Rick Cleveland

Plenty of goals remain obtainable for Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Southern Miss

JIM LYTLE/ASSOCIATED PRESSMississippi State offensive lineman Justin Malone (70) and Elgton Jenkins (74) block for quarterback Dak Prescott (15) in last Saturday's game against Kentucky.
JIM LYTLE/ASSOCIATED PRESSMississippi State offensive lineman Justin Malone (70) and Elgton Jenkins (74) block for quarterback Dak Prescott (15) in last Saturday's game against Kentucky. AP

Nearly two months into another intriguing Mississippi college football season, here's where the Magnolia State teams stand:

Ole Miss (6-2): Just when Ole Miss lost two straight road games and so many were about to write the Rebels off, they turned Texas A&M inside-out, 23-3. Home field is a wonderful thing, especially in the SEC and especially for the Rebels who have now won 11 of their past 12 at Vaught-Hemingway.

Missing two All-American defenders, the Rebels nevertheless throttled the Aggies' high-powered offense for a critical victory that keeps the Rebels where they want to be in the Southeastern Conference Western Division race. That is, if Ole Miss wins out, Ole Miss goes to Atlanta and the SEC Championship Game for the first time ever. There's much to be said for controlling one's own destiny.

Winning out will be an all-consuming chore. The Rebels go to Auburn, have Arkansas and LSU at home and then play at Mississippi State. Keep in mind, the home team has won 10 of the last 11 Egg Bowls, which just goes back to how important home field is in college football.

"It's everything," Bo Wallace said recently. "There's just so much more energy when you play at home."

Beating State at Starkville might be more difficult than besting LSU at the Vaught. Neither will be easy, and neither will victories over Auburn and Arkansas.

Getting Laremy Tunsil back solidifies the Ole Miss offensive line. Getting Robert Nkemdiche and Tony Conner back, at some point, will make the Rebels all the better on defense.

Mississippi State (6-2): The Bulldogs and Rebels have identical overall records, but both State losses were league games. That makes State's road to Atlanta and the championship game a steep incline. It's possible; it's not likely.

However, State, back in the AP Top 25 after trouncing Kentucky 42-16, can still reach many goals, including an invite to a New Year's Day bowl game and ruining its arch-rival's season.

My question: Why is Dak Prescott not receiving more national notice for the season he's having?

He has thrown 14 touchdowns, only one interception. He has completed two-thirds of his passes for nine yards per pass. He has run for seven more touchdowns and five yards per carry. In short, he has saved his best for his last season in Starkville.

State has this weekend off, but the the rest of the Bulldogs' schedule is daunting. State plays at Missouri on a Thursday night, before coming home to face Alabama. Then, it's at Arkansas before Ole Miss goes to Starkville. Arkansas, at Fayetteville in November, is never easy. In the SEC West, in November, it's not supposed to be easy.

Southern Miss (5-3): After three seasons in college football's version of hell, the Golden Eagles are back. USM has won more games in eight weeks than they won in their three previous seasons. If they can avoid an absolute collapse, they will play in a bowl game for the first time since 2011 when they finished 12-2 and won Conference USA.

In fact, USM is still very much in this year's CUSA race, tied with Louisiana Tech at the top of the West Division. The Eagles should be favored in their next three games (UTEP at home, Rice on the road and Old Dominion at home) before they finish the regular season at Tech in a game that should decide who plays in the CUSA Championship Game.

Quarterback Nick Mullens won't blow you away with his arm strength, but he is accurate and resourceful. Interesting stat: Mullens has thrown for 21 touchdowns, precisely the number Brett Favre threw in his junior and senior seasons combined. And Mullen has four, probably five, games yet to play.

No, Mullens is no Favre, but he is an excellent quarterback and he is surrounded by weapons such as wide receiver Michael Thomas and Jalen Richard. The defense hasn't quite reached the USM Nasty Bunch status of old, but is a lot more nasty than the past three seasons. Football is fun at USM again.

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@msfame.com), is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

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