Jim & Kane’s Water-Cooler Analysis: Mississippi Moon Won’t You Keep on Shining


It’s Mississippi’s world and we’re all just living in it.

By Jim Harris and Kane Webb

Well, Jim, for one week at least, it looks as if Mississippi is the new Florida when it comes to college football. Never mind that we have Ole Miss and Mississippi State both ranked in the top 10 (for the first time ever) but the Associated Press poll ties them at No. 3. That’s reminiscent of when Florida, Florida State and Miami were all rolling back in the Nineties and Aughts. Since the Hogs crushed B.Y.E. last week, Jim, let’s save the upcoming Alabama game for later and start this edition of Water-Cooler Analysis with the earthquakes in the Magnolia State felt ’round the college football world:

Which of the two outcomes — Mississippi State blitzing Texas A&M, Ole Miss beating Alabama — surprised you more? And why? 

JIM: I’d be more convinced of the state of Mississippi’s dominance if Southern Miss was any good, but the Golden Eagles are still reeling from the firing of Jeff Bower after year after year of victories and bowl games. Just another example to fans to be careful thinking you can be better than pretty good if you just change coaches. But back to your topic:

Ole Miss actually pulling it off over Alabama was far more shocking. Let’s look at the Mississippi State romp over Texas A&M first. A veteran team with a darn-good quarterback did what Arkansas was in position to do and didn’t a week earlier, and that’s throttle the Aggies. I still look at how Arkansas should have been comfortably cruising along at 42-14 early in the fourth quarter if not for two silly penalties as well as the LAST thing that should happen between a veteran quarterback (Brandon Allen is a fourth-year guy, remember) and center, fumbled snaps. OK, Arkansas uses two centers, and that is weird in a way, but the first botched snap was partly on a fourth-year guy, also. Mississippi State didn’t make those mistakes. Perhaps lucky for the Bulldogs, their mean-ass center was suspended for the game, so there were no personal fouls or opportunities for him to mess up a snap with Dak Prescott. Maybe the Bulldogs have some good fortune working in their favor this year. I have no doubt A&M would have cosmetically made the Arkansas final something like 42-31 or so, just as it did in making a fourth-quarter laugher in Starkville look halfway decent (I guess) on the scoreboard; well, 48-31 is better sounding than 48-17. Nevertheless, you know I’ve been a big backer of the Bulldogs since the way they finished last year, but now everybody knows that Mississippi State is for real. I also hate hearing Arkansas and Bret Bielema even halfway take credit for wearing A&M down a week earlier and setting the Aggies up for that rout. Win an SEC game sometime, not partially claim somebody else’s win; just take care of your own business. Like Bret tends to say to the media, though, I understand where he’s coming from.

Ole Miss did that in Oxford, the Rebels took care of business without a whole lot of help, and I applaud Bielema for being RIGHT ON at halftime on CBS about the missed facemask call that resulted in an Alabama touchdown by saying that was over and done with, you had to move on. And, kudos for former Arkansas State head coach Hugh Freeze for getting his team to not wallow at halftime about that blown call; instead, the Rebels moved on from it, holding Alabama to three points in the second half to win the game. Alabama didn’t lose it, and I’m including Christion Jones’ fumble on the kickoff, as much as Ole Miss forced it and won the game. And talk about some good fortune: How about Ole Miss being flagged for the kid taking his helmet off after the tying touchdown, which then led to a kick that Jones had to return, instead of an unreturnable one in the end zone? Maybe there is some mystical force involved in football when you see things like that happen. Bo Wallace was peak “Good” Bo Wallace as Rebels quarterback, but he also has some NFL receivers to throw to. Wouldn’t surprise me if he’s “bad” Bo this weekend in College Station, as that will be Ole Miss’ even more difficult task than beating Alabama: coming down from the clouds and winning in a place that’s going to be crazy nuts.

