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Did Dan Mullen Really Win an Instate Recruiting Battle?

When I got hired here, I wanted to make a statement by recruiting the state of Mississippi very hard. We went out and recruited 16 players from Mississippi this year which is more than Southern Miss and The University Of The School Up North combined.

--Dan Mullen, Signing Day Press Conference, 2/3/2010

No fewer than several dozen times during his National Signing Day press conference did Dan Mullen make mention of his desire to establish himself and his program as the premier recruiter of Mississippi high school talent.  And, if you were to ask him or any of the thousands upon thousands of enamored supporters he has somehow amassed, you would know that he is thought of as having done just that.

But did he?  If he really were to have "won" the instate recruiting battle, how exactly would one reach such a conclusion?  And is doing such necessarily a good thing?

Let's approach this as methodically as a bloggeur hopped up on caffeine and suffering from a severe case of real life procrastination can.  First, we'll determine what exactly it means to "win" the state of Mississippi in recruiting. 

Would that mean hauling in the best prospect in Mississippi?  No, and it shouldn't because such an exercise as recruiting, whose success depends on several variables, cannot be graded by one.  Furthermore, that'd mean Auburn "won" the state of Mississippi for inking the much coveted signature of the state's top prospect, Shon Coleman.

Would that mean hauling in the most prospects in Mississippi?  Also no, but don't tell that to Dan Mullen and the oafs who follow him, because that is exactly what their criterion for making such a claim has become.  Doing such assumes all players to have been created equal; they aren't.  Some are better than others -- much better, in fact.  We know this not only based on their star counts, their position rankings, and their listed physical attributes, but also by the types of programs who pursue particular players.  The folly of such an argument is best summed up with One Man to Beat's potato chip analogy he presented during Red Cup Radio last night (paraphrasing):

So you're sharing a bag of chips with a guy and you get all of the really good chips you want -- the big, crunchy ones with just enough seasoning -- and you're happy.  Your buddy then rifles through the bag, snags up some more big crunchy ones, and then keeps the rest of the bag, crumbs and all, to himself.

"I got more chips I win!"

"You win?  What was the competition here?  And anyway, you got shitty crumbs."

"Fuck yeah I love crumbs!"

High school athletes, just as with potato chips, are not interchangeable.  Just getting warm bodies from a particular piece of geography to sign letters of intent does not a recruiting victory make.

So then would a victory in a state's recruiting battle mean hauling the most "elite" or "blue chip" prospects?  Perhaps, if a few assumptions are made -- namely, the assumption that all of these higher-end prospects were sought after by the competing schools.  Let's look at the top-10 players in the state of Mississippi and where they signed:

  • OT Shon Coleman - Auburn
  • WR Vincent Sanders - Ole Miss
  • OT Damien Robinson - Mississippi State
  • DE Carlos Thompson - Ole Miss
  • ATH Michael Carr - Mississippi State
  • DT Carlton Martin - Ole Miss
  • TE Travis Dickson - LSU
  • DE Kaleb Eulls - Mississippi State
  • WR Robert Johnson - Mississippi State
  • HB Nick Griffin - Mississippi State

In looking at the creme de la creme, the edge is slightly Ole Miss' with only two of the top seven committing to the Bulldogs.  After that, and truly throughout the rest of the Mississippi recruiting rankings, the Bulldogs take over.  When everything was said and done, sixteen Mississippi high school prospects made plans to enroll at Mississippi State while only seven opted for Ole Miss.  After the aforementioned three, DT Bryon Bennett, TE Cordell Giles (a long-time Mississippi State commit), HB Nick Parker, and LS Will Denney round out the seven.

But what does that really mean? Are the in-state players that the Bulldogs inked better than the ones signed by the Rebels? While there's no surefire way to discern that, let's look at the matchups as best we can.

Carlos Thompson (4-star DE; #9 DE; #4 player in MS) vs. Kaleb Eulls (4-star DE; #18 DE; #8 player in MS) - Obviously, we got the better of the two defensive ends that shared Ole Miss and MSU offers. This does not suggest that we did not recruit Eulls, but it certainly does not hurt our class that he committed elsewhere. Ole Miss 1 - MSU 0.

Vincent Sanders (4-star WR; #15 WR; #2 player in MS) vs. Robert Johnson (4-star WR; #47 WR; #9 in MS) - Vincent Sanders is easily the better wideout, in terms of rankings. While the Rebels wanted Robert Johnson, Vincent Sanders was the #1 high school player on their board. Ole Miss 2 - MSU - 0

Nick Parker (3-star HB; #43 HB; #18 in MS) vs. Matthew Wells (3-star ATH; #36 ATH; #19 in MS) - Nick Parker is a tremendous halfback who played for the best high school football program in the state. Signing him was very big for us since it sets us up well for the future; it maintains the South Panola to Ole Miss pipeline. He's also a good player. Matthew Wells was a good signing for MSU as well. He should contribute on the gridiron, though we aren't likely to see as many elite prospects at Monticello as there are at South Panola. Still, it's a wash. Ole Miss 2 - MSU - 0.

