Both Ole Miss, 7-2, and Mississippi State, 5-4, come to a football crossroads of sorts on Saturday.

Texas A&M has defeated Alabama 41-38 and Auburn 20-3. Meanwhile, Alabama trashed Ole Miss 42-21 and Auburn beat the Rebels 31-20.

Clearly, looking at those results, you say Texas A&M should be a solid favorite over Ole Miss Saturday night at Oxford when ESPN GameDay makes a rare visit to Mississippi. 

Rick Cleveland

But that’s not how it works. Oddsmakers favor the Texas Aggies ever so slightly. A&M opened as a one-point favorite and has since moved to a 2.5- or 3-point favorite depending where you look. Despite those earlier score comparisons, it would be no great surprise if Ole Miss were to win the game.

You could make the same sort of score comparisons where this Saturday’s Mississippi State-Auburn matchup is concerned. For instance, Texas A&M clubbed Auburn 20-3 just last week. Earlier, Mississippi State went to College Station and defeated A&M 26-22. Yet, Auburn is a 5.5-point favorite over the Bulldogs at Auburn Saturday morning.

What those score comparisons tell us is that there are no sure things in the SEC — unless, thus far, you are talking about Georgia.

What is certain is this: Both Ole Miss, 7-2, and Mississippi State, 5-4, come to a football crossroads of sorts Saturday. These are huge games that will go a long way toward determining the level of bowl bids the two Mississippi teams will receive this holiday season.

Beat Texas A&M and the Rebels move to 8-2 with just Vanderbilt and State left to play. The Rebels would position themselves solidly for a New Year’s Day Bowl. Meanwhile, State still needs a victory to become bowl eligible. But if the Bulldogs could somehow sweep their final three games against Auburn, Tennessee State and Ole Miss they would move much higher in the bowl pecking order.

Those score comparisons tell us something else. In college football, it’s all about matchups and who is most ready play, both mentally and physically, on any given Saturday. 

For instance, if Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral — surely one of the best players in all of college football — were 100% healthy, the Rebels would not be underdogs Saturday. But he’s not 100% because of a nagging ankle injury that severely limits his mobility.

Aggie coach Jimbo Fisher was dead-on earlier in the week when he said Corral “can beat you with his legs as well as anyone.”

But he can’t do it on one leg. What makes Corral such a special player, besides an NFL-calibre arm, is his mobility — his ability to avoid the rush and then become like an accomplished halfback in the open field. He has run for 526 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season. But he ran it a season-low six times for nine yards against Liberty.

That mobility — or lack of same — becomes all the more important against a defense like that of the Aggies, one that Lane Kiffin said earlier in the week has the best personnel of any defense the Rebels have played this season. The Aggie “D” — big, fast and physical — can beat you up and has allowed only four touchdowns in its last three games.

Bottom line: Beating A&M with Corral at 100% would be a difficult chore. It becomes all the more difficult with him limping.

Mississippi State’s Saturday chore can be condensed to one word: Finish. Three of the Bulldogs’ four defeats have been by a total of eight points. In other words, change three plays in three games and the Bulldogs are 8-1 and a top 10 team heading into Saturday.

Mike Leach talked about it earlier in the week.

“You just keep scratching and clawing, trying to make sure you are getting better every day,” he said. “I think we’re improving. I think that we’ve already beaten several teams that nobody thought were were going to beat. We just have got to keep getting better. The worst of it is that there’s several in our grasp that are a play away — one play and we win the game. We can’t lose sight of that.”

It would be no great surprise if the State-Auburn game comes down to that one play. The same is true at Oxford. Again, it’s a huge weekend for both the Mississippi teams. 


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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.