The reason I’m more surprised at Ole Miss’ win is that I thought Alabama’s balance and the talent of its receivers blended with the great running backs would be too much even for what is a terrific Rebels defense — I don’t remember an Ole Miss defense this good in eons. Turns out, the Rebels’ secondary players match up quite well with Amari Cooper and crew, and the problems we saw Alabama show on both sides of the ball against West Virginia in the season opener were still prevalent. Also, Alabama still can’t kick a field goal. Bama Coach Nick Saban signs the world’s best players on offense and defense and doesn’t bother to find the world’s best kicker to go with them. Ever. Makes no sense, really. Obviously, as great as he is and deserving of statues all over Tuscaloosa, we now know he’s not the be-all end-all of coaches, and Alabama is 5-3 in its last eight games. However, I fully expect the Tide to roll Saturday in Fayetteville.

My biggest surprise of the weekend was not in the SEC, but rather was TCU beating Oklahoma. I did not think TCU offensively could keep up with Oklahoma. I was surprised to see Oklahoma at times look like Arkansas in its secondary. The more games I watch, the more I think nobody has a tremendously dominant defense anymore, and everybody’s secondaries are suspect in some form or fashion: even Alabama’s. Heck, Stanford with its supposedly solid defense had nobody near that Notre Dame receiver in the end zone on the Irish’s game-winning pass.

KANE: Yeah, what is it with Saban and kickers? It doesn’t compute. He strikes me as the living (sort of), breathing definition of the coach who swears by Football Cliché No. 142: A team must win All Three Phases Of The Game. How hard can it be to attract a kicker to Tuscaloosa? Come here. Be a star. Kick the game-winner in the Iron Bowl! Because you know there’s going to be one game every other year in which Alabama’s kicking game will blow it. However, you are spot on. That game in Oxford wasn’t lost by Bama; it was won by the Ole Miss defense and an almost perfect fourth quarter by “Good” Bo Wallace. The Rebels deserved to win, but I’m with you: that was much more surprising than what happened in Starkville. I think we could all smell that one coming. And while I think Bielema has a point about loosening up A&M for the kill, the Aggies looked tired and dull and not the least bit confident, two things: (1) A&M got waaaay too much mileage out of that season-opening victory over what is proving to be an average South Carolina, and (2) just don’t go there, yet.

Still, I wholly agree with you that the Rebels’ task this weekend at College Station is even more difficult than beating Alabama. Got to figure the Rebs left a lot of emotional energy on the field at Oxford (and maybe on The Grove afterward?). The Aggies, meanwhile, got the wake-up call from Mississippi State that they ignored from Arkansas; I expect them to be ready and fired up at Kyle Field. As good as the Ole Miss defense appears so far this year, it hasn’t seen anything like Kenny Hill and the A&M offense. It’s just one of those games that feels as if one team has already lost momentum. After that one-for-the-ages victory over the Tide, Ole Miss just has every reason and excuse to be dull this Saturday. Throw in a quarterback with an up-and-down history and … if I were a betting man, I’d look seriously at taking the Aggies and giving the two points. Oh, who am I kidding? I am a betting man. Take the Ags. Give the 2.

Here’s one for you, Jim. As someone who, like me, was raised on Southwest Conference football, would you ever have guessed we’d be in an era in which TCU and Baylor are the dominant teams in Texas?! That may be more historically shocking than what’s going on in Mississippi.

My next question for you, Jim: Alabama, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Auburn are all ranked in the top 10 and, save for Ole Miss and Bama, they all have to play each other down the stretch. As dominant as the SEC West is, are they going to beat each other up so much that not one of them makes the four-team playoff? I mean, we could have a two- or even three-loss team win the SEC championship.

