What we can take away from college football’s  first Saturday:

• Where college football is concerned, a 35-10 lead just isn’t what it used to be. That’s what Kentucky led Southern Miss by with under a minute to go in the first half. Then, Nick Mullens, who already had thrown three interceptions, hit Isaiah Jones for 71-yard touchdown pass that made it 35-17 at halftime.

The second half was all USM. I mean, all USM, leading to a final score of Southern Miss 44, Kentucky 35. Yes, Jay Hopson’s first Eagle team scored the game’s final 34 points.

Stat of the day: In the second half, the Golden Eagles ran 53 plays, Kentucky just 14. You read that right: 53-14.

Rick Cleveland
Rick Cleveland Credit: Melanie Thortis

USM’s offensive line smashed open big holes in Kentucky’s defense and running backs Ito Smith and George Payne happily danced through them. Not often is such a big comeback achieved largely with such smash-mouth football, but this one was.

USM’s defense, thoroughly gashed in the first half, gave up nothing in the second. Kentucky’s five second half possessions ended in two punts, two fumbles and an interception.

And so, USM has it’s first win over an SEC foe since a 21-0 trouncing of Alabama 16 years ago. The Golden Eagles play (in order) Savannah State, Troy, UTEP, Rice and Texas-San Antonio before traveling to LSU on Oct. 15.

• Mississippi State is a work in progress and there’s much work to do. Favored by 28 points, the Bulldogs fell 21-20 to South Alabama in an outcome that seemed anything but a fluke.

Normally, when 28-point underdogs win, there are many turnovers and big plays in the kicking game involved. Not so, this one. Neither State or South Alabama turned the ball over. South Alabama gained 379 yards, compared to State’s 382.

Playing on the road, in the heat, South Alabama fired back from a 17-0 deficit and won when State missed a field goal at the end. Of course, the Jaguars already had missed two field goals themselves.

The big question coming in — who is the guy after Dak? — remains unanswered. Damian Williams appeared to be that guy when he came off the bench in the first half to stake State to the 17-0 lead. But he was just OK after the fast start and Dan Mullen said he’ll watch how both Williams and starter Nick Fitzgerald play in practice this week before making a decision about Saturday’s starter.

Saturday? That’s when South Carolina comes to town for State’s SEC opener. After that, it’s LSU at Baton Rouge. Somebody needs to step up, like fast.

• TV announcers were calling this “the greatest opening weekend in college football history” because of all the marquee match-ups. I am not sure “greatest” is the adjective SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey would use.

OK, Alabama was Alabama and did its part, dismantling Southern Cal 52-6. And Texas A & M got a big win, 31-24, over UCLA. Georgia got a nice victory over North Carolina. But otherwise, the SEC was pedestrian, at best. LSU lost to Wisconsin and still doesn’t have a passing game. Auburn lost to Clemson. Kentucky lost to USM. Tennessee was fortunate to beat Appalachian State, as was Arkansas to eke out a victory over Louisiana Tech. Missouri was throttled by West Virginia. Florida struggled past Massachusetts. In the only league game, South Carolina managed a 13-10 victory over Vanderbilt.

Take out the conference game, and the SEC is 6-5 heading into Monday night’s Ole Miss-Florida State matchup. That’s not what exactly the success rate SEC fans have come to expect.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.