Start with a national champion.
Throw in another program looking to reclaim its title glory, a coach who likes to stir it up, some NCAA intrigue, and a new coach and a veteran coach on the hot seat and it”s easy to see why the Southeastern Conference dominates the headlines.
Auburn University won”t take center stage again this season now that Cam Newton has moved on to challenge for a starting job in the NFL.
The University of Alabama is the league”s best bet to help it continue its run of titlists, while Steve Spurrier appears to be back in form after leading the University of South Carolina to an Eastern Division title last season.
Spurrier”s silver tongue was a little sharper thanks to down years in 2010 by Florida and Georgia. Will Muschamp will try to help the Gators recapture the magic they had under coach Urban Meyer, while Mark Richt hopes having the best quarterback in the league — sophomore Aaron Murray — will help him save his job after a disappointing 6-7 season.
All of those storylines, including the NCAA”s decision this week to put LSU on probation for one year, are all fodder for talk radio and chat rooms. But there is nothing better in the state of Mississippi than a good, old-fashioned rivalry.
It”s hard to deny the competitiveness between the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State. Some might classify competitiveness as hatred. However you see it, it”s fun to see MSU coach Dan Mullen continue to stoke the embers with a public relations campaign designed to win the state of Mississippi. The third-year coach has become a darling to MSU fans thanks to back-to-back wins against the Rebels in the annual Egg Bowl game. He has gained even more popularity by referring to Ole Miss as the “School Up North.”
Needless to say, Ole Miss fans haven”t been amused. They couldn”t have been too happy Wednesday, either, when Mullen re-affirmed MSU”s contention that it was the state school in Mississippi. A 52-14 pasting of the University of Michigan in the Gator Bowl earned Mullen and the Bulldogs extra bravado and injected more volume to the discussion.
Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt responded Friday by declaring the talk of one school owning the state as nonsense. After all, Nutt contended, the Rebels pounded the Bulldogs 45-0 in 2008 and have had banner recruiting seasons the past two years, including a class ranked No. 18 this year by Rivals.com.
But on-field results matter most.
Nutt knows that, and he couldn”t prevent sportswriters, who typically like to stir the pot and be agitators, from asking question after question about the Rebels” rivalry with the Bulldogs.
Two years ago, Nutt was the man in Oxford, Coming off consecutive wins in the Cotton Bowl, Nutt had re-energized Ole Miss” football program in leading them to 9-4 records in 2008 and ”09. That momentum vanished last season in a disappointing 4-8 season in which the Rebels went with a late-season transfer at quarterback — Jeremiah Masoli — and then lost another signal caller — Nathan Stanley — who early on was talked about as the starter.
It will be difficult for Nutt to explain away another 4-8 season, but that may be an accurate projection considering media members Friday picked the Rebels to finish last in the SEC Western Division.
Picked to finish fourth, MSU can”t stick out its chest and say it has become a first-division team until it proves 2010 wasn”t a mixture of solid performances and good timing. With Alabama, LSU and Arkansas returning teams that figure to have more talent — at least according to the league”s coaches and the media members who cover it — Mullen will have to work his magic and engineer a few upsets to help the Bulldogs get back to their 2010 heights.
Will it be possible? Will Chris Relf be able to create even more fireworks with an offense that should have even more weapons? Will the defense be able to replace a handful of key graduation losses, especially at linebacker?
At Ole Miss, who will be the quarterback, and what identity will the Rebels have on offense? Will their defense resemble a sieve again or will it rise to the challenge?
Fans and experts are bandying questions like these around all over the country. In Mississippi, it seems like those issues are a little hotter, maybe because the heat index has routinely eclipsed 100 for much of the past month.
Don”t worry, though, things will heat up even more come Sept. 1 — when MSU travels to play at the University of Memphis in its season opener — and Sept. 3 when Ole Miss plays host to Brigham Young University.
After all, that”s how it should be in the nation”s premier conference for college football.
Adam Minichino is sports editor at The Dispatch. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.