CLEVELAND: It's an important week for MS Big 3By RICK CLEVELAND,
Two weeks into the college football season, Mississippi's three NCAA FBS teams are pretty much where we thought they would be.
Ole Miss and Mississippi State are both 2-0. The Rebels have defeated South Alabama 47-27 and Tennessee-Martin 45-23. The Bulldogs clocked Charleston Southern 49-0 and went on the road to smash Louisiana Tech 57-21. Southern Miss is 1-1, having dropped a 24-17 decision to Kentucky and having crushed Southern University 45-0.
Now comes Week 3 and games that will have a huge impact on the direction all three teams will take this season. Let's take a look at the crossroads games for all three.
We'll begin with Mississippi State, which has by far the most impressive victory to date (the 36-point win on the road at Tech) and by far the toughest task this weekend (LSU). Oddsmakers have made LSU a 6.5-point favorite on the road, which sounds about right.
This is where we learn how much State's defense has really improved. This is where quarterback Nick Fitzgerald will have to win with his arm, as well as with his legs. And this is where LSU coach Ed Orgeron will have a chance to show how much he has improved as a head coach since the last time he went to Starkville in the position as head coach. It is an intriguing game to say the least.
Fitzgerald knows well how talented and fast LSU's defense is. After running for 195 yards in his coming-out party against South Carolina last year, he ran for just 13 yards on 13 carries against LSU the next Saturday. He completed just 12-of-24 throws for 120 yards against the Tigers, and he will have to be more effective, both running and throwing, for State to pull the upset Saturday.
The last time Orgeron went to Starkville as a head coach was 10 years ago when his Ole Miss Rebels led State 14-0 with 10 minutes remaining. Remember? Ole Miss went for it on fourth down and one yard to go at midfield, was stuffed, and then State scored 17 unanswered points for a 17-14 victory. The next day, Orgeron was fired.
This time, Orgeron has better players and he believes he has become a different and better head coach. We shall see.
He will get tested Saturday night, far more than he has in LSU's blowout home victories over BYU and Chattanooga. From this vantage point, it looks like a close game that really could go either way. With road games coming up against Georgia and Auburn, this really is a critical crossroads game for State.
Surprisingly, Ole Miss is a 3.5-point favorite at Cal. I say surprisingly because the Cal Golden Bears won at North Carolina before beating Weber State in their home opener. Meanwhile, Ole Miss has dispatched South Alabama and Tennessee-Martin, both at home.
Oddsmakers might be looking at this statistic: Weber State threw for 431 yards on the road against Cal. And those same odds-makers no doubt have noticed that Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson already has completed 77 percent of his passes for 919 yards through two games. Put all those statistics together and you need a calculator for what Patterson might do against Cal.
Truth is neither Ole Miss nor Cal has played much defense. The team that plays the best defense late Saturday night at Berkeley will be the team that wins. The best bet might be the over. As this is written, that over-under line has not been set. Question: Have oddsmakers ever made a triple-digit over-under betting line?
Southern Miss is a 5-point favorite at Louisiana-Monroe in the first meeting between the schools since 1993. USM's Kwadra Griggs, who earned starting quarterback status with his off-the-bench performance against Kentucky, will make his first road start at Monroe. That can be a hairy proposition.
ULM hasn't played since an Aug. 31 opener against Memphis because last Saturday's game at Florida State was canceled due to Hurricane Irma. The Warhawks out-gained Memphis on the road in their opener but lost because of turnovers. Turnover-plagued USM knows that theme all too well. Same thing happened to the Golden Eagles against Kentucky. Best bet: Turnovers will decide this one as well.
Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is email@example.com.