On the Grid: Bryan Flynn's Sophisticated Wild-Ass Guesses
There seem to be more questions than answers heading into the 2012 college football season for Mississippi teams. Especially at quarterback, nearly every college and university has question marks, and uncertainty fills the air.
I would wager every program is entering the season with fears.
Can the Mississippi State Bulldogs continue their rise? Will the Southern Miss Golden Eagles keep their streak of winning seasons alive without quarterback Austin Davis and head coach Larry Fedora? Without quarterback Casey Therriault, what about the Jackson State Tiger's SWAC title hopes? Will the Ole Miss Rebels finally win an SEC game after going winless for the last year?
In the smaller schools, will a new coach and moving the game against Jackson State back to Lorman spark Alcorn State's program? Can Delta State keep building into a Division II powerhouse after a great two-year playoff run? Will Mississippi College, Millsaps or Belhaven make a run to the playoffs that could steal the spotlight from the bigger schools? Is there any chance Mississippi Valley State begins its rise from the ashes?
I always say that the best part about sports is that the stories write themselves. We can speculate around the dinner table, on the Internet or at the barber shop in the preseason how this season will turn out for our favorite team, but all these worries and hopes will end up being played out right before our eyes each Saturday this fall.
Jackson State University Tigers
Head coach: Rick Comegy (41-26; 6th season; 149-74 overall)
2011-12 season: 9-2 (7-2 SWAC; tied for first place SWAC East)
Stadium: Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium
Radio: 1300 AM
Last year's prediction: 8-3
Jackson State's season was bittersweet last year. The Tigers finished in a three-way tie for first place in the SWAC East but couldn't play in the conference title game even if they won the tiebreakers because of academic issues for the players.
Casey Therriault left his mark on the JSU record books but is gone this season after using up his eligibility. Hopes now rest in the Tigers finding a quarterback to stay at the top of the East division.
Former Louisville High School standout Clayton Moore (a transfer from Akron) will battle Dedric McDonald for the starting quarterback job. It doesn't matter if Moore or McDonald wins the starting job as long as they can produce.
Therriault might be gone, but Jackson State will have preseason SWAC defensive player of the year Joseph LeBeau back at defensive end. LeBeau had 16 sacks and an amazing 24.5 tackles for losses last season. With eight returning starters, the defense will have to carry the load for JSU.
No question: JSU can repeat the same success that it had last season. Even if the Tigers don't post a nine-win season, they shouldn't fall too far from last year's record.
Outlook: I was nearly dead on with the Tigers prediction last season. Not a bad job, if I do say so myself.
Quarterback play will make or break this season for Jackson State. JSU will need to play a little better on defense, because Therriault is not going to be in the offensive huddle when the Tigers are down late in a game.
LeBeau will have to be a leader for this team and play up to his preseason awards. JSU should be in the mix playing for a SWAC championship this season.
Schedule: Sept. 1, at Mississippi State; Sept. 8, Tennessee State (Memphis, Tenn.); Sept. 15, at Texas Southern; Sept. 22, Southern; Sept. 29, Prairie View A&M; Oct. 6, at Arkansas-Pine Bluff; Oct. 13, at Alabama State; Oct. 20, Mississippi Valley State; Nov. 3, at Grambling State; Nov. 10, Alabama A&M; Nov. 17, Alcorn State
University of Mississippi Rebels
Head coach: Hugh Freeze (0-0; first season; 30-7 overall)
2011-12 season: 2-10 (0-8 SEC, last place in SEC West)
Stadium: Vaught-Hemingway Stadium
Radio: 97.3 FM
Last year's prediction: 5-7
I have no nice way to talk about last season for Ole Miss. Last year, Ole Miss quit on their coach, Houston Nutt, and on their season. The low lights were numerous and just got worse as the season went on.
Ole Miss never really got any traction. The Rebels blew the opening game of the season against BYU. They lost to Louisiana Tech by 20, and LSU took a knee over the final five minutes in the fourth quarter to avoid running the score up even higher than 52-3. What might have hurt worse was the loss to archrival Mississippi State for the third straight year (31-3) and failing to win a conference game.