Cordell Giles (3-star TE; #20 TE; #13; #17 in MS) vs. Jay Hughes(3-star ATH; NR at ATH; #24 in MS) - I'm not sure how well these player matchup, since they're quite different, but the number of players on MSU's board with Ole Miss offers is relatively small, so I didn't have a big pool from which to select this matchup. Since they can both play either side of the ball (Giles at TE or LB; Hughes at WR or CB), I thought they matched up the best. In this situation, Giles is the clear victor. He was once committed to MSU (telling us they wanted him) and ended up signing with Ole Miss at the last minute. He is ranked more highly and had better offers. I also think that most schools offered Hughes to get to Robert Johnson since they are good friends. Oh, and Jay Hughes' dad is on the State coaching staff.  C'mon.  Ole Miss 3 - MSU 0.

Will Denny (2 star LS; Unranked) vs. Damien Robinson (4-star OT; #21 OT; #3 player in state) -  Congratulations. You win the OL matchup in-state. Your best offensive line signee is better than our walk-on at long snapper, our only OL signee from the state. Need I remind you that Damien Robinson wanted an Ole Miss offer at the end of his recruitment, after having lost his offers from everyone other than MSU, USM, and Memphis, but was not given one. Yeah, the Olive Branch star is a big body, but most SEC schools backed off of his recruitment because he is hardly a polished blocker. The point has to go to the Bulldogs though, since there was a time when we wanted Robinson. Ole Miss 3 - MSU 1.

Surely you're getting the point. We could keep doing this, going player by player, but then we'd have to dismantle our argument and begin comparing their prospects to the numerous guys from out of state that we signed.

Now consider this: of the sixteen Mississippians Dan Mullen and staff signed, only five -- Matthew Wells, Jay Hughes, Robert Johnson, Kaleb Eulls, and Damien Robinson -- had Ole Miss scholarship offers. Of course, there is the aforementioned talk that Damien Robinson's offer wasn't committable, so perhaps it was really only four. Conversely, of the seven Mississippians who faxed their LOI's to Oxford, all but one, longsnapper Will Denney, had offers to play at Mississippi State.  So, aside from the obligatory Jackson private school special teams player, State was actively pursuing every Mississippian we signed.

Essentially, Mullen signed a half of a platoon's worth of players that our Rebel coaching staff did not want playing football for them. How this is somehow being spun as some sort of victory, and successfully at that, is stunning.

The question then becomes whether or not this is even a worthwhile tactic to begin with.  I, as member of the Magnolia State diaspora, am proud of our state's football heritage.  Brett Favre, Steve McNair, Archie Manning, Walter Peyton, Jerry Rice, Lance Alworth, and numerous other gridiron legends call Mississippi their home.  However, I shantlet this state pride interfere with the fairly well-proven notion that Mississippi cannot produce enough talent to compete in the SEC on a high level.  Louisiana can feed great Tiger teams as can Florida with the Gators; but a team comprised exclusively of Mississippians would be no better than eight or nine wins a season on average.  It would be a tough team, it would be a physical team, and it would be a competitive team -- but it certainly wouldn't dominate. The state is too small and rarely produces elite skill-position players, especially quarterbacks.

Remember, Mississippi has about 2.8 million people. The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex alone has double that.  The same can almost be said about the Miami metropolitan area. By opening up Ole Miss recruiting to areas beyond Mississippi, our potential pool of talent has increased by leaps and bounds. Of course we are never going to steal a highly-recruited four- or five-star player from the powerhouses within their home states, but there will be plenty of players left who can add nicely to our depth chart and contribute to our football successes. If they are out there, we should recruit them.

(I could, at this point, back that assertion up with years and years of Rivals rankings, but I won't.  If you're a Mississippian who follows Mississippi high school football and understands how that stacks up against other states, this is something you just know.  Hopefully, "trust me on this one" will suffice here.)

But, from a public relations standpoint, I cannot fault Dan Mullen for this tactic .  While not the path neither Ole Miss nor Mississippi State should take in order to both truly compete in the Southeastern Conference, one cannot deny the powerful effect this recruiting strategy has had on the Bulldog fanbase.  It gives the maroon and white faithful something to be proud of, something they can rally around, something they can "win" during the offseason despite actually having "lost".  It's brilliant, Dan.  It truly is.

Fans of The School From Which Cardinal Directions Apparently Originate, in a uniquely Ole Miss-ian provincialism, have convinced themselves that bringing in sought-after talent from points beyond Mississippi's borders is somehow an inferior process to seeking out unheralded and otherwise unnoticeable talent from within the same.

What the followers of the Clakkity City Canines have yet to realize is this: Coach Dan Mullen is just doing what it takes to not get fired.  He is telling his fans exactly what they want to hear.  He's bringing in the good ol' Mississippi folk to play hard-working, honest boy ball, right here in the Magnolia State!  He's not wasting his time going after dreadlocked punks from Florida.  Who wants them, what, with all of their naturally badass physical capabilities and tattoos?!  Down with the Rebels, he cries!  He's touting a victory-ish in a poor recruiting tactic and preparing his team to play hard in what is literally the only  football game that mattes in Starkville.  He is succeeding at both, and laughing his ass off all the way to the First Bank of Oktibbeha County.

And now, a straw man pre-rebuttal:

HA fuk u TSUN webels 41-29!!!1

[ED: rankings were used in this analysis.  Junior College players weren't counted because most of both school's JUCO signees aren't actually Mississippians.  And spare the "recruiting rankings are wishy-washy and don't really matter" lecture because they're still good indicators of several things.  And furthermore, if we're going to argue about who "won" in recruiting, what other criteria are we supposed to use?  Also, big ups to Juco for helping with the research.]