JIM: If it were done solely by national rankings of coaches and sportswriters, with the silliness of a dozen biased computers from coast-to-coast thrown in, then yes, the SEC (and let’s also throw SEC-East Georgia in there as well) could cannibalize itself into being on the outside looking in on a four-team playoff. However, 13 committee members for the playoff will come together beginning in Week 9, and they’ll break down groups of teams from 25 all the way down to 1, and by Dec. 7 they will have come up with the best four teams for the playoff. And, ultimately, at least one of those will be an SEC team. I don’t think there’s any question about that. It might be a two-loss SEC team, but an SEC team will be there. Perhaps a second should, as well. That’s for Jeff Long’s playoff committee to decide. At least they have some working data to go on with some defining intersectional games. Clay Travis of Fox.com was postulating why big conference teams should now avoid those attractive intersectional matchups because they do those teams no good. He used Michigan State playing and losing at Oregon as the prime example, but also mentioned Ohio State taking on and losing to Virginia Tech at home. If both those Big Ten teams had scheduled Sisters of the Poor or some low-rent loser instead, one or the other might likely go 13-0 and be a shoo-in for the playoffs. As it is, you’d have to think the best of the Big Ten is still lagging behind the best from the SEC and Pac-12 and Florida State. Fortunately, and though it was only ONE game it still offers us some comparative data, we know that Oregon on that day was better than Michigan State, and we know Ohio State is shaky on an intersectional basis with a home loss to a middle of the road Virginia Tech. The Pac-12 is a mess of cannibalizing of each other, too, Kane, and it will be interesting to see what shakes out, but it’s unbelievable to me that TWO games out there have been decided already by Hail Mary completions. And, while we’re at it, apparently an average Utah was a bad matchup even on its home field for UCLA. The Big 12 is not immune to beating up on each other, though it looks like Baylor just has to take care of business against TCU this week and OU later to qualify. Maybe there are just a whole lot of average teams out there. Something I am certain of: There will be a call for expansion to an eight-team playoff by the masses before the first four-team playoff is set.

And on your earlier point, the 25 scholarships per year, the high school emphasis all over the nation toward offense, the lack of defensive fundamentals, the lack of physical work in practice, and assorted more reasons, all of that has changed the college game and it’s brought back those schools like TCU and Baylor that couldn’t think of beating the OUs and Texases on a week-to-week basis. TCU is fundamentally sound, very well coached, and has ramped up its offense to compete in the Big 12, and Baylor is into the “outscore the other guy” mode. Of course it’s always about outscoring the opponent, that’s the point, but I think you get my drift: score in bunches and so fast that you simply make the other, lesser offensive team crack. That was the Bobby Petrino method those two exciting years here of 2010-11. Worked for all but five games. Opponents just hit a point of realization that they aren’t going to keep up against the likes of Baylor, who by the way has begun to match the offensive athletes with great speed on defense. It’s a game that all the coaches I grew up around years ago couldn’t have imagined. It’s reaching a point where the game Arkansas plays is the one that’s harder to prepare for in just a week of practice time. Gosh, it just used to be, feel each other out and wait for the other guy to make the first mistake. Now, you better score first, and fast, though that didn’t help A&M at Starkville last weekend. 

Kane, my first question this week for you: It’s been said for as long as I can remember that if Mississippi had just one major football program, like in Arkansas, and it kept the best players home, it would be the most dominant college program in the country. As it is, for years the best players in Mississippi, often at least half the state’s Top 24, went out of state, and the rest either were spread among MSU, Ole Miss or Southern, and many of those had to go to junior college (of which Mississippi has an extensive program of football-playing jucos). Now, at least for this week, we’re not going to hear that anymore. Do you expect the Mississippi schools to continue this success and, for a follow-up, will Arkansas surpass them again as was the expected norm for the past decade or so?

KANE: For starters, I expect Dan Mullen to be the next head coach at Florida, so, no, I don’t look for Mississippi State to continue its success. It’s just too difficult to rebuild there, and every coaching change equals rebuilding. Arkansas fans can attest to that. As for Ole Miss, I think these could be good years for some time in Oxford, which should be much more attractive to recruits than Starkville — and not because of its Old South charm, history and Faulknerian vibe (if that appeals at all to 18-year-old boys) but its proximity to Memphis and the improved facilities and campus life in general. When I was in college, Ole Miss was synonymous with pretty co-eds, which I can tell you does hold appeal for 18-year-old boys. Hugh Freeze has stitched together several great recruiting classes and he’s now seeing the payoff. (It’s the approach Bielema wisely is taking at Arkansas. Just keep recruiting, baby. Stack together talent in class after class and, eventually, you’ll catch up on the field.) Can Freeze keep it up? Why not? As you note, Mississippi is loaded with athletes — as is nearby south Louisiana. Will Arkansas surpass Mississippi again? I could argue that both may rise together, since Arkansas doesn’t seem to recruit its neighbor state much any more. Who’s to say that Mississippi won’t keep rising and Bielema keeps improving the talent level in Fayetteville, and it’s Alabama and LSU that start to go the other way? Blasphemy? As good as Nick Saban is, he’s not getting any younger. And, last I checked, he won’t live forever. I think. And if LSU is suddenly battling the Mississippi schools and Arkansas for players it used to pen in, well … what I’m saying is, maybe this weekend wasn’t just a fluke but a harbinger of things to come in the SEC.

JIM: Ed Orgeron, while he failed to win as head coach, proved to everyone including the good folks at Ole Miss that the truly great, game-changing athletes could be recruited to Oxford. Hugh Freeze was part of his staff, a big part of that recruiting, and it helped after Freeze had proven in one year at ASU that he could also direct a program to a championship that he had the connection. Archie Manning could sense that, and you’ve seen it pay off. Whatever “it” is, Freeze has it in bunches when it comes to connecting with mommas and whatnot in bringing in the likes of Robert Nkemdiche from Georgia and Laquon Treadwell out of Illinois, plus now beating Bama, Tennessee and LSU for players from in-state who typically would have left. And, surprise, after losing a few recruiting battles for a couple of years, Dan Mullen has beaten first Houston Nutt and now Freeze on the field in the Egg Bowl, and this year he appears to be cleaning up in landing SERIOUS talent to fill the holes that are sure to come through senior departures with his program. So, taken the perspective of an Arkansan, I worry that Arkansas will ever feel that edge again in talent over those two programs. It helps, however, that Arkansas itself is having a bountiful in-state crop this year after some serious lean years of SEC-worthy talent, and that Bielema is getting them all to stay home. So, that too, is what Arkansas must do to stay in the game with those programs. I can see Mullen jumping, too, but his successor will inherit some quality players. Like they say, kids want to go where the programs are winning, and this year is that magical year for both Mississippi schools to keep that going when they’re out securing the best players in that state. Arkansas can’t manage to make a dent in there in terms of recruiting, but surprisingly, now Tennessee or Georgia can’t, and Alabama is finding itself getting beat or seeing players flip to the home-state schools after first committing to the Tide.

JIM: Are we just reacting too soon to Alabama’s recent losses (Auburn, OU, Ole Miss) or do you sense that the era of Nick Saban dominance is coming to an end? Do you think he stays in Tuscaloosa or decides to fry other fish? And what to make of LSU’s sudden downturn; we know they lost tons of talent the past two years early to the NFL, and there is talent on hand now to return to prominence, but do you sense a sea-change occurring in Baton Rouge as well? Heck, how about Les to Michigan and Nick back to LSU, just to appease all those Cajuns?