I have to mention that the fan base was torn apart by a decision to change the school's mascot to a black bear. The Rebels have yet to embrace the bear, but it seems the Ole Miss fans are resigned to finding a place in their hearts for him.
At the end of the season, Ole Miss showed Nutt the door and lured Hugh Freeze from Arkansas State. Freeze is known as an offensive coach who installs a high-powered passing offense.
Freeze needs time to rebuild this team, which is in the toughest conference in the country. Barry Brunetti and Bo Wallace will battle for the starting quarterback job, but neither will be able to make a big difference with holes all over the roster.
Outlook: I blew this prediction last year pretty good. If I blow it this year, it will be a great season for Rebels fans. Things will stay much like last season, or they'll get worse before they get better. Freeze will need to recruit players that fit his system and clean house of non-team first players.
Ole Miss will have some growing pains, but Freeze has been successful everywhere he has coached. This season will not be pretty, but the future could look brighter if Ole Miss can pull off an upset or two.
Schedule: Sept. 1, Central Arkansas; Sept. 8, UTEP; Sept. 15, Texas; Sept. 22, at Tulane; Sept. 29, at Alabama; Oct. 6, Texas A&M; Oct. 13, Auburn; Oct. 27, at Arkansas; Nov. 3, at Georgia; Nov. 10, Vanderbilt; Nov. 17, at LSU; Nov. 24, Mississippi State
University of Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles
Head coach: Ellis Johnson (0-0; first season; 17-28 overall)
2011-12 season: 12-2 (6-2 C-USA East); C-USA Champions; Hawaii Bowl win
Stadium: M.M. Roberts Stadium "The Rock," Hattiesburg
Radio: 105.1 FM
Last year's prediction: 10-2
Southern Miss is celebrating 100 years of football this season and doing so after one of the most successful seasons in the school's history. The Golden Eagles are going to have to try to repeat last year's feat with a new head coach and without quarterback Austin Davis, who rewrote the USM record books.
Larry Fedora jumped from USM to North Carolina (good luck with that academic scandal), and the Golden Eagles hired Ellis Johnson, the defensive coordinator at South Carolina. Johnson hasn't been a head coach since leading The Citadel to a 6-6 record in 2003.
USM will need to find a new quarterback, and true freshman Anthony Alford could end up being the starter at some point this season. Without an experienced quarterback, the Golden Eagles running back stable must pick up the load.
This team will need the defense to jell quickly, with only four starters returning, and Jamie Collins needs to be the leader of this unit. If USM wants to run its 18 straight winning seasons up to 19 straight, both the offense and defense must grow up quickly.
Outlook: I nailed my prediction last year, even though I got the teams wrong that Southern Miss would lose to. I was right that USM would lose two games, and that the losses would be shockers (UAB and Marshall).
This season will see Southern Miss face Nebraska (road), Boise State (home), Western Kentucky (home) and Louisville (home) in non-conference games.
Three of those four teams reached a bowl game last season (Western Kentucky was left at home with a 7-5 record). USM faces all four non-conference opponents in the first five weeks of the season.
If USM can split their non-conference games, it will give the Golden Eagles the confidence to reach an 11th straight bowl game and a 19th straight winning season.
Prediction: 8-4 (could represent C-USA again); 19th straight winning season; 11th straight bowl
Schedule: Sept. 1, at Nebraska; Sept. 15, East Carolina; Sept. 22, at W.K.U.; Sept. 29, Louisville; Oct. 6, Boise State; Oct. 13, at U.C.F.; Oct. 20, Marshall; Oct. 27, at Rice; Nov. 3, U.A.B.; Nov. 10, at S.M.U.; Nov. 17, UTEP; Nov. 24, at Memphis
Mississippi State University Bulldogs
Head coach: Dan Mullen (fourth season; 21-17 overall)
2011-12 season: 7-6 (2-6 SEC, 5th place in SEC West); win in Music City Bowl
Stadium: Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field, Starkville
Radio: 105.9 FM
Last year's prediction: 8-4
If Mississippi State had pulled off victories in close games against Auburn and South Carolina, that 8-4 prediction would have been perfect. The Bulldogs did make a bowl game, so I'm calling that a win.
