Thursday night marked the kickoff of the 2011 college football and SEC football season.
The SEC had two teams in action, Mississippi State (at Memphis) and Kentucky (vs. Western Kentucky).
These two teams couldn't have looked any different from each other.
Mississippi State dominated outmatched Memphis and lit up the scoreboard and stat sheet with a 59-14 victory.
Kentucky looked unimpressive in a sloppy 14-3 win over outmatched Western Kentucky.
You could almost feel the two programs going in different directions as you watched the games on Thursday night. While it is way to early to label Mississippi State a contender and Kentucky a disappointment, especially with the lackluster opponents they played, it looked as if it were teams from two different conferences.
In the following slideshow, I will highlight who thrived on Thursday night and whose stock took a dive...
In the preview for this game, I noted that Chris Relf was ready for a big senior season for the Bulldogs.
He certainly started things off on the right foot. Relf did not even play the entire game and still racked up 202 yards passing and two touchdowns, with no interceptions.
He was also pretty accurate, completing 13 of his 21 passes and completing a nice 44-yard touchdown pass early in the first quarter.
Although the Memphis defense is porous, this was a great confidence-booster for Relf before he begins the SEC season next week on the road at Auburn.
Vick Ballard may be the most underrated player in the SEC.
He scored 20 touchdowns in 2010 and started off 2011 with the same knack for finding the end zone. In Thursday night's win over Memphis, Ballard scored three touchdowns and ran for an impressive 166 yards.
Even more impressive is that he gained all of those yards on just 10 carries. That is an eye-popping 16 yards per rush attempt. Against stouter defenses it isn't likely that he keeps up that pace, but nonetheless he looks primed for a big 2011 season.
Ballard has rushed for three or more touchdowns in five of his 13 college starts. People will begin to stop underrating him as the season progresses.
In the overall poor performance for Kentucky, there were still a couple very bright spots. One is that the Wildcats won the game and the other is the play of the Wildcat defensive secondary.
In Thursday night's game Kentucky picked off four passes and held Western Kentucky to just 93 yards of passing offense. That is impressive, regardless of the competition.
Star safety Winston Guy is the leader of this group and was able to grab two interceptions and make several big hits in the win.
Look for good things from this unit all season long.
The Bulldogs have been working to develop a vertical passing game since Dan Mullen arrived on campus. It may be here now.
Starters Arceto Clark (two catches for 72 yards) and Chad Bumphis (one catch for 44 yards) each scored on long pass plays (35- and 44-yard touchdown receptions, respectively) in the first half.
Then young freshman receiver Jameon Lewis came in and rolled up the stats with four receptions for 113 yards and a touchdown.
Add to that a 25-yard catch by Bulldog receiver Brandon Heavens, and you have four State receivers with receptions of 25 yards or more. That's pretty vertical if you ask me.
This was a horrific start for new Wildcat starting quarterback Morgan Newton.
Newton has potential to be a dynamic quarterback, but looked lost and was largely ineffective against a poor Hilltopper defense.
He finished the game with just 7-of-18 for 97 passing yards.
Even worse, he threw three interceptions to just one touchdown. Not a good ratio, especially against a Sun Belt team.
The good news is late in the game, Newton finally connected on a big play when he found wide receiver La'Rod King for a 31-yard touchdown that sealed the win.
The Wildcats have to hope for more of that when SEC play starts, or it could get ugly.
Against a Sun Belt team, an SEC team should be able to run the ball with relative ease.
The opposite was true for Kentucky on Thursday night. The Wildcats failed to open or run through running lanes and struggled to gain yards on the ground.
At the end of the game, the Wildcats averaged just 2.8 yards per carry on a total of 93 yards rushing.
The offensive line must get better at run-blocking in a hurry and running back Raymond Sanders, and now possibly Freshman Josh Clemens (Wildcats leading rusher against WKU, with 39 yards) must provide a spark by breaking tackles and gaining tough extra yardage.
Kentucky has to be able to run the football to be successful this season.
While almost all the news is good for Mississippi State after beating Memphis 59-14, there are still a couple things that may become issues against tougher competition.
While they played backups at times and it's hard to analyze defenses in blowout games, it may be a bit of a concern to Bulldog coaches that Memphis racked up 164 rushing yards in the game Thursday night.
Of more concern was the 21-yard touchdown run Memphis had early in the second quarter when starters were still in.
Memphis isn't known to be a solid running team, and next week's opponent, Auburn, is known to rush the ball very well.
Look for Bulldog coaches to be working on rush defense all week in practice.
Punt returns can be a huge part of field-position battles.
Coaches want smart decisions on when to field a punt and when to let it go and they want forward movement when it is caught.
Neither happened for Kentucky in Thursday's game.
Senior Randell Burden fielded three punts and finished with minus-six yards on these returns.
His best return was two yards. The blocking was poor and his returns were suspect as well.
Head coach Joker Phillips will address this in practice this week.