We are a month into the college football season – one third of the way through. Time to grade Mississippi teams...
Seems little doubt, even this early, that Mississippi State (3-1) has the Magnolia state's best team. The Bulldogs have beaten Louisiana, Southern Miss and Kentucky and dropped a winnable home game to Kansas State. They get a solid B. They are exactly where I thought they would be at this point, but I didn't know they would be achieving much of it while playing a true freshman quarterback, Garrett Schrader, a poised and tough guy who gives State much hope for the future.
It helps Schrader – and would help any QB – to have an elite running back such as Kylan Hill who commands so much attention from opposing defenses. Hill has run for 551 yards and five touchdowns on 91 carries –an average of 6.1 yards per. His presence brings safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, which in turn opens up the passing game and some running lanes for Schrader, who has made good use of both.
Defensively, the Bulldogs are a tad better than expected. Most programs would suffer greatly when losing three first-round draft choices on one unit. While not the dominant defense of a year ago, State has remained salty, allowing 22 points and 357 yards per game. These days, with wide open, spread-the-field offenses, those numbers will get you by.
All that said, it gets a lot tougher in these next few weeks, beginning with Auburn, at Auburn, this Saturday. After that, the Bulldogs have home games with LSU, Alabama, Abilene Christian and Ole Miss and road games at Tennessee, Texas A & M and Arkansas. I've got them beating Tennessee and Arkansas on the road and Abilene Christian and Ole Miss at home. I've got them losing to Auburn, LSU and Alabama. That leaves the road game at Texas A&M, a toss-up as I see it. That would make for a finish of either 7-5 or 8-4 – a bowl game either way, but a much better one at 8-4.
Ole Miss, at 2-2, gets a C. Like State, the Rebels are right where I thought they would be, but not quite where they needed to be. Ole Miss needed to get one of those two winnable games against Memphis and Cal to make a run at six victories and a bowl game. It's difficult to see a path to six victories now.
The Rebels have Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, New Mexico State and LSU at home. They've got Alabama, Missouri, Auburn and Mississippi State on the road.
Ole Miss must get four of the eight to go bowling. I see two, possibly three, victories but four seems improbable at best.
Seems now is as good a time as any to address the final seconds of the Cal game this past Saturday. No, I wasn't there, but I have seen the replay of Elijah Moore's catch from every available angle of replay and still photography. And I still can't tell for certain if the ball ever crossed the goal line. At the least, there should have been a buzz down from the replay booth and a closer look at the play. My best guess is that the call on the field would have been upheld, lacking clear video evidence.
I always have thought that in these inter-conference matchups a third conference should officiate. SEC vs. the Pac 10? Use ACC or Big 12 officials to take any appearance of partisan officiating out of it.
Regardless, Ole Miss can't look back and must look forward – to Alabama, most immediately. Questions are plentiful. Who is the Ole Miss quarterback going forward? True freshman John Rhys Plumlee looked like the best option Saturday. There may not be a choice because Matt Corral suffered a rib injury Saturday and Bryant-Denny Stadium is no place to play quarterback with bruised ribs. Also: Can Ole Miss cover anybody, much less Alabama's fleet of gazelles?
At any rate, I've got the Rebels finishing 4-8 with victories coming over Vanderbilt (no gimmee) and New Mexico State.
Southern Miss likewise gets a C. The Golden Eagles have beaten Alcorn State and Troy and have been drubbed by State and Alabama. Give them credit for a nice win at Troy in a game that easily could have gone the other way.
Considering the Eagles lost their best running back, Travinskey Mosley earlier in their opener and were missing talented receiver Quez Watkins for two of the first four, the offense has performed well. Surprisingly, the defense, a huge strength last year, has been torched. (USM needs more salty defenders such as D.Q. Thomas, the nickel back who makes plays all over the field and especially in the opponents' backfield.)
Now comes conference play and a run of eight straight league games. I've got them 6-2 in the league and 8-4 overall, although anything from 6-6 to 9-3 (with much-improved defense) is possible.
Rick Cleveland (email@example.com) is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist.