VOL. 129 | NO. 196 | Wednesday, October 8, 2014
By Don Wade
Call the doctor, the sports doctor. Because the collective temperature of Mid-South college football fans is at unsafe levels.
Memphis defensive lineman Terry Redden (56) tackles Ole Miss running back Jordan Wilkins (22) during the game in Oxford, Miss., in the then-10th ranked Rebels’ 24-3 victory over the Tigers.
(AP Photo/The Daily Mississippian, Thomas Graning)
Mississippi State and Ole Miss are undefeated and tied for third in the Associated Press poll. The historically downtrodden University of Memphis football program just blasted preseason American Athletic Conference favorite Cincinnati on the road and hung with both Ole Miss and UCLA.
“It’s never been this hot at the same time for State and Ole Miss, as it is now, in my memory,” said George Lapides, longtime talk show radio host at Sports56 and a former sports writer and editor. “Throw Memphis in the mix and you’ve got to go back to the early ’60s when Memphis fans felt they really could play with the big boys.”
Yes, these are heady times for the local college football fan. In Oxford last Saturday, the day started with Katy Perry clowning on ESPN’s “College GameDay.” It included the usual happening that is a wide-eyed stroll through The Grove. The day moved forward as Rebel quarterback Bo Wallace played like a Manning and the Ole Miss defense acted like the 1985 Chicago Bears in a 23-17 upset of mighty Alabama. Fans rushed the field and spent the rest of the night dividing up the goal posts and stimulating the local economy 12 ounces at a time.
Down in Starkville, the Bullies were just that in a 48-31 thumping of then-No. 6 Texas A&M that was in no way as close as the score might suggest. Quarterback Dak Prescott had a hand in five touchdowns – or two more than Wallace, if you want to make it a competition – and yes, Prescott is in the Heisman Trophy conversation. Fans seldom sat down, enjoying every moment of State’s victory – the second this season over a Top 10 team, a school first.
“Fun game and an awesome win,” said MSU offensive lineman Ben Beckwith. “Our fans were awesome. Everything was awesome all day.”
And so it was for the entire state of Mississippi, which suddenly has become the center of the college football universe. The ESPN “College GameDay” crew – starring corny Lee Corso and straight man Chris Fowler – will be in Starkvegas this weekend for the game with No. 2 Auburn, which is also undefeated.
It is at this point, of course, that we must pause for some required coachspeak.
“All we are is 2-0 in the SEC,” said Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen. “Getting two SEC wins was not our goal this season.”
Meantime, in Oxford, here’s Rebels coach Hugh Freeze on Ole Miss and State sharing the No. 3 spot in the AP poll: “They’re deserving. I think we’re deserving. Will we be deserving three weeks from now? Who knows? It was a great day for the state of Mississippi for sure.”
Last Saturday also wasn’t a bad day for the city of Memphis. The Tigers are 3-2, 1-0 in the American Athletic Conference and only lost by seven points to then-No. 11 UCLA at the Rose Bowl and stayed with the Rebels until midway in the fourth quarter.
The Tigers drew 46,000-plus for Middle Tennessee and U of M deputy athletic director Wren Baker says a crowd of 50,000 is possible for the Houston game at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium this coming Saturday night.
“This is an opportunity for us to play in front of our people,” said Memphis coach Justin Fuente. “I know this sounds obvious, but instead of going to the Rose Bowl, instead of going down to Ole Miss, instead of playing in someone else’s backyard in their hostile environment handling their crowd, somebody has to handle ours.”
Said Tigers linebacker Charles Harris: “We look forward to giving this city something to be proud of.”
The same sentiment is at play a little farther to the south, where the talk is even bigger – winning the SEC West, maybe even making it to the new four-team College Football Playoff.
“We worked hard for this moment,” Ole Miss wide receiver Laquon Treadwell said amid the rowdy aftermath of the Alabama game. “And (as the final seconds ticked away), I thought, ‘This isn’t the end of it all. It’s just the beginning.’”
If that’s so, then come Nov. 29 when the Bulldogs and Rebels play the Egg Bowl in Oxford, it could be a game between two unbeaten teams. Or at least between two teams with the opportunity to win the SEC West title and go to Atlanta for the conference championship game.
Lapides, having watched more college football seasons than most, tends toward the pragmatic.
“Somebody’s gonna get ‘em, gonna get State and gonna get Ole Miss,” Lapides said. “Now that may mean they have one loss each, but that might be enough. Who knows? It’s too early.”
But if he Lapides had his druthers, yes, the Egg Bowl would match two teams still in the hunt for an SEC championship with only one able to keep dreaming by game’s end.
“That would be the perfect script,” he said. “I’ll have to pinch myself.”