Deion Sanders showed off his JSU sports coat when he was introduced as the Tigers new coach.

We knew months ago, even before the pandemic, this was going to be one of the craziest, most anticipated football seasons in Mississippi history.

We just thought we knew. We didn’t know the half of it…

Last December, Ole Miss hired Lane Kiffin. A month later, Mississippi State hired Mike Leach. Not since 2014, when the Bulldogs and Rebels zoomed into the top three in the nation, had Mississippi college football received so much national attention. Some pundits even wondered: Is Mississippi even big enough for those two personalities?

Rick Cleveland

Then came the pandemic, which threatened – indeed, still threatens – whether we will have much football season at all. If you want to know how precarious this season is, look about 400 miles west to Houston, where the Houston Cougars have now had five – yes, FIVE! – season openers canceled because of COVID-19.

First, the Cougars were supposed to open against Rice, but Rice had too much COVID. (We still aren’t clear whether Rice will play at all this season.) Then the Cougars were to open against Washington State, but the Pac-12 cancelled its season. Then, it was presumed Houston would open against Memphis, but the Tigers experienced a spike in cases and had to bow out. So Houston worked out an agreement on short notice to play Baylor, but Baylor had to cancel that one just a day ahead of the scheduled kickoff. Baylor, which already had a game with Ole Miss canceled, didn’t have enough players available to play. So then Houston was supposed to open against North Texas, but the Mean Green can’t play either. As it stands now, Houston will open its season on Oct. 8 against Tulane. Maybe. Stay tuned…

Rice and North Texas both play in Conference USA, of which Southern Miss is a member. Old Dominion, also a member, has canceled its entire season. Rice might. Meanwhile, Southern Miss has had to change its schedule so many times it’s difficult to keep count. Somehow or another, the Golden Eagles have managed to play two home football games, and, man, this is where it really gets crazy.

Several USM players, including three of the very best, decided not to play this season. Then the Golden Eagles lost their opener to South Alabama. Shortly thereafter, Jay Hopson resigned as head coach and 30-year-old Scotty Walden became the youngest head coach in America. In Walden’s debut as head coach, Southern Miss built a 27-10 lead before losing 31-30 in the closing seconds.

It gets crazier…

One of USM’s many schedule changes came when the SWAC decided to delay the 2020 football season until the spring of 2021. Than meant that Jackson State would not be coming to Hattiesburg on Sept. 19. So maybe Jackson State isn’t playing this fall, but the Tigers surely have been busy. On August 31, head coach John Hendricks was dismissed. On Sept. 21, in national news, Jackson State hired Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders as its head coach. Sanders has vowed to go head-to-head with the nation’s football powerhouses in recruiting.

So, if Mississippi wasn’t big enough for Leach and Kiffin, how will it handle Leach, Kiffin and Deion “Prime Time” Sanders, who wants to be known as Coach Prime?

All this has happened before Leach and Kiffin coach their first games at the Mississippi schools. That presumably comes Saturday. Ole Miss plays host to the Florida Gators at 11 a.m. Mississippi State travels to defending national champion LSU for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff. I say presumably because all it takes to postpone or cancel are a few positive tests on either of the participating teams.

A familiar face will be on the sidelines at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium Saturday.

But let’s assume they play. Florida, 11-2 and Orange Bowl champions under former Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, is a two-touchdown favorite. That seems about right, considering the Gators averaged 33.4 points per game after Kyle Trask took over at quarterback last year. He’s back. Florida did suffer some heavy losses on defense, but, as always, the Gators will have lots of speed and muscle on that side of the ball. One thing we learned during Mullen’s stay in Starkville: He rarely loses games he is supposed to win. As for Ole Miss, we don’t know what we don’t know, and that is a lot, which makes Saturday all the more intriguing.

At Baton Rouge, LSU is a whopping 16.5-point favorite over Leach and his first  Bulldogs. That surely does seem like a lot, when you consider the Tigers lost the best player in the history of LSU, quarterback Joe Burrow, and 13 other NFL draft picks. I mean, I know LSU is deep in talent but can the Tigers replace 14 draft picks, including five first rounders, not to mention defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and innovative passing game coordinator Joe Brady?

We shall see.

Meanwhile, Southern Miss continues its quest for a first victory with still another home game against long-time rival Tulane. The Green Wave is a 3.5-point favorite for this 1:30 p.m kickoff. Two interesting angles: Tulane’s starting quarterback is Southern Miss transfer Keon Howard, who is from Laurel. Will Hall, the offensive coordinator at Tulane, is the son of long-time Mississippi high school coach Bobby Hall. He has been mentioned prominently as a possible replacement for Hopson at Southern Miss. If Hall’s a candidate, this seems quite the audition.

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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.