OXFORD — Turns out all those fans who fueled season-ticket sales records at Mississippi’s three major college football schools were on to something.
The season has started great Magnolia state.
No. 4 Ole Miss (2-0) and Southern Mississippi (3-0) are co-owner of the nation’s second longest winning streak at eight. The Rebels and Golden Eagles face their most difficult challenges of the season this week. Ole Miss travel to South Carolina to play their Southeastern Conference opener Thursday night and the Golden Eagles head to No. 20 Kansas for their second straight game against a team from one of the big six BCS conferences.
And at Mississippi State, the Bulldogs are off to 2-1 under new coach Dan Mullen, bringing the state’s Big 3 to 7-1 this season. Mississippi State hosts No. 7 LSU next.
Coaches at each school feel a buzz building from a football-mad citizenry.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it: Football is king in the state of Mississippi,” Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora said. “That and hunting.”
Fedora, Ole Miss’ Houston Nutt and Mullen will know a lot more about their teams after this week. All still have questions surrounding their programs despite the fast start. Win and those questions start to fade away.
For the Rebels, the question is are they ready for some high-level football after a difficult start that’s included a terrible case of the swine flu that sacked more than a third of the roster, injuries to a few key players and some lingering questions?
Ole Miss lost fullback Andy Hartmann to a knee injury in a 52-6 win over Southeastern Louisiana on Saturday, but otherwise returns almost everyone to the lineup against South Carolina, including star defensive end Greg Hardy, who missed the last game with a sprained left ankle.
“I want everybody out there on the field and we’re about to get that way,” Nutt said. “We haven’t had a full team together since camp. The Gerald Harrises, Hardy, Justin Smith went down, a bruise here, bruise there, an ankle — besides the sickness. You just want everybody out on the field so you can get that continuity, that chemistry, that togetherness that’s you need.”
That kind of bonding helped Ole Miss (2-0) launch its eight-game winning streak. The Rebels struggled to a 3-4 start in 2008, Nutt’s first year at Ole Miss. But once players got accustomed to Nutt’s system and each other, they reeled off six straight wins to finish the year, including an impressive Cotton Bowl victory over Texas Tech that got the buzz started about 2009.
In a sense, they’re facing a similar scenario this season, but so far the problems haven’t led to a loss in games against Memphis and the Lions. They’ve left points on the field several times and have had to rely on a dominant defense.
The Rebels have crept up the polls, mostly due to attrition above them. No. 4 is the highest the Rebels have been since 1970. They were preseason No. 1 in 1964 and spent parts of 1960 ranked atop the poll.
The Rebels would love to see No. 1 again, but they’ll need to keep winning as the schedule difficulty increases. The pressure is on to get things right with the quick turnaround before the trip to South Carolina, but players say they can handle it.
“This is Southeastern Conference football and we have to get together and go to work,” defensive end Kentrell Lockett said.
Southern Miss’ streak has the same feel as Ole Miss’. A new coach installed new systems last year and the team struggled. The Golden Eagles lost five straight at one point, but rallied to five consecutive wins that included a victory over Troy in the New Orleans Bowl.
The Golden Eagles (3-0) have continued the streak into the new season and punctuated it with a come-from-behind win over Virginia, giving Southern Miss its fourth home win over a BCS automatic-qualifying conference opponent this decade. Fedora hopes this is just the start.
“We feel like our kids understand what we expect and they have higher expectations for themselves now,” Fedora said. “We’re excited about where we’re going. We obviously know we’re not there yet and we have a long way to go, but we know we’re headed in the right direction.”
Ole Miss and Southern Miss have fueled their runs with homegrown talent. The state is among the per-capita leaders for supplying the NFL and the availability of good players was one of the lures that brought former Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen to Mississippi State.
He’s taking over a 4-8 team and faces a treacherous slate with LSU the first of six currently ranked opponents scheduled to come to Starkville this year. The Bulldogs showed promise in a 15-6 win at Vanderbilt, but Mullen believes he still has a lot to do to improve the team.
To do that, he’ll have to beat Ole Miss and Southern Miss in another game.
“There’s a lot of talented football players here in the state of Mississippi,” Mullen said. “One of the tougher things we face is there’s three schools competing for them. There’s a lot of states where there’s one big school that is really hand-picking the talent they want. In this state, you have to compete for that talent.”
Chris Talbott/The Associated Press