CLEVELAND: Predicting win totals for Mississippi's big 3

By RICK CLEVELAND,

Forecasting college football seasons is a fool's errand, but I've been called worse than a fool so many times before. That includes last season when my prediction was that Ole Miss would win nine football games.

The Rebels won five instead, so I missed by only four games, which is only one-third of the games they played. Could have been worse.

And sometimes it has been. I remember one time, years ago, when yours truly predicted Mississippi State would finish 6-5. The Bulldogs won one game. It was the famous “Tech and 10” season. Every Saturday, it seemed, the 'Dogs found a way to lose. Every Monday morning I would get to the office and there would be a voicemail message from the same wise guy, and it would go like this: “Well, Rickey boy, I just wanted to know if that Bulldog debacle Saturday was supposed to be one of the six or one of the five.”

By the end of the season, I was laughing with him.

So many things can happen, including that the star quarterback can get hurt, which happened to both Ole Miss (Chad Kelly) and Southern Miss (Nick Mullens) last season.

On the other hand, I picked Mississippi State to win six games, which the Bulldogs did, if you count the bowl. And I predicted USM would win nine, which the Golden Eagles might have, had Mullens not suffered concussion and throwing hand injuries. As it was, the Eagles won seven, including a bowl.

You just never know. But we can guess.

And so I will...

We begin with Mississippi State, which most national and regional forecasters are picking to win five, six or seven games, mostly on the strength of quarterback Nick Fitzgerald who finished 2016 as one of the nation's top young quarterbacks.

I've got the Bulldogs winning six (Charleston Southern, Louisiana Tech, BYU, Kentucky, UMass and Ole Miss) and losing six (LSU, Georgia, Auburn, Texas A&M, Alabama and Arkansas).

Best-case scenario: 9-3, by getting one of that murderous three game stretch (LSU, Georgia, Auburn) and then also winning at A&M and Arkansas.

Worst-case scenario: 3-9, losing to either Louisiana Tech or BYU and then to Kentucky and Ole Miss.

Bottom line: Dan Mullen has taken State to bowl games in seven straight seasons. That streak should not end.

Ole Miss: I began last season's Ole Miss prediction saying that so much depended on how “the NCAA's seemingly never-ending investigation affects the 2016 Rebels.”

The same is true in 2017, although the result of the never-ending investigation finally should be known at some point during the season. As I wrote last year: 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?

You certainly can argue that the distractions, along with Kelly's injury, hurt the Rebels last year and could again. It will be interim coach Matt Luke's job to ensure Ole Miss players stay focused, despite the fact they will not go to a bowl game regardless.

I've got Ole Miss winning six (South Alabama, Tennessee-Martin, Cal, Vandy, Louisiana-Lafayette and either Arkansas or Texas A&M) and losing six (Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Kentucky, State and either Arkansas or Texas A&M).

The Cal game is a big swing game that could propel the Rebels to a good season or send them in the wrong direction.

Southern Miss: So much depends on the quarterback. Who will it be? Will he/they be anywhere as effective as Nick Mullens was for three-plus seasons?

If a QB develops and is effective, the Eagles could enjoy a special season. If not, it could be a so-so season or worse.

I've got USM winning seven (Southern, Louisiana-Monroe, North Texas, UTEP, UAB, Rice and Charlotte) and losing five (Kentucky, UTSA, Louisiana Tech, Tennessee and Marshall.)

You might surmise that I am not confident in USM's unproven quarterbacks, and you might be right. But if one of those guys comes through, at least four of those five predicted defeats are win-able games. We shall see.

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