If this Saturday has a theme in Mississippi college football it’s this: Fork in the road.

That’s what Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Southern Miss all face at the mid-point of the 2017 season.

State, 4-2, plays host to 5-1 Kentucky. Ole Miss, 3-3, faces 5-2 LSU in Oxford. Southern Miss, 4-2, travels to Ruston, La., to face 3-3 Louisiana Tech in what amounts to an elimination game in Conference USA.

State is a whopping 10-point favorite over Kentucky. Oddsmakers make LSU a 7-point pick over Ole Miss. USM is a 3-point underdog at Louisiana Tech.

Let’s take them the way coaches do, which is, of course, one game at a time:

Kentucky-MSU

At first glance, a double-digit point spread seems odd, especially when it’s the team that has lost twice favored over the team that has lost only one. And Kentucky’s one loss was by a single point to the Florida Gators in a game in which the Wildcats led 27-14 in the fourth quarter. As Kentucky has so many times in the history of that series, the ‘Cats snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

A closer look at Kentucky’s 5-1 record shows why State is a such a solid favorite. Kentucky won by seven at Southern Miss in a game the Golden Eagles dominated statistically. Kentucky trailed for much of the game against Eastern Kentucky before winning by 11. The Wildcats also narrowly won over Eastern Michigan and Missouri. To date, Kentucky’s signature victory is 23-13 at South Carolina.

Clearly, Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs have played a much more difficult schedule.

Having seen both teams in person, here’s my take: State possesses far more team speed. The Bulldogs should win.

But here’s the deal: Take a look at State’s schedule and you quickly reach this conclusion: State had better win. The Bulldogs don’t need to be 4-3 going on the road to play Texas A&M, not if they want to play in a good bowl game. And not with Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss all left on the schedule. That’s why this is a fork-in-the-road game.

LSU-Ole Miss

There is no bowl game at stake where Ole Miss is concerned, but, outside of in-state rival Mississippi State, there is no more important game left on the schedule.

Simply put, Ole Miss does not want to lose to its former coach Ed Orgeron at home.

Ole Miss coach Matt Luke Credit: Ole Miss athletics

Also, to achieve a winning record, this one is a must for the Rebels. Lose, and interim coach Matt Luke’s team will be 3-4 headed into a closing stretch that includes Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana-Lafayette, Texas A&M and State.

After consecutive losses to Cal, Alabama and Auburn, the Rebels headed back in the right direction last week, trouncing Vanderbilt. They must build on that against a Jekyll-and-Hyde LSU team, good enough to have won consecutive games over Florida and Auburn and bad enough to have lost by 30 to State and to Troy.

With Shea Patterson among the nation’s passing leaders and with receivers who all look as if they just stepped off an NFL bus, this might sound odd to say about Ole Miss: The key Saturday will be the ability to run the ball against LSU and to at least slow LSU’s running game. If the Rebels can’t run it some, LSU’s pass rush will make life miserable for Patterson.

Ole Miss showed solid signs of a running game against Vandy. Troy ran for over 200 against LSU. I like Ole Miss, especially with the points.

Southern Miss-Louisiana Tech

The loser in this one is essentially out of the West Division race in C-USA. And the winner will need some help. Both Tech and USM have one defeat. North Texas is undefeated in league play.

USM player Ito Smith Credit: USM athletics

No doubt, USM’s Ito Smith will be a marked man. Two years ago, he ran for 169 yards and three touchdowns against heavily favored Tech and USM won 59-24 at Ruston. Last year, in Hattiesburg, Smith ran for 127 yards and the Golden Eagles won 39-24. Says Tech coach Skip Holtz: “Ito Smith is a great football player. He is physical and elusive and has break-way home run speed.”

Holtz, an outstanding coach, has had an extra week to prepare, which could be a huge factor.

But the key, from this vantage point, is what it always is for Jay Hopson’s USM teams. Win the turnovers and win the game. Lose the turnovers and most likely lose the game.

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 12 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.