This season's hopes rest with quarterback Tyler Russell and his ability to throw the ball. After sitting behind Chris Relf for two years, Russell is now the man, and all the weight of the team's success or failure falls on him.
Russell needs to provide big plays for this offense in the passing game. Success this season will depend on opposing teams fearing Russell's arm mixed with a solid ground game.
MSU is in the SEC West, the strongest division in college football, but the Bulldogs need to beat another division foe other than Ole Miss. Alabama, LSU and Arkansas to be considered the "class" of the conference, but Auburn and Texas A&M are beatable.
Coach Dan Mullen has done a good job turning this program around after taking over for Sylvester Croom. Last year, the Bulldogs won the games they were supposed to win and kept pace with the SEC heavyweights.
Over the next two years, MSU has to take the next step by beating some of the big boys and challenging for a division title in the SEC West. If the Bulldogs take care of business early in the season, their schedule sets them up for big things.
Outlook: After taking a slight step back last season from 2010, this program needs to take a step forward. MSU returns most of last year's defense with cornerbacks Jonathan Banks and Corey Broomfield leading the way.
I am not going to lie. The Bulldogs could start the season 7-0 if they can take care of Auburn and Tennessee at home. The schedule becomes much tougher starting Oct. 27 at Alabama.
Prediction: 8-4 with a third straight bowl game
Schedule: Sept. 1, Jackson State; Sept. 8, Auburn; Sept. 15, at Troy, Sept. 22, South Alabama; Oct. 6, at Kentucky; Oct. 13, Tennessee; Oct. 20, M.T.S.U.; Oct. 27, at Alabama; Nov. 3, Texas A&M; Nov. 10, at L.S.U.; Nov. 17, Arkansas; Nov. 24 at Mississippi
Alcorn State University
Head coach: Jay Hopson (0-0, 1st season/0-0 overall)
2011-12 season: 2-8 (1-8 SWAC, 4th place SWAC East)
Stadium: Jack Spinks Stadium, Lorman
Radio: 90.1 FM
Last year's prediction: 7-3
Alcorn State made headlines this offseason by hiring Jay Hopson, the first white head coach in SWAC history, and deciding not to play Jackson State in Jackson, killing the Capital City Classic this year.
The Braves are on their third coach in three years after Melvin Spears lasted only one year since replacing Earnest Collins. The Hopson hiring made headlines but doesn't mean anything in the grand scheme of things if he doesn't win games.
ASU is returning most of last year's offense and defense starters, so there should be a few more wins. But the offense ranked 109th in FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) and must improve dramatically. (Side note: JSU had the best offense in FCS last season.)
Outlook: Hopson hired quarterback coach Fred McNair, so there goes a connection to ASU past. The Braves defense ranked 82nd ranked last season, meaning they have a mountain to climb on both sides of the ball.
Don't look for ASU to compete for a SWAC title this season, but expect improvements and more wins. Hopefully, I am closer on this year's prediction than last year's seven wins I dreamed up.
Schedule: Sept. 1, Grambling State (Shreveport, La.); Sept. 8, at James Madison; Sept. 15, Arkansas-Pine Bluff; Sept. 22, at Arkansas State; Sept. 29, Alabama State; Oct. 6, Southern; Oct. 13, at Alabama A&M; Oct. 20, at Prairie View A&M; Nov. 3, at Mississippi Valley State; Nov. 10, Texas Southern; Nov. 17, at Jackson State
Mississippi Valley State University
Head coach: Karl Morgan (1-20; 3rd season; 1-20 overall)
2011-12 season: 1-10 (1-8 SWAC, 5th place SWAC East)
Stadium: Rice-Totten Stadium, Itta Bena
Last year's prediction: 2-9
The rebuilding process at Mississippi Valley State has to be tough on Delta Devils fans. MVSU head coach Karl Morgan enters his third season with just one win, a 12-9 victory over Texas Southern. Still, the team showed some signs of improvement. The Delta Devils played JSU to a one-point loss and lost to Grambling State, Southern and Prairie View by nine points or less.
Outlook: Things have to turn around eventually for MVSU, but lack of funds to build a proper program doesn't make for a quick rebound.