KANE: Wouldn’t that be a hoot? I can see Miles to Michigan. He’s got to be tired of constantly being ridiculed and second-guessed by the locals despite all his success, and as a “Michigan Man” he may feel that obligation to turn things around in Ann Arbor. Saban? From what I understand, his wife now calls those shots, and she likes Tuscaloosa. And Saban is in his 60s now. After decades of 24/7 football-obsessed stress, he’s got to be wearing down. Does HE want to make another move? I doubt it. Are we overreacting? Yes and No. Yes, in that Alabama will undoubtedly continue to win at a high level under Saban. But no in that Saban and Bama have more competition on the field, and on the sidelines, than ever before. I think Gus Malzahn has Nick a little rattled, too. Here’s Saban winning national titles easy as you please and, bam!, now he’s not even top dog in his own state. I wonder if he looks at Malzahn and just kind of gets tired, ya know? Like he’s thinking, “Man, I’m worn out fighting off all these young turks, recruiting against them, coaching against them, raising money against them….” Look at the infusion of quality new head coaches in the SEC: Malzahn, Freeze, Bielema, Tennessee’s Butch Jones… I’d throw Kentucky’s Mark Stoops in there, too. His recruiting is starting to pay off. My take on LSU is simple: no quarterback.

JIM: I’m certain Alabama’s bigger supporters fear what’s going on at Auburn with Malzahn and not only his overall great coaching but the recruiting the Tigers are doing. Malzahn’s predecessors all the way back to Terry Bowden had great years but the occasional downturn, and their recruiting was at the root of that, but Gus has a chance to be the steadiest influence as a head coach since Pat Dye, if not Shug Jordan. Nick, as you note, isn’t getting any younger. He’ll be 63 on Halloween, and surely that scares him, if all these rising young coaches in the SEC West don’t. It’s he and Les and all these young guns (and maybe that further explains his hiring of Lane Kiffin this season, to have that viewpoint to lean on with the Bama offense). Stoops, Butch Jones, the guys you also note from the East, good point as well. It’s just change that’s ever ongoing, and the days of a Bear Bryant watching them all come and go are over. I think it’s Alabama, rather than LSU, whose main problem is lacking a steadying hand at quarterback. I don’t mean in talent but in just having command of the team the way Greg McElroy and A.J. McCarron did the past six seasons. Obviously Coker wasn’t ready to be that guy. Blake Sims is probably better than anyone at Alabama expected him to be, but on Saturday he lacked that fourth-quarter calming effect and rallying effect that McCarron would have provided. That loss to Ole Miss is not all on Sims, though. Eventually, that early attrition of all those NFL-ready bodies before their senior years had to hurt Bama and LSU. The Tigers have quarterback problems, to be sure, but they also are at the lowest they’ve been in some time in the middle of their defense. They’re having to jury-rig things on that side. You give up 41 points at Auburn and lose by 34, your problems are more than quarterback.

KANE: Speaking of a sea change in the SEC, I have a weird theory that the emergence of the SEC Network will further help bring parity to the league. Because now every team has its own reality show, so to speak; every team gets all the TV coverage it can handle, every team is a star. Joe Stud Quarterback from Odessa, Texas, now just wants to go to the SEC — college football’s equivalent of “The League” — and does the particular school really matter that much any more? Other than previous championships and, for now, Saban, what can Alabama offer a future NFL’er that Auburn or Ole Miss or Arkansas can’t? (Why, Bama doesn’t run a spread offense or even wear cool, ever-changing Nike-designed uniforms!) They’ve all got state-of-the-art everything when it comes to facilities. All the fan bases treat these players like demigods. And now every school gets its share of over-the-top TV coverage. Is that crazy to think that? That the SEC Network could be a detriment to the historically dominant programs like Bama, LSU, Florida, Georgia?

