Who will be fired first, Matt Luke at Ole Miss or Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State? The always hotly contested Egg Bowl is 31 days away, and there is a chance that the outcome of the 2019 edition of that game will determine the continued employment of one of those men at his university.
Football fans at both schools are not happy with the current status of their team’s standing in the SEC, although the chorus of “Joe must go” might be ringing louder than any such chant emanating from Oxford regarding Luke.
Luke has guided Ole Miss to a 14-18 overall record with six SEC victories in 21 tries since 2017, neither of which are seducing screams of “Hotty Toddy” from Rebel supporters. Ole Miss fans still have victories over Alabama in 2014 and 2015 fresh on their minds, a feat which happened under former Head Coach Hugh Freeze. Winning nine to 10 games a year, having a legitimate shot at beating the SEC big names (like Bama and LSU), and pulling in nice recruiting classes is now the norm to many Rebels’ fans. Luke, due to his playing days at Ole Miss and growing up a Rebels’ fan, likely has as much passion for his school as anyone the university can find to walk the sidelines at Vaught Hemingway Stadium. However, passion is not the same as Peach Bowl and Sugar Bowl appearances (again, see Hugh Freeze era).
So will Luke get more time to return the program to this new level of expectation? He should because he’s still trying to dig the program out of the mud of probation and scholarship reductions levied against the Rebels by the NCAA, due to indiscretions committed by Ole Miss under Freeze’s watch.
Luke is not winning big yet, but to his credit he is starting to recruit at a higher level, and his roster is full of young players who are suddenly contributing in a significant way (e.g. John Rhys Plumlee and Jerrion Ealy). In addition Luke was smart enough during the off-season to shake up his coaching staff, which included the hiring of two former FBS head coaches, Rich Rodriguez and Mike MacIntyre, as his offensive and defensive coordinators. That move by Luke is paying dividends, as there is evidence that the Rebels are improving on both sides of the ball. That improvement is not manifest in the W-L column yet, but even an untrained football eye can see the Rebels are executing better than last year, even without the star power the roster had in 2018 (AJ Brown, DK Metcalf, Damarkus Lodge, Jordan Ta’amu, Markel Winters, CJ Moore and the entire offensive line, including Javon Patterson Greg Little). Those are some big losses to graduation and/or the NFL.
Ole Miss will finish the year with Auburn this weekend, New Mexico State, LSU and MSU in Starkville. Luke will likely go 2-2, beating NM State and winning the Egg Bowl. That would save his job. He might even slip up on Auburn or LSU and finish the last third of the season 3-1. That would put Ole Miss at 6-6 on the year, gain them a bowl bid, and be a monumental step forward for the Rebels’ program.
Moorhead has suffered some roster losses too. First, three members of his 2018 defense were selected in round one of the NFL draft this spring, plus there was a big departure of other seniors who either started or played a major number of snaps on defense last season. All of that experience is hard to replace, but then to make things worse, three projected starters to this year’s defense (linebacker Willie Gay, tackle Lee Autry and safety Marcus Murphy) have all been suspended for most of the year due to “a violation of team rules,” whatever that means. Many speculate that their suspensions are connected to the news of an academic scandal that has leaked out of Starkville over the past months. But it doesn’t end there for the Bulldogs’ defense – both starting cornerbacks have missed games recently (and one of them is out for the rest of the year) and starting defensive end Fletcher Adams is now on the injured list for the rest of the season. Needless to say, the defense is so anemic that Arkansas, winless in the SEC this year and last, is chomping at the bit to “get ‘em some!”
But enough about the defense. Moorhead was hired to take the State offense to the next level, remember? He was labeled an offensive sage, the man who saved James Franklin’s job at Penn State. MSU, under Dan Mullen, had averaged 30.6 points per game in 2017, the same year that Penn State posted 41.1 points an outing with Moorhead as their offensive coordinator. When he was named the new head coach at State, Bulldogs’ fans saw visions of 40 points a game.
The point explosion didn’t happen in Moorhead’s initial season in Starkville against SEC competition, and it’s still not happening. The Bulldogs are averaging 25.5 points per game now, but many of those points have come after State’s opponent has put the game away. Moorhead’s offense has been crippled by ineptitude, with turnovers and penalties at crucial times crushing any momentum the offense could spawn. The Bulldogs even got a delay of game penalty before the first play against Auburn! They had all week to prepare for that first play of the game and couldn’t even snap it on time. In today’s high stakes, big money college football world, that’s almost fraudulent. So should MSU pay Moorhead several million more dollars for another year of the same? If he beats Arkansas, Abilene Christian and Ole Miss, with a loss to Alabama thrown in there, to go 6-6, then let’s go with a shaky “maybe.” A loss to Arkansas or Abilene Christian is not acceptable under any circumstances. An embarrassing loss to the Rebels on Thanksgiving night is also grounds for a pink slip.
Okay, so let’s answer the question we asked in the first line of this column: Who will be fired first, Matt Luke or Joe Moorhead? It will be Moorhead, I propose, because Ole Miss will win the Egg Bowl rather handily, and that, coupled with this weekend’s loss to Arkansas, will force MSU Athletic Director John Cohen to go looking for the program’s 34th football head coach. Luke will get one more season in Oxford to prove he can keep the Rebels out of the bottom half of the SEC West.