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Opinions on State’s Hire of Lebby, on Kiffin, on USM Keeping Hall, and the Conerly Trophy

By Rick Cleveland

Mississippi Today

So much happening in Mississippi sports and so much upon which to comment. Here goes:

Rick Cleveland

Mississippi State hired Oklahoma offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby as its head coach.

No big surprise here, at least not on this end. Lebby’s name came to mind immediately two weeks ago when Zach Arnett was dismissed. Why? Number one, given this year’s struggles, you had to figure State would go offense, and Lebby’s track record as an offensive coordinator is most impressive.

Secondly, Zac Selmon, the man doing the hiring, came to State from Oklahoma so there was a relationship there. And, thirdly, the best coaching hire State has made in recent history was surely Dan Mullen, a successful offensive coordinator at the time of his hiring.

Lebby, a 39-year-old native Texan, strikes me as a solid hire who could well turn out to be splendid head coach.That said, he faces a massive roster overhaul, not to mention a 2024 schedule that will include these eight SEC games: Georgia, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Texas.

True, with the portal and NIL, you can overhaul a college football roster more quickly than ever before. But keep in mind, where the NIL is concerned, State will be bidding for talent against many of the same schools listed in that previous paragraph, not to mention Alabama, Auburn, Oklahoma and others. 

Put it this way: Nick Saban — or Knute Rockne, or Bear Bryant, or Steve Spurrier — would have a difficult time dealing with what Lebby must deal with in the coming months and years.

Ole Miss finished 10-2, Lane Kiffin’s second 10-victory season in three years and his fourth double-digit win season in his last seven years as a head coach.

Kiffin is now 33-15 overall and 20-13 in the SEC at Ole Miss. No Rebel coach since John Vaught has been so successful.

And yet the Rebels, losers to only Alabama and Georgia this season, are ranked behind Missouri, also 10-2, in the College Football Playoff rankings and therefore the bowls’ pecking order. Can someone please explain? I cannot. 

Yes, Missouri played Georgia a lot closer than Ole Miss. But the better comparison is this: Both Missouri and Ole Miss both played home games against LSU. LSU beat Missouri 49-39 Ole Miss beat LSU 55-49. Non-conference? Ole Miss’s 10-2 record also includes a 37-20 road victory at Tulane, the Green Wave’s only defeat. On the same Saturday Ole Miss was handing Tulane its only loss in its last 16 games, Missouri was winning 23-19 against Middle Tennessee State, which finished 4-8. Missouri has not beaten a Top 25 team, while Ole Miss is 10-2 against a schedule that is among the nation’s most difficult.

Just don’t see how Missouri rates ahead of Ole Miss, who might be relegated to a non-New Years Six bowl because of it.

Southern Miss finished 3-9, and Will Hall kept his job but dismissed three assistant coaches.

I’d have kept Hall, too, and I’ll tell you why. Southern Miss played its best football the last month of the season after losing seven straight games. Much like his first USM team in 2021, Hall’s Golden Eagles continued to play hard in the face of extreme adversity. Too, he appears to have recruited well if he can hold the current class together.

Patience has been rewarded before at USM. Bobby Collins was 2-9 in his second season in Hattiesburg. Two of Jeff Bower’s first three Golden Eagles teams had losing records. And it has become increasingly apparent in recent years that Bower deserves a statue in the USM football complex.

Back to Hall: USM’s biggest of several issues in his three years has been the lack of competent quarterback play. True freshman Ethan Crawford showed some promise late this season and incoming freshman John White (Madison Ridgeland Academy) is as accurate a high school passer as these eyes have seen. They would appear to be USM’s — and Hall’s — future.

Delta State’s dream season – and Patrick Shegog’s brilliant Statesmen career – ended with a playoff loss to Valdosta State.

Valdosta scored the game’s last 10 points in the last three minutes for a 38-31 victory and avenged an earlier 49-25 home loss to Delta State.

The Division II playoffs lend much credence to the old adage that it’s really difficult to beat a really good team twice in the same season. In the first round, Delta State avenged its only regular season loss to West Florida. In the second round, the Statesmen were defeated at home by a team they beat soundly on the road back in October. Still, Todd Cooley’s Statesmen has won back to back Gulf South Conference championships, no small feat.

Quinshon Judkins or Shegog?

The C Spire Conerly Trophy will be awarded Tuesday night at Country Club of Jackson, and it appears a two-horse race. Ole Miss running back Quinshon Judkins, last year’s winner as a freshman, and Shegog, the former South Panola star, are far and away the leading candidates. Judkins rushed for 1,054 yards and 15 touchdowns as a sophomore after rushing for 1,567 yards and 16 TDs last year. Shegog accounted for 41 touchdowns — 32 passing and nine rushing — this season. The most eye-popping Shegog stat: 32 passing touchdowns vs. two interceptions.

No doubt, Judkins has far more professional football potential. Indeed, his punishing running style reminds this writer so much of the great Walter Payton. But this award is not about pro football potential as the note that accompanied the ballots states: “You should choose the nominees who have made the most impact for their team during the 2023 season. Do not take into consideration their NFL prospects, only their collegiate play for the 2023 complete regular season.”

Regardless, either Shegog or Judkins would be a worthy Conerly winner.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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