Some observations from the first big weekend of college football:
- The best team in Mississippi, clearly, is Ole Miss. In a 43-24 trouncing of Louisville — it really wasn’t that close — the Rebels won every phase of the game decisively. We knew Ole Miss would be an offensive juggernaut. What we learned Monday night is that the Rebels are remarkably improved on the defense. They played harder, stronger and faster than they have in recent seasons. Mostly, they tackled better, especially transfer linebacker Chance Campbell. We’ll get to him later.
- Mississippi State? The Bulldogs played for one quarter the way Ole Miss played for four. And that was enough for a 35-34 victory over Louisiana Tech. Down 31-10 entering the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs produced the largest comeback in MSU history, which is to say 126 years. It was a strange game. The Bulldogs led 14-0, fell behind 34-14 and then scored the game’s last 21 points. Postgame, Mike Leach was particularly candid, saying his offense was “shamelessly lethargic” at times and that the defense “played like a bunch of slugs” until rising up in the fourth quarter. Can’t argue that, but there is a bottom line: State won and defeated what the future will show was a really good Louisiana Tech team. State won despite losing the turnovers 6-2. Teams very rarely win when minus-4 in that department.
- Southern Miss? The Golden Eagles started the Will Hall era by taking an early 7-0 lead over South Alabama, then played poorly the rest of the game in a deflating 31-7 defeat. A veteran offensive line was supposed to be the USM’s strength but could do nothing with South Alabama’s defensive front. The Southern Miss defense was outstanding against the run, but for the second straight season South Alabama wide receiver Jalen Tolbert was by far the best player on the field. Remember that name. You’ll be watching Tolbert, a former two-star recruit, in the NFL for years. Even when double-covered, Tolbert got open and made big plays that Southern Miss could not answer.
- Jackson State? Deion Sanders’ team won its first fall football game 7-6 over Florida A&M at Miami on Sunday. Big picture: The Tigers were victorious in a hard-fought conference game nationally televised by ESPN2. The devil is in the details. There was no flow to the game, which was marred by 20 penalties, many of the pre-snap variety. That part was ugly. Both teams have much to fix. Despite all the penalties the game’s biggest mistake was made by ESPN2. How could you televise a Florida-A&M vs. Jackson State game and not show the two fabulous bands at halftime? Bad, bad mistake there. Inexcusable, really.
- So, let’s get back to Chance Campbell, the graduate transfer from Maryland, who appears to be a real difference-maker for the Ole Miss defense. Over the last three or four seasons of watching Ole Miss football, the most asked question has been: Where are the linebackers? Campbell was front and center on play after play Monday night. He’s big (6-2, 240), fast for that size and instinctive. Rebels defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin knew what he was getting in Campbell because he recruited him to Maryland, where Campbell was the second leading tackler in the Big Ten last year. He can play. So can Ashanti Cistrunk, the junior from Louisville (the Mississippi one).
- The only Rebel who might have hit harder that Campbell and Cistrunk was running back Snoop Conner, who trucked one unfortunate Louisville defender and ran through the grasps of several others. I’ve written this before, but I firmly believe Conner will play far beyond his Ole Miss days. His size/speed/strength combination is rare. Ole Miss has so many offensive weapons that Conner often gets lost in the shuffle. That won’t always be the case. It wasn’t Monday night.
- “The best way out of difficulty is through it.” Will Rogers, the famous American humorist/writer (not the State quarterback) said that. However, the wise saying applies nicely to Rogers, the quarterback, in Saturday’s comeback victory. Rogers threw a pick-six interception late in the third quarter that put State behind 31-14. He was sacked three times and hurried many others. Thing is, he persevered, fought through it, and threw three touchdowns, including the game-winner. He’s a tough kid, a winner. He fits nicely in Leach’s offense as his 39 completions in 47 attempts will attest.
- Best news for USM football fans from Saturday night’s disappointment? The school of Ray Guy and Jerrell Wilson appears to have a quality punter again. Gulf Coast Community College transfer Mason Hunt punted eight times for a 48-yard average with no return yardage. But even that comes with some bad news: If the Eagle offense doesn’t improve dramatically, he is going to be one of the busiest punters in the country.