-Andy O’Brien, Assistant Editor
It was a warm September night in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Over 100,000 people squeezed into Death Valley, eager to raucously support the LSU Tigers in their quest to shatter the aspirations of the unbeaten, but untested, Mississippi State Bulldogs. The Tigers were favored by Las Vegas to win by a touchdown. The Bulldogs were favored by Starkvegas.
Dak Prescott and the Dogs jumped out to a 17-0 lead before cruising to victory.
Two hundred miles away at Provost Umphrey Stadium in Beaumont, Texas, another Mississippi football squad was making a statement.
A year earlier, Mississippi College was a 4-6 Division III team, outscored by opponents 386-288. That September night in 2014, the Choctaws took on the Division I Lamar University.
In September 2013, the NCAA approved the 5,000 student Baptist college to return to Division II. Much had changed since then.
On December 26, John Bland was announced as the next head football coach. Bland had just led the University of the Cumberlands to a 13-1 campaign that culminated in a NAIA national championship appearance. In eight seasons at his previous school, Bland’s teams went 70-21.
At Mississippi College, Bland hopes to find similar success. His first objective for the Choctaws is to develop an identity, “an identity of a good football team, a tough team.”
Unfortunately, the timetable of Bland’s hiring meant that he and his staff would not have much time to secure recruits. And unlike their GSC peers, the Choctaws weren’t allowed to hold spring practices, an especially crippling blow due to the unique nature of Bland’s spread-option offense that takes time to learn.
The season began with a 32-14 loss to Belhaven. The following week, North Alabama welcomed MC to the Gulf South Conference (the “SEC of Division II”) with a crushing 58-0 defeat.
But on September 20, the Choctaws showed a glimpse of what the John Bland era will bring. C.J. O’Quinn began the first Choctaw possession with a 39-yard kickoff return. Freshman quarterback Kyle Smith added on, marching down the field in his first start for MC. The Choctaw drive stalled in the red zone, and Coach Bland found himself at fourth down, two yards shy of the first and nine yards from scoring.
He went for it.
Chris Ingram gained four yards, securing a fresh set of attempts. On first down, MC lost seven yards, taking them back to the 12.
On second, Smith found an edge and scurried a dozen yards to the end zone, tying the game 7-7.
The score may not sound impressive. But the Choctaws were predominantly made up of DIII recruits going up against the DI, Texas-bred Lamar team.
This offseason, the Bland regime had time to make connections and recruit. Since returning to Division II, the program is able to give athletic scholarships. The increased prestige of DII and the Gulf South Conference also is credited with helping recruit. “I think Mississippi College sells itself,” Bland observed.
The biggest signing was former Ole Miss “quarterback of the future” Raymond Cotton. Despite only having a single year of eligibility remaining, Cotton brings big-time experience to the team.
“He’s very talented. Big, fast, strong, he can throw the ball really hard and he has confidence,” said Bland. “We’re expecting big things from Raymond.”
The recruiting class, as a whole, is bigger, faster, stronger and more talented than MC has had in years.
“I think they’ll not only be the foundation,” said Bland, again casting his vision of the winning program that he intends to build, “but I think we’ll see success with them.”
Not to say Bland is blind to his team’s shortcomings.
“We need to block better, run the ball better, catch better, run better routes, everybody needs to improve.” Fortunately, at this point in the transition to DII, the Choctaws are allowed to hold spring practices.
Next year, MC has another challenging schedule, including a week two trip to North Alabama. Choctaw fans will get the chance to see the team respond to Jackson’s Belhaven at home on September 19. The most-anticipated game of the season, and the continued return to Division II, will come on November 14, when MC will play host to long-time, short-drive rival Delta State in the season finale.
The GSC lineup features four playoff teams from a year ago. In the words of Bland, “this ain’t a bunch of buttercups.”
That September night in 2014, two Mississippi football teams defied expectations and made a statement. A new era of tenacity has begun that doesn’t accept defeat as an option, even if it is expected.
The Choctaws went on to lose that night, but for a moment, Bland’s vision showed through. “Each team has a different way, but what matters is if they can all buy in to that one way,” said Bland. “We gotta find a way pull them all together and do it our way. That’s what we’re going through this spring.”
Armed with talented recruits who have been unified, taught and sharpened in spring practice, Bland is more confident entering 2015. “We’re hoping to win every Saturday, we know we’ll be able to compete every Saturday and have a chance to win.”
Soon after his hiring, Bland said “We are excited to begin this new era in Mississippi College football.”
So are we.