The 2017 Mississippi State football season was a promising one that experienced a couple of major bumps in the road towards the end of the year before ending on a high note in the TaxSlayer Bowl (R.I.P. Gator Bowl).
Towards the end of the season, Mississippi State lost its starting quarterback to a horrifying leg injury, the Bulldogs lost to their dysfunctional rival in a game it was heavily favored in, and then the most successful football coach in school history packed his bags up and left just days later.
The 2017 Egg Bowl was something of a disaster and the disaster really started when MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald’s foot was turned around the wrong way.
But what if Fitz’s foot had stayed in its proper position? What would have happened if he had never been hurt in that game? What is life like if that one pivotal, monumental moment never happened?
Would Mississippi State have won this game?
In the actual game, Ole Miss, coming into the game at 5-6 with an interim coach dealing with the distractions of an NCAA investigation, was able to come out on top of Mississippi State, who entered into the contest with an 8-3 record and was looking to find a way to get to 10 wins on the year for the second time in four seasons.
Prior to the game, the Bulldogs appeared to have a considerably better team. Earlier on that year, Mississippi State dispatched of then No. 12 LSU by 30 points in Davis Wade Stadium.
With the Egg Bowl set in Starkville, this game was Mississippi State’s to lose. And, well, Mississippi State did lose.
But given that the Bulldogs were almost able to make a furious comeback and win the 2017 Egg Bowl with a freshman quarterback, there’s a very real chance that Mississippi State not only wins this game, but wins it by double digits if Fitzgerald doesn’t go down with a devastating injury.
In the actual game, Mississippi State gives Ole Miss a 24-6 lead over the Bulldogs late in the third quarter.
The fourth quarter was a bit of a different story though. Mississippi State outscored the Rebels 22-7 in the final frame of the game. The Bulldogs, led by a true freshman quarterback who was receiving his first meaningful minutes playing, got within striking distance of Ole Miss late in the game.
But unsurprisingly, sloppy play doomed the Bulldogs. MSU turned the ball over a total of five times. Despite out-gaining the Rebels 501 yards to 355 yards, the Bulldogs lost by three points.
It’d be fair to argue that this doesn’t happen if Fitzgerald had still been healthy during this game. And there’s a chance that, had Fitz been healthy and the Bulldogs actually won, other things would have been different as well.
Does Dan Mullen still leave Starkville?
Yeah, probably. This is something that probably doesn’t change if Fitzgerald hadn’t been injured.
It feels as if Mullen was on his way out, ready to leave Mississippi State regardless of the outcome of this game. If I had to guess, Mullen’s mind was made up on leaving after Mississippi State fell short against Alabama a few weeks prior to this game.
While Mullen ended up at Florida shortly after State fell to Ole Miss, it seems like he was interested in pursuing multiple jobs at the end of that year. MSU’s head coach at the time reportedly wanted to talk to John Currie, Tennessee’s athletic director at the time, about the job vacancy in Knoxville. Mullen’s interest in that opening was apparently apparent to Tennessee on Nov. 22, the day before that ugly Egg Bowl.
And even if, for some reason, Mullen had decided to stick around in Starkville for another year, it seems like it would have been incredibly unlikely that he’d have remained there beyond 2018.
After basically a decade of building MSU into a consistent winner and smashing all sorts of records along the way, there’d have been no real reason for Mullen to remain past 2018.
Had Mullen stuck around for 2018, the Bulldogs, fresh off a 9-3 regular season in 2017 (and probably a bowl win given State’s momentum), would boast one of the best defenses in the country in 2018 along with a coach who would have known how to operate an offense with Fitzgerald at quarterback.
State probably wins 10 games (or more!) in 2018, and then Mullen probably leaves at that point knowing that he’d certainly met his ceiling in Starkville. It just happens that he’d be regarded in a completely different light by MSU fans.
Does Matt Luke end up as the head coach of the Ole Miss Rebels for the next few years?
I actually think there’s a pretty solid chance that Ole Miss decides not to stick with Luke if Fitz remained healthy and the Bulldogs came out on top of Ole Miss in 2017.
The Ole Miss job was a mess at the time. Hugh Freeze resigned from the head coaching job in Oxford in July of 2017, stepping down in the midst of a personal scandal while the NCAA was investigating in Oxford.
Luke, very much an Ole Miss guy who was loyal to the Rebels and was beloved by his players, wasn’t the worst choice Ole Miss could have made at the time. But it certainly feels like the Rebels could have done better had they not been satisfied with a three-point win over a rival whose starting quarterback went down with an injury.
The Rebels probably could have landed someone along the lines of Arkansas State’s Blake Anderson or Mike Norvell, both of whom had clearly proven to be solid program builders and had teams with successful spread offenses. Anderson or Norvell may have been able to step into Oxford and find success with the Rebels whereas Luke’s teams struggled for a couple more seasons.
And speaking of coaching changes…
Who would be coaching Mississippi State right now?
Arguably the most important question that comes out of this hypothetical situation in which Fitz doesn’t get hurt is this: who is coaching the Bulldogs right now in the midst of a global pandemic (assuming preventing Fitzgerald’s leg injury doesn’t somehow have a butterfly effect that prevents COVID-19 from ever happening)?
There’s a very real chance that the disappointing debacle that was the Joe Moorhead era never plays out as it did. There’s a very real chance that Moorhead never makes his way to Mississippi State if Mullen were to make the surprising decision to stay for another season (where Moorhead ends up is another hypothetical rabbit trail we can chase down some other time).
And without Moorhead, and the way that his time in Starkville comes to a close, Mississippi State probably doesn’t end up with Mike Leach.
There’s a couple different ways this could play out, depending on if Mullen stays or leaves.
In the world where Mullen stays for another season and gets at least 10 wins in 2018 for MSU, the head coaching vacancy would be a highly coveted position. It’s possible that the Bulldogs would have attracted an up-and-coming sort of coach who succeeded at a lower level (someone like Neal Brown, Mike Norvell, Scott Satterfield, or Blake Anderson) rather than a coordinator whose only head coaching experience was at the FCS level.
In the world where Mullen still leaves in 2017 despite having Fitzgerald for the entirety of the Egg Bowl and subsequently beating Ole Miss, the Bulldogs still may have wound up with Moorhead. After all, at the time he was considered by just about everybody to be a really good candidate for the job. His offense was remarkably potent at Penn State and his tenure at Fordham was a successful one.
And if Moorhead ends up in Starkville, there’s a chance that Mississippi State still gets Leach.