All eyes on Mississippi
With the calendar now turned to the month of October, business is ready to really pick up in college football. The Week 6 slate features important games across the country with huge national implications.
Two of the marquee contests take place in (where else?) the SEC, as Mississippi State hosts Texas A&M and ESPN's College GameDay visits Oxford for the first time for the Alabama-Ole Miss showdown.
It's a big weekend for the two Mississippi schools as they look to establish themselves as legitimate SEC contenders. In the BCS era, we saw Tennessee, LSU, Florida, Alabama and Auburn win national titles, with the Crimson Tide emerging as a pseudo-dynasty under Nick Saban. While the Vols and the Gators work to get back atop the SEC standings, 'Bama, LSU and Auburn have most often been considered preseason league contenders in recent years. Newbies such as Texas A&M and Missouri have also had their moments.
Then there are the Mississippi schools.
Dak Prescott can strengthen his Heisman campaign with a win over A&M.
Dan Mullen has led Mississippi State to at least eight wins twice in his five seasons in Starkville, but the Bulldogs have yet to crack the upper-echelon of the SEC. However, expectations were high entering 2014 because of the talent the team brought back from last year's squad, and the hope around the program was that everything would come together behind the arm and legs of dual-threat quarterback Dak Prescott. After the Bulldogs went into Death Valley and physically beat up LSU a few weeks back, more nonbelievers began to convert and embrace the idea that this team had arrived on the national stage. However, all of that momentum will come to a standstill if A&M steamrolls the Bulldogs on Saturday.
The Bulldogs will need a big effort from their defense against an A&M offense led by quarterback Kenny Hill. Keep an eye on defensive tackle Chris Jones, a 6-5, 308-pounder who has yet to really emerge as a star but has the talent to do so. The MSU defensive front will face an A&M offensive line that is one of the best in the country. Can Jones and Co. get pressure on Hill and make things difficult for that offense to get going?
Meanwhile, Hugh Freeze has done a magnificent job raising the talent level in Oxford, particularly in the last two recruiting cycles. He won seven games in his first season, eight last year and has the Rebels 4-0 this season. But with Alabama's defense less than dominant, this is the best chance Ole Miss has had to notch a huge win against a power SEC opponent since Freeze's arrival. If the Rebels have any chance of an upset, though, quarterback Bo Wallace must be on his 'A' game. The signal-caller was inconsistent against Boise State in the opener and intercepted twice against a Barry Odom-coordinated Memphis defense.
Wallace, who leads the SEC in interceptions with six, needs to look for receiver Laquon Treadwell early and often. The sophomore presents a big matchup problem for the Tide defense because of his size and explosiveness. He's coming off of a five-catch, 123-yard, two-touchdown performance and will give Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Tony Brown — no matter who defends him this week — problems.
As prolific as the Lane Kiffin-coordinated offense has been at 'Bama, turnovers have been an issue. The Tide have turned the ball over seven times (five fumbles), and Ole Miss has forced 11 takeaways (nine interceptions) on the season. Quarterback Blake Sims will face a ball-hawking secondary led by perhaps the nation's best pair of safeties.
There's no doubt that all eyes will be on the Magnolia State this weekend. But that will be temporary. Even with a pair of wins on Saturday, the road doesn't get much easier in the rugged SEC. However, with victories over the Aggies and Tide, respectively, the perception of the Mississippi State and Ole Miss programs would change drastically.
Mississippi State has only one SEC championship, which came in 1941. Ole Miss hasn't beaten Alabama in 11 years and has only three victories over the Tide in the last 38 seasons. Does Saturday begin the path to much bigger things for the two programs?
Dave Miller, the college football editor for the National Football Post, is on Twitter @Miller_Dave.