(Photos from OleMissFB, HailStateFB, and SouthernMissFB on X/Twitter)
Veteran sports writer Parrish Alford takes a look at the Week 1 matchups for Southern Miss, Ole Miss and Mississippi State.
The calendar says college football in Mississippi begins Saturday, but does it really? The political answer is yes and no.
The state’s three FBS teams are all on the schedule, all with reason to be excited as is August tradition.
One of them, Southern Miss, opens with an in-state matchup. Throw out the records, right? Not exactly.
If you’re trying to gauge your team’s prospects for the season – be they Rebels, Bulldogs or Golden Eagles – you’re not going to have a fulfilling answer to that question Saturday night. All three teams open with an FCS opponent, and they won’t be going deep into the playbook. Vanilla will be the flavor of the day.
The way these games typically work is that the big boys at some point pull away and win. Sometimes it’s close for a spell, sometimes not.
Most of us have stories about talented FCS teams who have sprung an upset against a higher-division foe. I’ve covered Northeast Louisiana winning in Starkville and Jacksonville State winning in Oxford.
In 2023, the odds of that happening are less.
There’s more money in college football. Stadiums are flush with amenities, and everybody’s on TV – in some form – all the time. Coaching salaries are higher than we’ve ever seen them, and there is pressure for coaches to prove their worth. NIL and the Transfer Portal make it less likely that small teams will catch a big name on Opening Day in a rebuilding season.
Look for typical buyout blowout wins for Mississippi’s Big Three on Saturday. If one of them wins an atypical game that’s a problem. Nothing kills the August buzz quicker than exposing signs of weakness that perhaps flew under the radar in camp.
So, yes, college football in Mississippi technically starts Saturday. It starts with the joy of tailgating, the sounds of cheering and marching bands, the sounds of collisions and the groans of yet another play being reviewed.
What will be missing is the excitement of the unknown, the big plays at the big times that define the outcome, the last-drive wins, the devastation of the other guy’s kicker who refuses to be iced and splits the uprights as time expires.
A lot of what we love will be on display Saturday, and a lot of what we love will wait for at least one more week.
That being said, this column which will weekly predict the Big Three winners, lacks drama this week.
I’ll say up front that all three will win, but I’ll work in some other predictions along the way.
Alcorn State at Southern Miss
Time: 6 p.m. TV: ESPN-plus (streaming)
I like to see buyout money staying in the state. For the Big Three that means playing a SWAC team since the only FCS level teams in Mississippi are also in the SWAC.
Mississippi State is 2-0 against both Alcorn State and Jackson State. Ole Miss gets on board in 2028 against Alcorn.
Southern Miss is 9-0 against the SWAC, 3-0 against both Alcorn and Jackson State.
The USM-Alcorn series has the unique twist of Jay Hopson who coached at both schools. In fact, Hopson coached Alcorn when the Braves lost 26-20 in Hattiesburg in 2014. For the Golden Eagles that was one of those atypical FCS wins.
The Braves, 5-6 last year, were fourth in the SWAC in rushing with 175.3 yards a game. They’re poised to turn that up a notch with the return of running back Jarveon Howard (1,275 yards, 12 rush TD’s) and offensive linemen Will Ready and T.J. Yarbrough. All three are preseason first-team All-SWAC selections.
The Golden Eagles gave up 372.2 yards a game last year leaving them just outside the national top 50. They held three Sun Belt opponents to fewer than 70 rushing yards in a game.
New defensive coordinator Dan O’Brien coached the secondary last season, so while there’s change there’s also continuity.
Southern Miss will lean on their own preseason all-conference running back in Frank Gore Jr. Gore is coming off two dynamite games at the end of last season, 199 yards against Louisiana-Monroe and 329 yards against Rice in the LendingTree Bowl.
Gore finished last season with 1,328 yards and nine touchdowns.
Setting the tone with Gore early will take some pressure off Clemson transfer quarterback Billy Wiles who is making his first start for Southern Miss.
While the Golden Eagles have risen in each of Will Hall’s first two years as coach, quarterback has been the weak link. Wiles was not a dynamic high school recruit. He was a walk-on at Clemson who did enough while there to earn a scholarship. In two seasons with the Tigers, he grew. He was not a clear-cut starter in camp but survived a competition against another transfer, Holman Edwards, of Houston.
Wiles is 6-foot-3 so he can see the field. If he can make good decisions and protect the football the Southern Miss rise under Hall will continue.
Sun Belt coaches pegged the Golden Eagles fourth in the preseason poll. If Hall can get Wiles to perform don’t be surprised to see them exceed those expectations.
