These eyes watched 14 hours of college football Saturday, often viewing two games at a time. Naturally, I have some observations:
• The Memphis Tigers, who defeated Ole Miss 15-10, are making a living in Mississippi. Mike Norvell has Memphis on the rise and much of it is because of the Tigers’ improved recruiting in the Magnolia state. Last year, Darrell Henderson of Batesville and South Panola led the nation in rushing. Now, Henderson plays for the Los Angeles Rams, and one of the guys replacing him is Kenny Gainwell of Yazoo County.
Gainwell, a high school quarterback, chose Memphis over Ole Miss two years ago, red-shirted last season and was outstanding against the Rebels, rushing for 77 yards on 16 carries and catching six passes for 41 yards. The guy can play. Veteran Mississippi high school coaches once called him “another Micheal Spurlock,” referring to the Indianola product who played quarterback in high school and for a while at Ole Miss before a nine-year NFL career as a running back/return specialist.
Can’t tell you how many high school coaches and high school sports reporters told me Gainwell would be the steal of the class of 2018. They were right. That’s much the same as coaches said about Grenada’s Genard Avery back in 2013. Avery, lightly recruited by Ole Miss and Mississippi State, became one of the best defenders in Memphis Tiger history and now plays for the Cleveland Browns.
Memphis has had a lot of “steals” in Mississippi lately. The Memphis roster includes 17 Mississippians, including several key players who could be helping Ole Miss, State and Southern Miss.
• Over the years, many of the hottest and coldest football games I’ve endured have been at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis. Seems the place always is either sizzling or freezing. Saturday, for the Tigers at least, it was both. Memphis used a huge shipping container to “refrigerate” its players. That’s right, when the Tigers came to the sidelines to rest, they often went into a deep freeze to reduce their body temperatures. The temperature in the shipping container was set at 18 degrees, which quickly rose above freezing each time a group of sweating players entered. There is no way to know how much it helped – except that the most important numbers were 15 and 10.
• Clearly, much of Mississippi State’s success of failure this season rests on the shoulders of graduate transfer Tommy Stevens, who came to Starkville from Penn State. First impressions from State’s 38-28 victory over Louisiana are mixed. He’s a big, athletic guy with a strong arm. State should be an improved passing team this season as a result. He made some good throws and missed some he should have made. He had the poise and presence you would expect from someone who has been in the Penn State program for four years.
Running back Kylin Hill is State’s best offensive player, without question, and he would be the best player for many teams. His speed/agility/strength combination is rare. Hill went for 197 yards on 27 carries and much of that came after the first hit. He’s a big-time player.
Defensively, State looked like a team replacing three first-round draft picks, giving up 431 yards. That said, Louisiana quarterback Levi Lewis will put up many points and yards on many opponents this season. He’s terrific.
• Another terrific athlete playing quarterback is Alcorn State’s Noah Johnson, who presented Southern Miss with a significant first-game test. No doubt, the Golden Eagles’ big, athletic defensive line tired of chasing Johnson, last year’s SWAC Offensive Player of the Year, all over the field in USM’s 38-10 victory.
The Golden Eagles, who play State in Starkville Saturday, prevailed primarily because of superior special teams play, particularly the kickoff and punt returns of Jaylond Adams. That’s been the theme of so many matchups between SWAC and FBS teams, dating back to the historic Jackson State-Southern Miss game in 1987 when JSU dominated offensively and defensively and lost the game on special teams play.
Alcorn looks like a team that could repeat as champions in the SWAC. Southern Miss can challenge in Conference USA, as well, if the Eagles can significantly improve their offensive line play. Defensively, Southern Miss is solid, possibly improved over last season’s unit that ranked third in the nation and best in CUSA. It is a defense that should provide a stern test for State’s Stevens and Hill.
Problematic for the Golden Eagles is subpar offensive line play and what looked to be a serious injury to USM’s best back, Trivinskey Mosley.
• What’s stranger than refrigerating your players? Well, perhaps this: A head coach calling the shots from a hospital bed in the press box. That’s what Liberty’s Hugh Freeze, formerly of Ole Miss, did in a 24-0 home loss to Syracuse Saturday. Freeze is still recovering from mid-August back surgery and a dangerous staph infection that followed.
Say what you want, Freeze’s unusual coaching situation Saturday garnered much badly needed publicity nationally for Liberty, both on TV and in print. Freeze gave pre-game, halftime and post-game talks to his team via video feed to the locker room. He shared play-calling duties with former Ole Miss quarterback and assistant coach Kent Austin. Afterward, Freeze said he hopes to be back on the field soon.