CLEVELAND: With 2 games left, a look at instate teamsBy RICK CLEVELAND,
One wag's opinion on a number of subjects:
• Not to belittle Mississippi State's monumental effort in a heart-wrenching, 31-24 defeat to No. 1-ranked Alabama last Saturday night, but the Crimson Tide has some serious issues at linebacker. If not solved, Alabama will have a difficult time even making the college football playoffs.
Seems strange to type that about the Crimson Tide, which is usually so deep and so talented at the linebacker position. But State ran through holes that Alabama linebackers usually close – and close with frightening authority.
The Tide lost two linebackers in an opening victory over Florida State and then two more in a recent victory over LSU. Even talent-filthy-rich Alabama suffers when it loses four players at one position. The drop-off is noticeable.
It won't matter this week when Alabama annihilates Mercer (which has lost to Wofford, Samford and Furman, among others), but it will matter when the Tide finishes the regular season against Auburn, at Auburn, in the Nov. 25 Iron Bowl. If Bama can get past Auburn, the Tide must then play Georgia in the SEC Championship game. Back-to-back victories over Auburn and Georgia, neither at home, would be difficult with all hands on deck.
• For Ole Miss presently, I have to take a hard look at interim head coach Matt Luke as a realistic choice for the permanent job. Luke has done an admirable job in what has been a difficult, at best, situation. He has kept the Rebels playing with great effort and purpose when pride is really all that's at stake.
Ole Miss has obvious defensive deficiencies that can't be blamed on Luke, but offensively they are about as good as anybody around – this despite losing a five-star quarterback to season-ending injury and a severe lack of depth in the offensive line. The Rebels are 5-5 entering Saturday night's home game against Texas A&M, a game in which Ole Miss is slightly favored. If Ole Miss wins that one, expect a groundswell of support for Luke.
The Egg Bowl? Frankly, it just doesn't look like a good matchup, at all, for the Ole Miss defense. We shall see.
• Southern Miss, with its victory over Rice, became bowl eligible for the third straight season and for an impressive 21st time over the past 24 seasons. That's the good news.
Here's the bad: USM needs to keep winning to ensure a bowl bid. Conference USA, which has seven bowl tie-ins, could have as many as 10 bowl-eligible teams. USM, which is 6-4 with Charlotte (at home) and Marshall (on the road) left to play, could pretty well count on a bowl berth with a seventh victory. Eight wins would move the Golden Eagles into the top three in the C-USA pecking order.
USM will be a double-digit favorite over Charlotte, but a USM victory is far from a given. No. 1, Charlotte beat USM last year. No. 2, Charlotte owns a victory over UAB, which soundly beat USM in Hattiesburg. No. 3, home has not been kind to USM. The Golden Eagles are 4-1 on the road, 2-3 at home. Go figure.
• Alcorn State (7-3, 5-1) and Jackson State (2-8, 2-4) play Saturday at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in the annual game known around the state as The Soul Bowl. This is one of those in-state rivalry games in which you supposedly can throw out the records.
Believe this: Jackson State would love to do that.
Alcorn? Well, not so much.
Alcorn alum and legend Fred McNair has the Braves headed for their fourth straight SWAC Championship Game. Meanwhile, JSU's Tony Hughes continues a rebuilding process that has to be much more difficult than he imagined.
My guess: JSU plays defense well enough to keep it interesting past the always-interesting halftime show. In the end, Alcorn's superior firepower should carry the day.
Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is email@example.com.