Rick Cleveland

Mississippi football needs wins like the state needs rain

Southern Miss running back George Payne gets a first down as Marshall's Blake Keller defends, Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016, at M. M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg.
Southern Miss running back George Payne gets a first down as Marshall's Blake Keller defends, Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016, at M. M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg. ttisbell@sunherald.com File

What to make of this Mississippi college football season? And I know what many fans, especially those of Ole Miss and Mississippi State, would answer: “Trash it. Let's start over and do it again.”

Can't do that.

Here we are, entering the season's final month, and the Bulldogs and Rebels are both at 3-5, still with difficult tasks ahead. State, at 1-3 in the SEC West, is tied for fifth with Arkansas. Ole Miss, at 1-4, is seventh, all alone. It is a seven-team division.

Southern Miss, at 5-3, stands at second place currently in the Conference USA West, a half game behind high-scoring Louisiana Tech and still controls its own destiny.

Now seems a good time for an assessment: where we are and where we are headed as the calendar enters November. Overall, Mississippi teams need victories like the Magnolia State needs rain.

Ole Miss (3-5, 1-4)

Offensively, the Rebels have been good enough to win them all. The problem has been when the opponent has the football and Ole Miss can't stop them. First thing's first: It's not scheme. Dave Wommack, the veteran defensive coordinator, knows how to coach defense. He knows how to get his players to play hard.

It is a matter of talent. The Rebels are caught short on that side of the ball — up front, in the secondary and especially at linebacker. That has been exacerbated by a most unkind schedule, one that opened with Florida State and also had Alabama early. That's two of the nation's best five or six teams. The Rebels were competitive but not quite good enough.

They were salty enough to put 43 points up against Alabama's killer defense, good enough to absolutely demolish Georgia, something nobody else has done. But Alabama scored 48 and nearly everyone else has scored a lot.

Remaining: 4-4 Georgia Southern, at 7-1 Texas A & M, at 4-4 Vanderbilt and 3-5 Mississippi State. The goal is to win all four; three wins earns a bowl bid. Obviously, that's do-able. Just as obviously, it's far from a done deal.

My guess: 6-6 and the Liberty Bowl.

Mississippi State (3-5, 1-3)

This time two years ago, the Bulldogs were ranked No. 1 in the nation. Now, they are 3-5 with a virtual murderer's row (Texas A & M, Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss) still to play. They have to win three of those four to get to a bowl. Folks, there are 128 teams in the NCAA's FBS division. Precious few could beat three of those four.

Only one team, Auburn, has shredded State. The Dogs easily could have won every other game. The haunting opening loss to South Alabama was by one, LSU by three, BYU in overtime, Kentucky on a last-second field goal. The 3-5 could be 5-3 or even 6-2. But it's not.

In more ways than one, we are learning just how good Dak Prescott was. That said, how much different would things look if the Bulldogs were to knock off A &M this Saturday? It could happen, you know. Stranger things happen every week in college football.

Still, a bowl game seems a remote possibility.

My guess: 4-8.

Southern Miss (5-3, 3-1)

Jay Hopson's first season can still be highly successful. The Golden Eagles are about where most would have picked them with the 5-3 overall mark. How they have gotten there is not what hardly anyone expected. The 55-32 drubbing at Texas-San Antonio sticks out like a deformed thumb.

On the flip side, the opening game, come-from-behind victory over Kentucky looks better and better as the season goes along and the Wildcats keep winning games.

The Eagles' four remaining games: Charlotte, at Old Dominion, at North Texas, Louisiana Tech. Run the table and USM will play in the Conference USA championship game. That's possible, but currently Tech looks like the class of the league.

Senior quarterback Nick Mullen has had a good season, despite new receivers and a painful thumb injury. Running back Ito Smith and defensive lineman Dylan Bradley are two of college football's most unsung standouts – difference makers.

USM just needs more consistency across the board. The Eagles need to get on a roll, as they did late last year when they won their last six in the regular season.

My guess: 8-4 and New Orleans Bowl.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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