Rick Cleveland

Mississippi’s ‘Big 3’ have big questions ahead of opener

Chad Kelly is back to lead Ole Miss for another season. Can the Rebels pick up where they left off?
Chad Kelly is back to lead Ole Miss for another season. Can the Rebels pick up where they left off? ttisbell@sunherald.com File

It is a little known fact that William Faulkner, the most famous Mississippi bard, once played quarterback for Oxford High School, a tall task for someone who stood 5 feet, 5 inches short.

This was long before face masks, and Faulkner, history tells us, suffered a broken nose. History tells us a lot more. Wrote Faulkner, ever so accurately: “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”

He was spot-on. We always should heed the past before considering the future, and that's important to keep in mind as we head into the 2016 college football season.

So let's consider the past as we look to the immediate Mississippi college football future and some overarching questions about Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Southern Miss. To wit:

How good is Ole Miss, and how will the NCAA's seemingly never-ending investigation affect the 2016 Rebels?

The Rebels have a chance to be really, really good, but they had better be at their best early. Two of the first three games are against Florida State and Alabama, who are No. 4 and No. 1 respectively in the first Associated Press college football poll.

While both FSU and Alabama likely have superior talent across the top 44, Chad Kelly gives the Rebels a huge equalizer — an experienced, proven winner at quarterback. Kelly was playing the position as well as anyone in the nation at 2015 season's end.

Kelly is why I think the Rebels can win over FSU at Orlando on a supposedly neutral field, and why Ole Miss has a good chance to defeat Alabama for a third consecutive year.

More difficult to predict is how the dark shadow of the NCAA investigation will affect the season. It now appears we will be well into 2017 before any NCAA ruling comes down. Nevertheless, we can expect more leaked stories such as last week's yahoo.com bombshell that the NCAA has widened the scope of its investigation and is interviewing players at rival schools.

Will this whole NCAA deal draw Ole Miss players closer and give them an “it's us against the world” persona or will it become a bigger distraction that in the end draws their eyes from the prize?

It could work either way and maybe both. It has before. I am reminded of when the NCAA lowered the boom on Southern Miss in 1982 prior to the Golden Eagles' late-season game with Alabama. The probation included a post-season ban so USM made Bama its own bowl game and beat Bear Bryant in his last home game. The next week, reality set in and the Eagles lost at home to Louisiana Tech.

Hugh Freeze has to keep the Rebels focused on what they can control. A master motivator, Freeze faces a difficult task. My guess: Ole Miss finishes the regular season 9-3.

How will Mississippi State fare in the year 1 AD (after Dak)?

Most prognosticators expect State to finish last or next-to-last in the West. History tells us that likely won't happen. In the Mullen Era, State nearly always has finished better than predicted. History also tells us Mullen will develop a quarterback to replace Dak Prescott. It might take some time, and we don't know whom it will be just yet.

Dak is gone, but, overall, the talent level is still relatively high. My guess: 6-6, which could get better if a quarterback develops fast.

How much drop off can we expect from Southern Miss, 9-5 last year, in the transition from Todd Monken to Jay Hopson?

Coaching changes are difficult to predict. I mean, who would have predicted USM would go from 12-2 under Larry Fedora to 0-12 under Ellis Johnson? That won't happen with Hopson, who inherits a quarterback, Nick Mullen, who is really good at this game.

So much at USM depends on the season opener Saturday night at Kentucky. The Wildcats are a touchdown favorite, but this is a win-able game for USM. Win, and the Eagles could go 10-2 or even 11-1 (LSU at Baton Rouge). USM and Kentucky have played only twice before (Kentucky winning handily both times), so there is not much history to draw on. But, believe it or not, this is not the first time for USM, with a new coach, to face Kentucky on the road in its opener. In 1949, future Hall of Fame coach Thad “Pie” Vann began his 21-year USM tenure with a 71-7 loss to Bear Bryant-coached Kentucky.

Two predictions: One, this time it won't be 71-7 or anything of the sort. Two, USM will finish 9-3 and play in the Conference USA Championship Game.

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

  Comments