I was optimistic last season for the Delta Devils, and I think they will take another step forward this season. The offense has to improve greatly; it only scored more than 14 points four times last season.
Schedule: Sept. 1, Concordia (Ala.); Sept. 8, at Alabama State; Sept. 13, at Southern; Sept. 22, at Northwestern State; Oct. 6, Alabama A&M; Oct. 13, Grambling State; Oct. 20, at Jackson State; Oct. 27, at Arkansas-Pine Bluff; Nov. 3, Alcorn State; Nov. 10, Prairie View A&M; Nov. 17, Texas Southern
Head coach: Norman Joseph (36-36; eighth season; 57-56 overall)
2011-12 season: 3-7 (2-6; 7th place American Southwest Conference)
Stadium: Robinson-Hale Stadium, Clinton
Last year's prediction: 5-5
It was a tough season for Mississippi College with two three-game losing streaks and ending the season with three straight losses. The Choctaws want to get off to a fast start against major rival Millsaps. MC plays in one of the toughest Division III conferences, the ASC, and will have to outperform preseason expectations by the other head coaches who picked MC to finish sixth in the conference.
Outlook: The Choctaws are breaking in a new starting quarterback this season, and that is a tough proposition in an already tough conference. MC will have to play way above expectations to compete for a conference title.
Mississippi College plays in a top-heavy conference. Finishing in the near the middle of the eight team ASC would be outstanding.
Schedule: Aug. 30, at Millsaps; Sept. 8, Webber International; Sept 15, at West Alabama; Sept. 29, at Hardin-Simmons; Oct. 6, Sul Ross State; Oct. 13, at Howard Payne; Oct. 20, at Texas Lutheran; Oct. 27, East Texas Baptist; Nov. 3, Louisiana College; Nov. 11 at Mary Hardin-Baylor
Delta State University
Head coach: Jamey Chadwell (0-0; 1st season; overall 22-14)
2011-12 season: 11-3 (3-1 Gulf South Record; reached semifinals of Division II Playoffs)
Stadium: Travis Parker Field, Cleveland
Radio: 930 AM
Last year's prediction: 9-2 (another prediction I nailed).
Delta State made another deep run in the Division II playoffs last season behind quarterback Micah Davis. The Statesmen will enter this season without Davis or last year's head coach Ron Roberts. Jamey Chadwell took over after Roberts left to become head coach of Southeastern Louisiana.
DSU has plenty of talent left in Cleveland, but the Statesmen will have to grow up quickly. Delta State faces Fort Valley State, a major contender in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, in game one of the season. Overall DSU will face three teams ranked in top 15 of the Division II preseason top 25.
Outlook: Chadwell's last job was at North Greenville University, where he turned the program around and led it to the Division II playoffs last season. NGU lost to Delta State in the playoffs last season. DSU should be in good hands with Chandell and is ranked in the top 15 of the Division II to start the season. Look for the Statesmen to make another run at the DII playoffs.
Schedule: Sept. 1, Fort Valley State; Sept. 8, at Elizabeth City State; Sept. 22, North Alabama; Sept. 27, Abilene Christian; Oct. 6, at Tarleton State; Oct. 13, West Georgia; Oct. 20, at Valdosta State; Oct. 27, West Alabama; Nov. 3, at University of Indianapolis; Nov. 11 at Shorter University
Head coach: Aaron Pelch (11-9; third season; 11-9 overall)
2011-12 season: 4-6 (3-3; 4th place Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference)
Stadium: Harper Davis Field, Jackson
Last year's prediction: 8-2 (I blew it.)
This is the first season that the Majors will participate in the Southern Athletic Association. In fact it will be the first season any team participates in the SAA after it formed last year-teams had to honor their commitments to their last conference, the SCAC.
Millsaps returns 15 starters from last year's squad with nine starters returning on offense and six defensive starters back. The Majors get both quarterbacks, Garrett Pinciotti and Konner Joplin, back this season.
Outlook: With as many starters back for Millsaps, you'd think a good season has to be in the works. The Majors may be in a new conference, but they already know their conference opponents because they all left the SCAC together.
Millsaps will have a very good chance to capture the conference's first championship. Then again I could be wrong, like I was last year.