JIM: It’s not crazy to think any of that. It’s no longer a stretch even to those Big Ten or Pac-12 promoters that the SEC is the NFL-light without the draft, and just like the NFL where a thin line separates most of the teams every Sunday, we’re seeing that coming about in the SEC, especially in the West this season. You could have Arkansas and LSU’s game deciding who finishes LAST in the West; who would’ve thought that, or at least had LSU in that conversation. And neither are bad; LSU was being heralded for coming back to beat Wisconsin in the opening game, with one of those bad quarterbacks in charge, even. The seven teams in the SEC East aren’t there with the West now, but it runs in cycles and the East was the dominant side in the 1990s (though never deep all the way to the bottom like the West is now), and it will be back to being on par soon enough. Again, that’s why I figure at some point, four teams in the College Football Playoff will be ludicrous. But it was created to somewhat fail its mission from the start: How can you acknowledge that there are five power conferences and yet have space for just four teams to compete for the national title, knowing that all conferences aren’t equal. Another subject to discuss soon.

KANE: Yep, this four-team playoff is just a temporary bridge to eight or 16. But let’s turn our attention to the Arkansas-Alabama game this Saturday. Name five things the Razorbacks must do to have a chance at upsetting the Tide? Given recent history, maybe I should rephrase that as name five things the Razorbacks must do to have a chance at scoring against the Tide — but I’ll keep the good thought.

JIM: Interesting you ask for five things the Hogs must do to beat Alabama, as I have continued to note and write elsewhere that if Arkansas changes just one of five plays, just one, not all five, the Hogs don’t lose that A&M game. I wonder if we’ll be looking back at the same scenario Saturday, where if the Hogs had done just one thing out of five plays differently, the result would change? Against Alabama, the Hogs (1) must have what Bielema defines as a “clean” game. In my memory, I’m not sure Arkansas has ever had two touchdowns in a big game wiped out by penalties on one player as we saw vs. A&M. It’s hard to imagine any team not drawing a single flag for anything, but Arkansas needs to avoid the really stupid stuff, the 15-yard stuff that is easily avoidable by thinking. Brandon Allen (2) needs to play nearly perfectly; don’t even allow any fumbled snaps, and when he’s smartly throwing the ball away when nobody’s open, don’t throw it so far it takes out a Hog cornerback in the process. Gosh, it seems like a black cloud follows that guy, doesn’t it? About the last thing I’d have expected in any game would have been fumbled snaps under center from him, and somehow those show up at the worst possible time against A&M. The Hog defense (3) can bend a little this time, but don’t break, don’t give up a momentum changing 80-plus-yard scoring play. Don’t do it on play one a la Shaud Williams in 2002 vs. Bama before a raucous crowd that suddenly goes silent for three hours, and don’t do it to start the fourth quarter like we saw against A&M. If a bad play does happen (4) like Ole Miss suffered, don’t wallow in self-pity and doubt but keep fighting to the end on offense and defense, keep trying to make plays and force turnovers. And finally (5), take into the game some sea-worthy kicking specialist who every coach and players believes can hit at least a 40-yard field goal; you’re going to get the chance at it, and you’ll already have an edge on Alabama if you do.

KANE: My Five Musts for the Hogs: (1) No turnovers and few, if any, mistakes — yep, play that “clean game” you reference that Bielema keeps talking about; (2) several turnovers and lots of key, untimely mistakes from Alabama — in other words, the Tide has to repeat its sloppy performance in Oxford; (3) Amari Cooper comes down with a wicked cold Friday night or misses the bus from the hotel Saturday afternoon or, somehow someway, is limited by the Hogs’ secondary or ignored by Bama’s quarterbacks (I have a sneaking suspicion that we may see Tide backup QB Jacob Coker in this one); (4) at least one big play from Korliss Marshall; (5) no head games for the Hogs in the fourth quarter. I think their failure to close of late is largely a problem between the ears — similar to a team that dominates at home but just can’t seem to win on the road. Once the Razorbacks finish, and against a team not named Texas Tech, then we’ll see what Bielema really has going.

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That’ll do it for this installment of Water-Cooler Analysis. Thanks, Jim. I’ll be watching you for post-game analysis on KTHV, Channel 11, listening to you on radio stations all over the globe and, of course, reading you right here at Sporting Life Arkansas.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Mississippi

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