Mississippi State to honor 1998 SEC West champion team|WC’s Prentiss, Morgans among team honorees

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 13, 2008

Josh Morgan was just a wide-eyed, walk-on freshman safety when Mississippi State strolled into the Georgia Dome for the 1998 SEC championship game. Even with his entire career ahead of him, the former Warren Central star and current Vikings assistant coach realized moments like this didn’t come along very often.

“I was very fortunate and very lucky for that to be my first season. I knew the rest of the years probably wouldn’t be like that, but I enjoyed it while I was going on,” Morgan said.

Now, a decade later, Morgan will get to enjoy another moment in Scott Field. He, along with the rest of the 1998 SEC West championship team — Mississippi State’s only division winner — will be honored at halftime of today’s game against Auburn at Scott Field.

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Although Morgan has kept up with some members of that team, such as his older brother Rob and ex-WC receiver Kevin Prentiss, others have drifted apart. The on-field ceremony will be part of a larger team reunion Josh Morgan said he was looking forward to.

“It’ll be great to see all those old players and visit with them. It’ll be a great group of guys there. We were all really close,” Josh Morgan said.

The younger Morgan didn’t play that season — he did earn All-SEC honors a couple years later — but Rob Morgan and Prentiss both played key roles on the ’98 team.

Morgan platooned with Wayne Madkin at quarterback, while Prentiss was a starting receiver and kicker returner. They helped Mississippi State win its last three games against Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss, to reach the SEC championship game against Tennessee.

Prentiss’ 83-yard punt return midway through the fourth quarter put the Bulldogs ahead 14-10 and on the brink of an upset of the eventual national champion Volunteers. Another play, also in the fourth quarter, nearly turned into the play of a lifetime.

“I had Kevin open on a deep post and I overthrew him,” Rob Morgan said. “If I’d have hit that, it might have changed the game.”

Alas, it wasn’t to be. Tee Martin threw two touchdown passes in less than 30 seconds, and Tennessee went on to win 24-14. They later beat Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl for the national title, while Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams of Texas ran all over MSU in a 38-11 Cotton Bowl triumph.

State did finish 10-2 the following season and beat Clemson in the Peach Bowl, and the three former WC players started to go their separate ways.

Josh Morgan was an All-SEC safety in 2001, before spending a couple years as an MSU graduate assistant coach. He returned to Warren Central in 2006 and is now the defensive coordinator. Rob Morgan also spent time as a graduate assistant at MSU, and is now an assistant coach at Starkville.

Prentiss, an All-SEC return specialist in 1998, played professional football in a half-dozen leagues before retiring last year. He now lives in Memphis.

They’ll all return to Starkville today to swap stories and hear one last roar from the crowd.

“The reason you play football, or anything else, is gameday. People ask if I miss it. I’m coaching in high school, so I still get some of it, but I do miss Saturday. Running through the smoke and onto the field, there’s nothing like it,” Rob Morgan said.

The current crop of Bulldogs will be facing a mighty stiff test of their own against Auburn, a team the Bulldogs beat last year 19-14, a win that started a run to the Liberty Bowl. Senior Derek Pegues can isolate the exact moment Mississippi State’s fortunes turned.

“We got a lucky bounce,” Pegues said of his 20-yard interception return for a touchdown in last season’s game. “The ball really bounced off the tight end’s pads. I had a good read on the quarterback, made a jump on the ball and was able to catch it before it hit the ground. I think it was one of the bigger plays of the season.”

And what a season. Mississippi State went 8-5, won the Liberty Bowl and replaced memories of embarrassing probation-fueled losses with a highlight reel of big plays, big wins and poignant moments in Sylvester Croom’s first winning season.

Mississippi State’s story line in the Auburn game became a recurring theme. The Bulldogs were opportunistic, disciplined and dependent on turnovers to fuel their first season with more than three wins since 2000.

A year later, it’s time to play Auburn again and Croom and his Bulldogs could sure use another big play in another big win after their stunning season-opening loss to Louisiana Tech.

Today’s SEC opener for both schools will answer many of the questions rekindled by that loss. Are the Bulldogs for real? They can prove it by beating the No. 9 Tigers.

“Looking at other teams, watching them play I feel like we’ve got enough athletes on the field that we can play with anybody in the SEC,” Pegues said. “I feel like this year, since I’ve been at Mississippi State, this is the only time we’ve really had a chance of winning the SEC. There’s a lot of teams that are on the same level.”

Many will be watching MSU try to prove which tier they belong on. The game plays on ESPN2 in prime-time, a near-capacity crowd is expected and the atmosphere will be uniquely Mississippi State.

“The cowbells, man,” AU Cornerback Jerraud Powers said. “My redshirt freshman year, we played there. It was a day game and it was a packed house. We were up 28-0 or 28-3, whatever it was, and they were still ringing those cowbells. You can’t hear nothing. It’s a tough place to play just because of the crowd noise.”