Schedule: Aug. 30, Mississippi College; Sept. 8, at LaGrange; Sept. 15, at Point; Sept. 29, at Centre; Oct. 6, Huntingdon; Oct. 13, Sewanee; Oct. 20, at Rhodes; Oct. 27, at Trinity; Nov. 3, Austin; Nov. 10, Birmingham Southern
Head coach: Joseph Thrasher (15-18 4th season/28-34 overall
2011-12 season: 5-6 (3-3; 5th place Mid-South Conference West)
Stadium: H.T. Newell Field, Jackson
Last year's prediction: 5-6 (somebody get me to Vegas before this season starts).
Belhaven returns Conerly Trophy finalist Justin Gaines at running back. The Blazers will rely on Gaines but will also have quarterbacks Alex Williams and Jimmy Brasford returning as well. Both Qbs saw plenty of action last season with Williams getting the majority of the passing attempts. Belhaven has a new offensive coordinator, but Craig Bowman is familiar with the Blazers offensive players because he was wide-receivers coach last season.
Outlook: Belhaven was picked to finish fifth in the MSC West division. The bad news for the Blazers is that five teams on their schedule were either ranked or received votes in the NAIA Football Coaches' Spring Top-25 Poll.
Schedule: Sept. 1, at University of the Cumberlands (KY); Sept. 8, Louisiana College; Sept. 15, at Cumberland University (TN); Sept. 22, Campbellsville University (KY); Sept. 29, at University of Virginia at Wise; Oct. 6, Kentucky Christian University; Oct. 13, Bluefield College; Oct. 20, at Lindsey Wilson College; Oct. 27, at Faulkner College; Nov. 3, Pikeville College; Nov. 10 Bethel University
Hinds Community College Eagles
Head coach: Gene Murphy (148-44-5; 20th season; 148-44-5)
2011-12 season: 7-3 (5-1; second in South division)
Stadium: Joe Renfroe Stadium, Raymond
Radio: 99.1 FM
Hinds Community College returned to the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) playoffs in 2011 for the first time since 2004. Gene Murphy-with 148 wins, the winningest active coach in National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA)-leads the Eagles.
HCC is entering this season as the sixth-ranked team in the NJCAA preseason poll. Last year, East Mississippi Community College (the eventual national champion) beat the Eagles 55-24 in the playoffs to end their season. This year, Hinds was picked second in the South division, with Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College at No. 1. Mississippi Gulf Coast starts the season ranked fourth in the NJCAA preseason poll.
Outlook: Hinds returns a wealth of talent on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. The Eagles look to be a playoff contender in 2012, challenging Mississippi Gulf Coast CC for the top spot in their division.
Schedule: Aug. 30, Mississippi Delta CC; Sept. 6, Coahoma CC; Sept. 13 at Mississippi Gulf Coast CC, Sept. 20 Co-Lin CC, Sept. 29 at East Central CC, Oct. 4 Southwest Mississippi CC, Oct. 11 Jones CC, Oct. 18 at Holmes CC, Oct. 25 at Pearl River CC
Holmes Community College Bulldogs
Head coach: Jeff Koonz (2-7; second season; 2-7 overall)
2011-12 season: 2-7
Stadium: Ras Branch Field
Radio: 103.9 FM
Holmes CC struggled last year in Jeff Koonz's first season. The Bulldogs lost seven games by an average 19.4 points. The closest loss last season for Holmes was a three-point loss to Southwest Mississippi Community College. The high point of the season had to be a 23-point victory over Mississippi Delta Community College. Holmes also held off Coahoma Community College for a dramatic 15-14 win.
Outlook: Holmes just doesn't have the talent to compete in the tough Mississippi Junior College system right now. The Bulldogs' lack of talent was evident when the team held open tryouts in May. This squad was picked to finish fifth in the North division.
Schedule: Aug. 30, at Jones CC; Sept. 6, Mississippi Gulf Coast CC; Sept. 13, Northeast CC (at Madison Central); Sept. 20, at Itawamba CC; Sept. 29, Mississippi Delta CC; Oct. 6, East Mississippi CC; Oct. 11, at Northwest Mississippi CC; Oct. 18, Hinds CC; Oct. 25, Coahoma CC