Mississippi State quarterback K.J. Costello threw for 623 yards at LSU on Saturday. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Eager Mississippi football fans had waited months for the coaching debuts of Mike Leach at Mississippi State and Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss.

And while both famous coaches had their moments Saturday, the day belonged to Leach, his new quarterback K.J. Costello and the Mississippi State Bulldogs. All they did was set school and Southeastern Conference passing records en route to a 44-34 victory over defending national champion LSU at Baton Rouge.

“Better than average,” Leach deadpanned, and Leach is most assuredly the master of deadpans.

With Costello throwing an array of lovely passes for a stunning 623 yards, State defeated the nation’s sixth-ranked team and is certain to rise high up into college football’s Top 25. The Southeastern Conference is in its 87th season of football, and it took Leach’s Air Raid offense just one game to set the league’s single game passing record.

Earlier in the day, Ole Miss put up a whopping 617 yards of total offense against fifth-ranked Florida, but the Rebels were virtually defense-less against the Gators and wound up on the short end of a 51-35 decision. Kiffin’s imaginative Ole Miss offense will score lots and lots of points this season, but the Rebel defense must improve dramatically for all those yards and points to translate into many victories.

Rick Cleveland

Let’s put it this way: The over/under betting number for the Egg Bowl might be 90, maybe more.

I’ll just go ahead and throw this out there: Florida is a lot better football team than LSU presently. I don’t care who you are, you don’t lose 14 NFL draft picks, including five first rounders, the Heisman Trophy winner, your defensive coordinator, five other players who signed free agent contracts, your passing game coach — you don’t lose all that and just keep on keeping on.

LSU was also missing its best cover cornerback, All American Derek Stingley, Jr., who was ill. That would hurt you against anybody, but against Leach and Costello and the Air Raid offense, Stingley was especially missed. The Tigers stubbornly continued to play press man-to-man coverage against the Bulldogs and Costello picked it apart. Receivers were open and Costello, both accurate and resourceful, hit them in stride.

That said, the biggest difference between Mississippi State and Ole Miss Saturday was on the defensive side of the ball. There, Leach has inherited more SEC-caliber players than Kiffin, especially in the front seven.

State limited LSU’s normally strong running game to 2.1 yards per rush. The Bulldogs sacked Tiger quarterback Myles Brennen seven times.

Meanwhile, at Oxford, Ole Miss often looked defense-less. Florida threw for 442 yards and ran for nearly 200. The Gators averaged nearly nine yards per play. “Video game numbers,” Kiffin called the Gators offensive stats, and they were.

But this wasn’t a lack of defensive scheming. This wasn’t coaching. This wasn’t Xs and Os. It was, as they say, Jimmys and Joes. Seems like we’ve been writing this for years now, but Ole Miss simply has to get better, bigger and faster on that side of the ball.

Offensively, the Rebels are fun. They have many, many weapons, including wide receiver Elijah Moore, who caught 10 passes for a whopping 227 yards. Those are video game numbers, too. Quarterback Matt Corral threw for 395 yards. Running back Jerrion Ealy produced 161 yards running, receiving and kick returning. Receiver Dontario Drummond threw one pass for 45 yards and caught two more for 60 yards. Transfer tight end Kenny Yeboah is still another weapon.

But again, the first big day in this weird football season belonged to Mississippi State. Think about all the factors: New coach, new quarterback, new offense, new defensive coordinator, no spring training, first game on the road against the defending national champion in a national network broadcast.

Yes, and every time those CBS cameras focused on Leach along the Mississippi State sideline, he seemed to be taking it in as if he were picking out produce at the market.

“Better than average,” he would later say.

Well, yeah.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.