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Cleveland: Magnolia State Showcasing SEC Dominance

Rebels start 2014 season 3-0 / Photo by Andy Knef
Rebels start 2014 season undefeated and 1-0 in conference play. / Photo by Andy Knef

Mississippi State’s Bulldogs are 3-0 and have outscored opponents 99-37. The Ole Miss Rebels, also 3-0, have punished opponents by a whopping 132-31 count.
And I know what many naysayers will say: “Yeah, but let’s wait and see what happens when they play somebody really good…”
We don’t have to wait long: State goes to LSU this Saturday, and Ole Miss plays Alabama at home on Oct. 4. Those are the kind of games Mississippi’s two SEC teams must win if they are to reach the SEC Championship Game, which brings me to the point of today’s offering. That is, this seems as good a year as any for either Ole Miss or State to take that step — to win the West and play for the championship. I write those words for a number of reasons, which we will get to shortly.
Chief among those reasons: Both Ole Miss and State are salty, veteran teams with experienced and talented quarterbacks. If more than half a century of watching SEC football has taught me anything, it is this: To have a fighting chance in the SEC, the Magnolia State teams must have a superb athlete at quarterback. Chances are not good our guys will be better at the majority of other positions. Splendid quarterbacking can make up for other deficiencies.
Wallace to Engram
Senior quarterback Bo Wallace completes a pass to Engram. Wallace has been near perfect since throwing three interceptions in the first half of the game against Boise State.

11573179-standardBoth Bo Wallace at Ole Miss and Dak Prescott at State can be that guy. After a terrible first half against Boise State, Wallace has been terrific. Prescott is superb and should only get better.
Secondly, the schedules favor the Bulldogs and Rebels. State and Ole Miss can’t get around facing the teams in their own division. That’s a given — and, in the West, that’s a monster. It is the toughest division in the toughest conference in college football. But both catch a huge break in their cross-over opponents. From the East, State plays Kentucky and Vandy. Ole Miss already has trounced Vandy and still must face Tennessee. Neither has to play Georgia. Or South Carolina. Or Florida.
Third, and this is as important as any: Alabama and LSU might be a little down this year. We shall see, but I don’t think either is as dominant as they have been in recent years. Both are still very good, and so is Auburn. In fact, Auburn might be the best of all, and Texas A &M is none too shabby either. Arkansas is showing signs of life. But nobody in the West looks to be as dominant as Bama and LSU often are.
If you were to handicap the race, Alabama, Auburn and LSU would be the favorites with Ole Miss, State and Texas A&M in that next level of teams that could rise up and take it all.
Granted, much would have to happen. Neither Mississippi team can afford critical injuries, particularly at the quarterback position. They will have to play their best in the biggest games. And they’ll have to get a break or two, just as Auburn did against Bama last year. It’s not every day you win the biggest game of the season on a 109-yard return of a potentially game-winning field goal after one second is put back on the clock.
Something like that — or maybe several things like that — would have to happen for State or Ole Miss. The thing is, it’s possible this season. They are good enough to be in the championship conversation. The Egg Bowl on Nov. 29 in Oxford could be for more than just bragging rights.
images-1Rick Cleveland rcleveland@clarionledger.com is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

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