-5, Jimbo’s done a good job because of the schedule. If we go 8-5, he’s done an outstanding job.’”
Last year’s team beating LSU in seven overtimes and winning a bowl game to cap off a 9-4 season left “the expectations [for 2019] way out of sight,” Sherrill said.