The Golden Egg is at stake Saturday in this craziest of football seasons.

One guy’s opinion on Saturday’s Egg Bowl: If you combined the Ole Miss offense and the Mississippi State defense, you’d have an upper level Southeastern Conference football team.

But you can’t do that. So, instead, we’ve got Mississippi State, with a 2-5 record, limping into Oxford to play Ole Miss, which is 3-4. The oddsmakers make Ole Miss a 9.5-point favorite, which seems especially high given the rivalry and the situation.

This is not exactly what we anticipated when Mississippi’s two SEC schools hired new football coaches less than a year ago. Mike Leach and Lane Kiffin were proven winners with national name recognition who infused both fan bases with enthusiasm. Never mind there were many reasons – mostly involving talent level – why both jobs were open in the first place.

Rick Cleveland

Ole Miss couldn’t stop anybody. State couldn’t score enough points. New coaches, no matter their pedigree, weren’t going to magically change that overnight.

And then COVID-19 hit and all bets were off. Every college football team nationwide was impacted. But new coaches, trying to install new systems, with new staffs, were especially hamstrung without spring training, normal summer programs and fall camps. What’s more, the SEC went to all-SEC schedules, much more taxing and without the occasional “gimme games” to pad the record.

So, what we see is what we get. And the future of each program will be decided by how well Kiffin, Leach and their staffs recruit. Ole Miss must improve light years on defense; Leach must get the Jimmys and Joes he needs to execute his famed air raid offense.

That said, it sure seems to me Leach has the quarterback he needs for the future. True freshman Will Rogers – you really have to love the name – has all the tools to do what Leach needs. He can make all the throws. He’s tough. He’s football smart, a coach’s son. He sold me on his abilities in the Mississippi-Alabama all-star game last year when he came off the bench, essentially on one leg, and brought the Mississippians back from a 10-3 deficit to win in the fourth quarter. He Willed them to win is what he did. It should have been clear to anyone watching he has the “it” factor.

On the other side, Ole Miss has Matt Corral, the Californian, who has far exceeded what most had expected from him this season. Only Alabama’s Mac Jones and Florida’s Kyle Trask have thrown for more yards in the SEC. Only Jones has completed a higher percentage of passes. Corral really has been splendid.

While Ole Miss has been explosive all season long, State often has struggled to move the ball. But the Bulldogs seemed much improved against a rugged defense in a tough loss at Georgia last week. Perhaps the best Egg Bowl bet of all is the “over” in the over-under total of 67 points. After all, Ole Miss has proven it can score on anyone, including Alabama and Florida. And the Ole Miss defense hasn’t stopped anyone, at least not yet.

Hard to say what it means that Ole Miss has had an unexpected week off because of the COVID-induced postponement of last week’s scheduled game with Texas A&M, while State was playing a grueling, down-to-the-wire game at Georgia. Normally, you’d say the advantage swings to Ole Miss, but State made real progress at Athens. The Bulldogs should be better because of it.

Prediction? It’s a fool’s errand in this season of so much turmoil. I mean, today is Wednesday and how do we know for sure they will even play? Or who will play if they play? The answer is that we won’t until final COVID testing is done. Games are being postponed and canceled all over. Just Tuesday, the Southern Miss-UAB game, scheduled for Friday, was canceled because of COVID issues within the USM program. State played last week with just 49 scholarship players. In this 2020 season, nothing is certain.

But if they play, I would go with the home team, Ole Miss, in a high scoring game, and I would expect the best player on the field, the irrepressible Elijah Moore, to make a play that wins it.

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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.