Southern Miss has made the correct — and probably long overdue — decision to exit Conference USA and enter the Sun Belt Conference. Credit: Southern Miss Athletics

If we do have a college football season in Mississippi — and I still think it’s 50-50 at this point — we’re looking at quite possibly the most abnormal season since 1918. That’s when Mississippi State legend Dudy Noble coached at Ole Miss, Mississippi State played Ole Miss twice and Southern Miss didn’t play football at all.

Not coincidentally, that’s the last time the world experienced a pandemic to rival this one.

We knew months ago this was going to be a most interesting football season in the Magnolia State. First, Ole Miss hired Lane Kiffin last December. Then, a month later, Mississippi State hired Mike Leach. Two of college football’s lightning rods, friendly rivals on the other side of the continent in the past, were headed to Mississippi. Clearly, the 2020 season was going to be interesting and different. We had no idea…

Then came the pandemic. And we still have no idea. Things change every day.

Today, let’s pause, take a deep breath and consider what we do know:

• The SWAC — to which Jackson State, Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State belong — won’t play this fall. The hope is to play an abbreviated spring schedule. We’ll see.

• The same is true in the Gulf South Conference. The next Heritage Bell Classic, pitting Delta State against Mississippi College, will not take place until at least next spring.

• Mississippi’s junior colleges have delayed their season until an October start, but perennial powerhouse East Mississippi Community College, which has won five national championships since 2011, will not play. “The well-being of my players will always come first,” EMCC coach Buddy Stephens said. “There are too many unknowns to put in front of our players moving forward at this time.”

• Those unknowns have caused the Big Ten and the Pac 12 — two of college football’s five power conferences — to postpone all fall sports. That, in turn, has caused an open rebellion of some coaches, many players and at least one Big Ten school (Nebraska).

• The Southeastern Conference has delayed its season until a Sept. 26 start and will play a 10-game (all league games) schedule, followed by a championship game. If it goes off as scheduled, State will open at defending national champion LSU and Ole Miss will play host to Florida. The league games-only schedule will be brutal. There are no cupcakes. Leach and Kiffin will earn those millions. Kiffin reportedly makes $4 million a year, Leach makes $5 million. In 2020, that may well end up equating to a million bucks per victory.

• Ole Miss senior center Eli Johnson, who started all 12 games last season, became the first player at either State or Ole Miss to opt out of playing in 2020. And who can blame him? Eli’s father, sports writer David Johnson, spent weeks on a ventilator in ICU and nearly died from COVID-19. Eli Johnson, who has played through numerous injuries and already has graduated, will work on his Masters in criminal justice.

• Difficult to tell what changes more often these days, the Southern Miss schedule or its roster. Both have changed radically, all related to the pandemic. Three of the Golden Eagles’ best players have opted out in recent days: defensive end Jacques Turner, linebacker Racheem Boothe and wide receiver/return specialist Jaylond Adams. All say they will enter the transfer portal. The same is true of reserve running back Steven Anderson, at 260 pounds, one of the nation’s largest.

While other leagues have postponed or delayed the season, Conference USA will begin in early September. In fact, Southern Miss plans to open at home Sept. 3 (a Thursday night) against South Alabama. The Eagles’ schedule has continued to evolve with Jackson State, Auburn and Tennessee Tech all having to be replaced. The schedule now includes home games with Tulane and North Alabama. Yes, it’s hard to keep up.

Still, the 2020 season will have to go some to surpass 1918 for eccentricity. State played only five games, Ole Miss four, 102 years ago when another pandemic was ravaging Mississippi and the nation. State defeated Ole Miss 34-0 at Starkville and 13-0 at Oxford. That’s right, Dudy Noble’s Ole Miss team scored as many points against State as you and I.

The next year Noble was back at his alma mater: State. We can only hope things get back to normal so soon this time around.

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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.