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Cleveland On the Landscape of College Football in Mississippi

It’s early October in Mississippi. Are those basketballs we hear bouncing in the background?

Let’s face it, our football fortunes have taken a hit – well, several hits.

Just this past Saturday, Ole Miss got steamrolled by LSU and former coach Ed Orgeron; Mississippi State was stoned at home by Florida and former coach Dan Mullen; Southern Miss had a chance for glory at Auburn but couldn’t get it done; Jackson State, at home, squandered a 16-point lead against Alabama A & M; normally successful Delta State lost for the fifth time in five outings; Mississippi College scored 42 against Valdosta State but got beat by 21 at home; and even previously undefeated Millsaps was defeated by arch-rival Rhodes on a last-second field goal. Ouch! Ouch! Several times, ouch!

Bright spots? Well, Alcorn State moved to 3-0 in the SWAC with a convincing win over Southern; Belhaven got its first victory of the season; and Mississippi Valley State, 0-4 and losers by an average of 45 points per game, was purely blessed with an open date. You can’t lose to Open Date.

To summarize, it ain’t over till it’s over—and we have just moved into October— but Team Mississippi is mostly behind the eight-ball.

Let’s first assess the outlook of the three Division I FBS teams:

Mississippi State: As recently as two weeks ago, Joe Moorhead’s first Bulldogs team was undefeated and ranked No. 16 in the land. Then came a road trip to surprising Kentucky and a 28-7 blowout loss, and then a bitterly disappointing 13-6 defeat to Mullen’s Gators Saturday night. Now, the Dogs are 3-2 overall, 0-2 in the SEC, and looking for answers that won’t be easily found. Up next: Auburn, at home, and a chance to knock off a beat-able Top 10 team.

The Auburn game has become a must-win for State, which will have a badly needed open date next, followed by a road game at LSU. Given the performance of the last two weeks, there are no sure things left on the schedule. Defensively, the Bulldogs remain salty. Offensively, well, one touchdown in two games pretty much sums it up. State needs to run the ball more consistently and must have some receivers step up – all while playing in the most difficult division in the most difficult conference in college football. It’s that simple, that difficult.

Ole Miss: Someone asked me last week: Have you ever seen a worse SEC defense? Answer: There were some pretty bad ones at Vandy back in the day, but this Ole Miss defense has been truly abysmal. The Rebels are giving up 39 points and 518 yards per game. Opposing offenses are ripping through the Ole Miss “D” with almost comical ease.

For all the Rebels’ offensive firepower – and it remains considerable – there’s no way to win when you can’t slow down the opponent. The Rebels are allowing six yards per play.

The Rebels play Louisiana-Monroe at home this week. Sadly, that is no gimme. Then, there’s Arkansas – improving, seemingly, each week – on the road. Other than Monroe, it’s not clear the Rebels will be solidly favored, if at all, in any remaining games unless they fix the defense. And I’m not sure there’s any way to fix the defense other than through recruiting.

Southern Miss: The Golden Eagles, 2-2, might have played their best game to date, losing 24-13 to No. 10 Auburn at Auburn last Saturday. But for a disappointing home loss to Louisiana-Monroe, they would be on schedule. They are 1-0 in Conference USA with an open date ahead. In other words, there’s still much they can accomplish. USM can play defense. Transfer quarterback Jack Abraham has proven to be a steady hand, an extremely accurate passer.

What the Eagles must do to be successful is run the ball much more efficiently. They are averaging only 3.4 yards per run play – and that won’t get it.

After the open date, USM plays by far the most important game of the season to date: at North Texas. The Mean Green was 4-0 and unchallenged – including a 44-17 roasting of Arkansas at Fayetteville – before a 29-27 loss at Louisiana Tech last Saturday night. North Texas plays at Texas-El Paso this Saturday. There’s not a game left on the schedule USM can’t win. Conversely, there’s not a game left the Eagles can’t lose – and they could lose several if they don’t block and run the ball better.

Contact syndicated columnist Rick Cleveland at rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

Adam Brown
Adam Brown
Sports Editor

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