Sure, football season is still more than three months away, but I want to look at Mississippi State's schedule and offer my rankings of the Bulldogs' opponents in 2010, from the easiest to the toughest. Don’t mistake this for a power rankings, because it’s not always about how good the opponent is. There are other factors, like whether it’s home or away, who and when MSU played the previous week, etc.
So, here’s my best stab at it, in reverse order (got to build the suspense, see).
12. Alcorn State (Oct. 2, Starkville): Like the Jackson State game last season, this one was scheduled as part of MSU’s desire to play more in-state competition. It’ll be a blowout, the question is, how much of one? ASU (3-6, 3-4 SWAC last year) just isn’t very good. It should basically be a glorified scrimmage and a chance for the Bulldogs’ youngsters, like QB Tyler Russell , to get some good reps.
11. Memphis (Sept. 4, Starkville): This is the season opener for State, so it should be a packed house, high energy, all that. Hard to say if this’ll be a decent test for the Bulldogs. Memphis (2-10, 1-7 C-USA ) returns 14 starters from last year, and it has a new head coach in Larry Porter . The Tigers were blown out by Ole Miss and Tennessee last season.
10. UAB (Oct. 23, Starkville): The Blazers (5-7, 4-4 C-USA ) are trying to replace versatile QB Joe Webb . While David Isabelle looks to be in the same mold as Webb, UAB is thin at receiver, and it’s going to be hard to replace Webb’s 1,427 rushing yards. The Blazers’ best hope is that MSU is tuckered out from a trip to Florida the previous week.
9. Kentucky (Oct. 30, Starkville): Kentucky (7-6, 3-5 SEC ) returns five offensive starters from last season, and none of them are linemen. So Morgan Newton or Mike Hartline or whoever is at quarterback could be in for a rough day from MSU’s defensive front.
8. Houston (Oct. 9, Houston): Guess who’s back for Houston (10-4, 6-2 C-USA )? Yeah, wonder boy Case Keenum and his relentless offense. He threw for 454 yards and four touchdowns last season in the Cougars’ 31-24 win in Starkville. This will be one tough road test, but in a testament to how difficult MSU’s road schedule is this year, it should be the “easiest” away game.
7. Georgia (Sept. 25, Starkville): Ooh, fresh meat. Aaron Murray is a freshman, and he’s won the starting QB job for Georgia (8-5, 4-4), a team that is normally tough. And the offense does return 10 starters, including big-play receiver A.J. Green . Good thing this one ain’t between the hedges.
6. Arkansas (Nov. 20, Starkville): The Hogs (8-5, 3-5) have Ryan Mallett returning at QB, although he missed the spring with a broken foot. He expects to fully recover , and I believe we all remember what he did to MSU’s defense last year in Little Rock: 18-for-34, 313 yards, 5 TDs.
5. Ole Miss (Nov. 27, Oxford): The Egg Bowl could always be considered the toughest game in one sense, but purely on degree of difficulty, this is about right. The Rebels (9-4, 4-4) will have a new QB, which may or may not be a good thing, and a stout defensive front. Should be a pretty even matchup, and you know several Bulldogs remember the 45-0 beatdown of 2008.
4. Auburn (Sept. 9, Starkville): MSU coach Dan Mullen has pointed to this Thursday night ESPN game, State’s SEC opener, as a big building block for the rest of the season. The opposing QB will likely be Cam Newton , who played for Mullen at Florida, transferred to a junior college, then picked Auburn (8-5, 3-5) over MSU this past offseason. I don’t expect to see a 3-2 score here; I expect fireworks.
3. LSU (Sept. 18, Baton Rouge): Death Valley is thought by many to be the toughest place to play, but the Tigers (9-4, 5-3) still have quarterback issues , which makes them less imposing. Twelve starters are gone from the offense and defense combined, and as I’ve said many, many times, I just don’t believe in LSU .
2. Florida (Oct. 16, Gainesville): MSU safety Johnthan Banks won’t have Tim Tebow to pick on, rather, pick off , any more. Florida (13-1, 8-0), which lost to Alabama in the SEC championship game, will probably be OK with John Brantley under center. And Urban Meyer has a waiting list for his playmakers to get on the field. UF lost a lot of good defensive players, though, so it could be interesting.
1. Alabama (Nov. 13, Tuscaloosa): Yeah, I’d say playing the defending national champions on their home turf is the toughest game of the year. There shouldn’t be much, if any, dropoff for the Crimson Tide (14-0, 8-0). QB Greg McElroy is back, and so is a fella named Mark Ingram (pictured above), the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner. At least MSU will have an open date before the game, unless Nick Saban gets his way .