The expectation Saturday is for Gore to shine and Wiles to get his feet wet.
Southern Miss 31, Alcorn State 13.
Southeastern Louisiana at Mississippi State
Time: 3 p.m. TV: SEC Network
The Zach Arnett Era begins against the boys from Hammond who will make the drive up 55 before working their way over to Highway 25 and up to Davis Wade Stadium.
Both teams won nine games last year, and both return a nice collection of experienced contributors.
The Lions are in the unique position of having two quarterbacks make the preseason All-Southland Conference team. One of those is Zachary Clement, a 6-footer and a transfer from Northwestern State, another Louisiana FCS team.
Clement will start ahead of Eli Sawyer, a third-year sophomore out of Vestavia Hills near Birmingham, who threw for 1,605 yards, 11 touchdowns and one interception last year. Sawyer played in 10 games with one start. He’s the preseason all-conference second team quarterback. Clement has some wheels and can scoot which always adds another dimension to defend.
MSU linebackers Jett Johnson and Nathaniel Watson will have to cover some ground and make plays.
Southeastern coach Frank Scelfo sends his receivers on varied routes which could provide for some interesting snaps against an MSU secondary that is trying to replace NCAA pick six king Emmaneul Forbes.
MSU quarterback Will Rogers, now a senior, was prolific in the Air Raid under former coach Mike Leach. You don’t show the precision Rogers has shown the last two years without having some football smarts, so he should adjust fine to a new run-oriented offense.
At the end of the day, the Bulldogs’ returning experienced contributors have contributed at a higher level than the veterans from Hammond.
That will make a difference.
Southeastern has some talent, a good coach and knows how to win. That will keep this game close until the second quarter.
Mississippi State 42, Southeastern Louisiana 16
Mercer at Ole Miss
Time: 1 p.m. TV: SEC Network-plus (streaming)
The only August he hasn’t had it was in 2021, his second year. That was also the second year for the new and improved Matt Corral.
Even in 2020, Kiffin sandbagged before naming Corral the starter. Corral was the obvious choice to elevate the passing game, but John Rhys Plumlee’s running skills were undeniable. Plumlee had gotten hurt in camp and missed some reps, but Kiffin described Corral as pretty average in the run-up to the opener against Florida.
This week he told beat writers he still hasn’t made a decision between Jaxson Dart, the incumbent, and Oklahoma State transfer Spencer Sanders. The guess here is that Dart starts. There’s a relationship between Kiffin and Dart, and there’s a comfort level in what you know.
Dart threw 20 touchdown passes last year while passing for almost 3,000 yards and rushing for another 614 yards. At times he struggled with decision-making and ball-protection, two things that will get you yanked most places. He threw 11 interceptions.
For all the good Sanders did in Stillwater – and he was first-team All-Big 12 in 2021 – he still averaged 10 interceptions a year.
Dart will be better in his second year with Kiffin, but the presence of Sanders is a message that there’s a solid option behind him.
It was an interesting move by Sanders, with one year of eligibility remaining, to choose a school with a returning starter. Makes you think something was communicated to Sanders before he announced for Ole Miss, not a guarantee of playing time but perhaps something that got Sanders over the hump.
When all is said and done, Dart will position himself to be the starter in Week 2 when the competition level picks up considerably at Tulane, but Kiffin on Monday will leave open the idea that Sanders could start.
This week, look for the Rebels to establish the run game with Quinshon Judkins, one of the country’s best running backs.
Mercer played one of those silly-named Week Zero games last week. If the NCAA isn’t going to line up Coke Zero as a sponsor, that name needs to change. The Bears defeated North Alabama 17-7 but gave up 156 yards rushing.
Judkins won’t have a monster day because he won’t be on the field long enough before giving way for the guys behind him to break a sweat and gain some confidence. They’ll be needed in the weeks ahead.
Touchdowns will be scored by some Ole Miss players that will require fans to reach for their rosters to figure out who they just watched.
New defensive coordinator Pete Golding will have a successful debut against a team that managed just 285 total yards against UNA.
Ole Miss 49, Mercer 12
Recipe of the Week
**Oreo Ice Cream**
It’s hot, so eat it fast, but what better time for ice cream?
- 1 regular size carton of vanilla ice cream. Less than a gallon will work.
- 1 regular container of whipped topping
- 1 family size bag of Oreos
Let ice cream melt slightly. Mix with whipped topping. Crush Oreos into small pieces and mix with ice cream-whipped topping mixture. Spread into a pan and freeze.
It’s easy and as good as it sounds.