The earliest introduction to the pass-first ways of the future for college football’s premier conference came in 1997. Downtrodden Kentucky, fresh off seven seasons without a winning record, hired head coach Hal Mumme and offensive coordinator Mike Leach to install the high-flying pass attack they developed at Iowa Wesleyan and Valdosta State. In each of Mumme’s four seasons,1 Kentucky led the SEC in passing yards per game. The 1998 team still holds the single-season conference record with an average of 412.2 passing yards, and that year, Kentucky led the SEC in scoring offense for the first time since 1950. But Mumme also finished 20-26 and resigned in 2001.
Over the past two decades, the air raid offense has gained momentum in most college leagues and across the NFL. But since that first experiment, the collective SEC has largely shunned the Mumme/Leach air raid style — at least until last winter, when Mississippi State hired Leach away from Washington State. Leach went 84-43 in 10 seasons as head coach at Texas Tech and 55-47 in eight seasons at Washington State, both relatively less heralded programs, and many of his and Mumme’s former players and assistants also became air raid acolytes. But as he succeeded on college football’s periphery, the offensive revolution he and Mumme spawned largely bypassed the South. The country’s best football conference became known for stifling defense, elite NFL prospects and national championships. When the SEC came up, Leach took aim at the league’s superiority.
“I’ve got bad news for all these ‘levels’ people,” he told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger in 2017. “Your level isn’t special, your conference isn’t special. … How’s it better? Somebody coaches better athletes, somehow they morph into something smarter? That’s crazy. I mean, you still have problems, you still have 11 parts you can wiggle around to counter the other 11 parts.”
And so 2020 brought a great college football experiment, the collision of college football’s traditionalist league with one of the sport’s most radical outsiders. Leach’s first Mississippi State team was not supposed to be good, either — media members picked the Bulldogs to tie for fifth in the SEC West. But in his SEC debut, Leach shocked the college football world again. Led by graduate transfer quarterback K.J. Costello, Mississippi State passed for 623 yards and upset national champion Louisiana State, 44-34.
Leach’s air raid scheme is a shock to an SEC system often reliant on the ball-control offense. Every year since at least 2004, Leach has called pass plays on at least 69.5 percent of snaps.2 Each of the nine most pass-friendly teams in that span were Leach teams at either Texas Tech or Washington State. Meanwhile, in the same timeframe, the SEC’s most pass-happy offense was Hugh Freeze’s 2016 Mississippi team (61.8 percent pass plays). Every other Power Five conference has had multiple teams in the past 15 years call pass plays more often than 61.8 percent. There have been deviations — Kevin Sumlin, a pass-first coach, ushered Texas A&M into the SEC in 2012, and LSU was the darling of the 2019 season with its high-octane attack led by quarterback Joe Burrow — but none of them even came close to Leach’s most conservative offense in that span, in 2008 at Texas Tech (69.5 percent pass plays). Last season, Leach set a personal record: 82.6 percent of play calls were passes.
The SEC is slowly coming around to the passing game’s intrigue. Pass rates spiked in 2019 at both Alabama and LSU, and Georgia hired new offensive coordinator Todd Monken this season to open up the offense and create more explosive plays. Leach still has the league’s most diverse passing attack, and skeptics have often wondered if it would work at the highest level of college football. Nobody heard the skepticism louder than Leach, who, in his unfiltered style, mocked SEC offenses for positioning players so close together that “one hand grenade can kill everybody.”
“This is a great time to be in the SEC,” Leach said in that 2017 interview with the Clarion Ledger. “Everybody’s got the same offense: run right, run left, play-action. And they tease themselves and say we threw it four more times a game this year than we did last year.”
All along, Leach admitted back in March, he “wanted to see what was on the other side of the hill.” He almost had the chance after the 2017 season. One report said Leach’s interview for the Tennessee job “went very well,” and another indicated that then-athletic director John Currie was prepared to hire Leach but was overruled by the administration. Tennessee fired Currie the day after he met with Leach. At that point, it seemed Leach was too much of an outsider, between his extreme game strategy and his colorful press conferences.
That perception lasted until Mississippi State suffered a 6-7 season and went looking for an offensive-minded coach to reinvigorate the program. Leach’s philosophy had always helped Texas Tech and Washington State win a few more games a year than they had before he arrived. What could he do in the SEC? Saturday provided an answer, if only for an afternoon. It took Leach one game to break the league’s single-game passing record (Costello’s 623 yards). The Stanford transfer completed 36 of 60 passes and threw five touchdowns, surviving two interceptions. And while Leach faced one of the best opposing defenses of his career (even without star cornerback Derek Stingley Jr.), he also had some of the best weapons he has ever used. Three receivers eclipsed 100 yards, including Kylin Hill, an NFL prospect at running back who caught eight balls for 158 yards.
“I’ve always thought stuff translates pretty well,” Leach told Sports Illustrated in March. “Everybody says you can’t do this in this league or that in that league. But how!? Everybody starts with, ‘Well you can’t do this in the NFL or SEC because our corners are all Deion Sanders.’ Well, no, they’re not.”
Leach has a long way to go to make Saturday’s success last: He has to keep passing efficiency high at an unprecedented volume; he has to do it against defenses stocked with pro prospects; and he has to recruit at least well enough to keep Mississippi State within striking distance of the rest of the league. It’s not clear whether he can do all of that, but he’s in the perfect place to try. He wanted to see what was on the other side of the hill, and by the time he’s done in Starkville, we should all have a better idea.