Sports Columnist

Grades change for teams

Back in September, I gave Mississippi State a solid B, even writing the following sentence: “Seems little doubt, even this early, that Mississippi State (3-1) has the Magnolia State’s best team.”

As the zebras say Saturday after Saturday: “Upon further review...”

Since that column, State has lost by 33 to Auburn, by 10 to Tennessee and by 23 to LSU. The Bulldogs have regressed. That solid B has dropped to a low C, and the Bulldogs no longer seem a sure bet to get to six victories and a bowl game. Some fans – short for fanatics, we should always remember – have openly speculated about a coaching change.

The Bulldogs have five games remaining – at Texas A&M, at Arkansas, and three home games with Alabama, Abilene Christian and Ole Miss in that order. Currently, I’d make the Bulldogs underdogs against A&M, and Alabama, favorites over Abilene Christian and “pick it” against Arkansas and Ole Miss.

Three weeks ago, one month into the college football season, your dutiful Mississippi college football observer graded Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Southern Miss.

Since then, the weather – and the grades – have changed.

That’s what happens in football, a sport in which the oblong ball takes funny bounces, key players get hurt, young players grow up, some teams get better and others regress.

What has happened? Clearly, the competition has become stiffer. Three weeks ago, star running back Kylin Hill at Mississippi State had run for 551 yards, a 6.1 per carry average and five touchdowns. In the three games since, he has run for 92 yards and has not scored a touchdown. His average per carry has dropped to 4.8. Hill hasn’t forgotten how to run. Lately, there just hasn’t been any space to run.

We knew all along that the Bulldogs’ defense would not be as salty in 2019 after losing three NFL first-round draft choices. The step up in competition has exposed the talent and experience gap. The Bulldogs seemingly played harder against LSU – than against Auburn or Tennessee – but need to take a bigger step forward Saturday at College Station.

•••

Three weeks ago, Ole Miss was 2-2 and received a C from this grader. I wrote that the Rebels needed to win four of their final eight to qualify for a bowl and that it was hard to see a path to those four victories. Now, the Rebels are 3-5. It’s still difficult to see that path to six victories, but while their rival Bulldogs have regressed, the Rebels have improved. Young players such as quarterback John Rhys Plumlee and running backs Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner have given Ole Miss some hope for the future – and for the present.

No longer is State clearly the best team in Mississippi. Right now, I’d make State the slightest of favorites in the Egg Bowl, mostly because it will be played in Starkville. Otherwise, it’s a toss-up.

Ole Miss has a week to mend some injuries before finishing up with Auburn (on the road), New Mexico State (at home), LSU (at home) and State (at Starkville).

It is not difficult to see an Egg Bowl scenario in which 4-7 Ole Miss is facing 5-6 State with the Bulldogs needing a victory to go bowling. Ole Miss still gets a C, but it’s a higher C.

•••

Southern Miss was 2-2 three weeks ago and received a C. I predicted they’d win six of their final eight to finish 8-4. Now, the Golden Eagles are 4-3 after last Saturday’s crucial loss to Louisiana Tech.

USM lost starting running back Travinskey Mosley early and then lost his worthy replacement, converted wide receiver De’Michael Harris, early in the Tech game. Kevin Perkins, another stout back, also was dinged up against Tech. The running game went kaput.

Somebody must step up or the Eagles will have a difficult time winning at much-improved Rice Saturday. After that, the Eagles play UAB and Western Kentucky at home and Texas-San Antonio and and Florida Atlantic on the road. All are win-able. All are lose-able. USM heads into the home stretch with a solid C. They could run the table. They could fall flat. For now, they still get a C.

Email syndicated columnist Rick Cleveland at rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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