Alcorn State will visit Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in 2028, marking the first time the Rebels have played one of Mississippi’s HBCUs.

Alcorn State and Ole Miss have announced the two schools will play one another in football for the first time in 2028. My first reaction: Good for both. Good for Mississippi. Good for athletic directors Keith Carter of Ole Miss and Derek Horne of Alcorn State, both former Ole Miss basketball players.

Better to keep the money in state.

Better for Ole Miss to play one of its “buy” games vs. lower Division I competition against an in-state foe rather than Southeastern Louisiana, Jacksonville State, Murray State, Southeast Missouri and others they have played in recent years.

In 2021, the Rebels are scheduled to play Austin Peay. Quick question: Who Dat Gonna Bring More Fans to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium: Austin Peay or Alcorn State? Alcorn, that’s who.

Rick Cleveland

My next reaction to Thursday’s announcement: Better late than never.

This is something that should have happened long, long ago. I first proposed that Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Southern Miss begin playing the Mississippi SWAC schools way back in 1983. It just made sense. These were games that would create more interest, sell more tickets and benefit two Mississippi universities instead of only one.

Southern Miss finally broke the ice in 1987 with a memorable game against then SWAC powerhouse Jackson State. On a glorious October afternoon in Hattiesburg, Southern Miss, with a starting quarterback named Brett Favre, eked out a 17-7 victory over JSU. The game set a USM home attendance record. End zone seats were erected to contain the overflow crowd. It was a huge payday for Southern Miss and a relatively huge money maker for JSU. The sportsmanship among players was off the charts. After writing that day, I remember exiting the stadium and seeing USM and Jackson State players eating their post-game boxed meals together like good friends, which, by the way, many of them were.

Southern Miss has since played both Alcorn and Jackson State three times. USM has won all six and only two have been close (Jay Hopson almost beat the team he now coaches in 2014). Financially, three of the top 10 USM home attendance games – ever – have been against Alcorn and JSU.

Mississippi State first played a SWAC school in 2009 when the Bulldogs defeated Jackson State 45-7. State has played both JSU and Alcorn and has won all four well-attended games.

Fred McNair has won big at Alcorn, his alma mater.

This will be a first for Ole Miss. Yes, Ole Miss should have done this long ago. Again, better late than never. Just imagine the hubbub that would have happened if the Rebels (or Bulldogs or Golden Eagles) had played Alcorn back in 1994 when his Airness was breaking all the NCAA total offense records and was one of the leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy. Ole Miss likely would have won, but it would have been incredibly fun to watch how Joe Lee Dunn would have tried to defense Steve McNair.

In recent years, Alcorn has emerged as one of the top three or four football programs among the nation’s HBCUs. Hopson started the Braves’ turnaround and Fred McNair, Steve’s older brother and the original Air McNair, has taken it and run with it. Alcorn has played in the SWAC championship game in four of the past six seasons, has won back-to-back league championships.

The great fear for the larger schools: Well, what if we lose. We would never live it down.  The flip side of that: If you do lose, you just found out you have a coach who is not doing his job. Again, better late than never.

Many may ask: What about Mississippi Valley State? Why hasn’t the Valley played one of the three largest Mississippi schools?

The answer is that Valley historically hasn’t funded the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision allotment of 65 scholarships. That means a victory over the Delta Devils can not be counted toward the six victories needed for the larger schools to become bowl eligible. And that’s a deal breaker. That’s a gamble the bowl division schools cannot take. (Mississippi State canceled a 2013 game with Valley because a victory would not have counted for bowl eligibility. The cancellation cost Valley a $350,000 payday.

It’s a conundrum where MVSU is concerned. A huge payday from a money game would bring Valley the revenue to fund more scholarships. But Valley can’t get a money game because it can’t fund the scholarships. It’s a Catch 22 if there ever was one.

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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.