Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin reacts after his defense stopped Texas A&M on a 4th down during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)

It isn’t as if this Mississippi football season wasn’t already interesting enough, even before the John Cohen-to-Auburn-where-Bryan Harsin-has-just-been-fired news erupted.

I mean, Ole Miss has achieved an 8-1 record and is ranked No. 11; Jackson State is a perfect 8-0 and ranked No. 9 in FCS rankings; Delta State is 9-0 and ranked No. 6 in Division II; Southern Miss has won three straight and five of six and looks an honest-to-goodness college football team; and Will Rogers continues his assault on Mississippi State and Southeastern Conference records.

Rick Cleveland

As Mississippi college football seasons go, this one is a doozy. Monday’s news kicked the spice level up several notches. Besides all the winning, we’ve got some really juicy trimmings. You’ve got Cohen headed to Auburn, where his first job will be to hire a football coach. You’ve got Auburn playing at Mississippi State this Saturday. You’ve got Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze and Jackson State coach Deion Sanders all listed among the leading candidates in widespread speculation about who will be the next Auburn football coach.

We all know the Ole Miss to Auburn football coaching bridge has been crossed before. Tommy Tuberville made that trip 23 years ago, although he did not do it, as he had promised, in a pine box. No, he went in an Auburn jet. He is now a U.S. senator. How crazy is that? I mean, think about it: 23 years from now, could we have Sen. Kiffin? That would be no crazier.

The crazy level in college football really is off the charts — and I am looking west to College Station, where Jimbo Fisher’s team is now 3-5, has lost four straight, has lost to both Mississippi State and Ole Miss and still has games with Florida, Auburn and LSU. At this point Fisher’s record is three games worse than his predecessor Kevin Sumlin’s was at the same point in his tenure. Sumlin got fired, and the Aggies could fire Fisher, too. The catch is, the Aggies would have to pay Fisher approximately $90,000,000 to fire him. That sets records for crazy.

But let’s get back to the Mississippi stuff. Before we go any further, a shoutout to Todd Cooley at Delta State, who ought to be line for Coach of the Decade for Delta State’s turnaround this year. The Statesmen were an injury-riddled 5-6 last year and often were hammered, such as when Valdosta State blanked them 55-0. This year, Delta State whipped Valdosta State 70-31. That’s an 84-point turnaround if you are keeping score, and we always do. This Saturday, Delta State plays West Georgia in a battle of ranked teams. Delta State will try to avenge a 44-7 loss to West Georgia last season. Just a reminder: The last time Delta State started 9-0 was 2000. Those Statesmen, coached by Steve Campbell and quarterbacked by Josh Bright, finished 14-1 and as National Champions.

Jackson State also remains undefeated after blistering Southern University 35-0 with ESPN College GameDay in town. With each one-sided victory and each huge crowd comes more national attention for JSU coach Deion Sanders, who has has been mentioned as a possible hire for not only Auburn, but also Georgia Tech and Arizona State.

Sanders has done little to quell such speculation. Asked by ESPN about whether he would entertain offers from Power Five schools, Sanders said he would be crazy if he did not. “Yeah, I have to,” he said. “Going to the Power Five don’t change my lifestyle. But guess what? It changes my coaches’. So I got to weigh all offers.”

At this point, it would be insane for schools with an opening not to consider Sanders. He has proven he can recruit and he has proven he can coach. He has surrounded himself with good coaches and he lets them do their jobs. He connects with his players. He connects with recruits. He will bring instant energy wherever he goes. John Cohen is not insane and surely will consider making a run at Sanders.

Kiffin and Freeze also make sense for Auburn, where the alums and fans are forever comparing themselves to cross-state rival Alabama and Nick Saban. Freeze, at Ole Miss, has proven be can beat Saban. Kiffin revamped Saban’s offense at Bama and has won 18 of 22 games the last two season at Ole Miss.

Yes, Freeze recently signed an extension at Liberty that would take him through 2030, but the deal reportedly includes a friendly buyout on Freeze’s end. It would not scare a rich, Power Five school away from courting Freeze. So, you ask, why would Kiffin leave Oxford for Auburn? Well there’s this: Kiffin has been outspoken about how NIL money has become the single biggest factor in college football recruiting. If Auburn has significantly more money available to essentially buy players, then Kiffin might prefer the Plains. 

Indeed, the NIL effect could have had much to do with Cohen moving from State to Auburn where he will be reunited with his old pitching coach Butch Thompson and where Auburn has reportedly piled up some serious coin for NIL purposes. 

At this point all we know for certain is that an already interesting Mississippi football season has come all the more interesting — and intriguing. November and December potentially could bring much change.


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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.