Mike Leach puts SEC on notice as Mississippi State’s K.J. Costello shatters league passing record

When Georgia’s Eric Zeier set an SEC record in 1993 by throwing for 544 yards in a game, K.J. Costello was not alive and Mike Leach was a young offensive coordinator at Valdosta State. In the 27 years since, Zeier’s record went untouched as the SEC rose to national dominance by priding itself on defense and toughness.

The stranglehold that defense held on the league began to loosen a bit in the late 1990s and early 2000s thanks to the likes of Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer at Florida. In recent seasons, Alabama’s adoption of the spread and LSU’s record-shattering offense behind coordinator Joe Brady and quarterback Joe Burrow accelerated the trend.

But on Saturday, it became undeniably clear that a new day has dawned in one of college football‘s vanguard leagues as Leach’s Mississippi State Bulldogs took down No. 6 LSU by taking what the Tigers did a season ago to an extreme previously unseen in the SEC.

Costello, a transfer from Stanford, shattered Zeier’s 1993 record by throwing for 623 yards and five touchdowns as the Bulldogs torched the Tigers, 44-34 in Tiger Stadium. He completed 36 of 60 passes, and Mississippi State handed the ball to a running back on just 10 occasions.

Zeier’s SEC record for passing yards in a game stood through the tenures of Peyton Manning, Danny Wuerffel, Matthew Stafford, Tim Tebow, Aaron Murray, Cam Newton, Dak Prescott and even Burrow, just to name a few of the great SEC quarterbacks that have played since 1993. But all it took was one game with Leach as a coach in the SEC for the record to fall.

When Zeier threw for 544 yards in a game back in 1993, he did it against a Southern Miss team that finished 2-8. Costello did it against the defending national champions. It wasn’t until Mississippi State’s seventh game last year that it had a quarterback surpass 600 yards passing for the season. It took Costello just 3.5 quarters on Saturday.

The fact that Mississippi State accomplished such a feat at all was impressive. But the Bulldogs doing it in the first game of Leach’s regime is stunning. There were no spring practices for MSU to begin perfecting Leach’s system, and Costello only arrived a few months ago, as he explained to CBS Sports’ Jamie Erdahl in an emotional postgame interview. 

This game was supposed to be the first look at the defending national champions with Leach and the air raid system providing a side dish of entertainment. Instead, it may have been a look at the future of SEC football.

A year after Burrow set an NCAA record with 60 touchdown passes, it looks like the only thing that will stop Costello from breaking Burrow’s mark is the fact that this season will be truncated due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Take note, too, that Costello wasn’t the only SEC quarterback to post absurd numbers Saturday. Florida’s Kyle Trask threw for six touchdowns against Ole Miss. Unfortunately, Mississippi State and Florida are not scheduled to play this season, unless they meet in the SEC Championship Game. 

No. 5 Florida looked more than capable of winning the SEC East on Saturday, but the likelihood of Mississippi State being the team there to greet the Gators in the title game still feels slim. The SEC West is still the nation’s toughest division, and a perilous slate lies ahead for the Bulldogs.

But if Leach’s debut in the league was any indication, Mississippi State will have a real shot at making it to the league title game for the first time since 1998 at some point in his tenure. As Saturday illustrated, benchmarks that have stood for 20-plus years in the SEC are no match for the air raid.

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