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It's never too early to break out SEC crystal ball …

By By Fredie Carmichael
July 13, 2001
What's this? Mississippi State's football team expected to finish first or second in the SEC West by most national publications? Most Bulldog fans have grown accustomed to the underdog role.
That role will fall squarely on the shoulders of arch-rival Ole Miss this year as the Rebs are picked near the bottom of the SEC West by nearly all of the so-called experts.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Even though MSU boasts the SEC West's best record (31-13) in the past four years, Jackie Sherrill's crew has always been the Rodney Dangerfields of college football.
They get no respect.
Unlike years past, Bulldog fans can pick up a preseason football magazine and beam with pride.
Like Ole Miss a year ago, MSU is expected to do a lot. The Dogs are said to have one of the most explosive running back duos in the country with Dicenzo Miller and Dontae Walker who combined for 1,800 rushing yards in the 2000 campaign.
The Rebels' talented tandem of Deuce McAllister and Joe Gunn rolled up 1,760 yards in the 1999 season and were expected to do even more damage in 2000. The result was a dropoff of more than 600 yards.
MSU's quarterback, Wayne Madkin, is returning for a senior season that he hopes will be capped off with a New Year's Day finale. The same was said for UM's Romaro Miller last year at this time. Miller's final moments in a Rebel uniform ended up coming from the sideline at the 2000 Music City Bowl as his heralded backup, Eli Manning, lit up the scoreboard in an attempted fourth-quarter rally.
So no doubt with expectations comes the added pressure.
Can the Bulldogs, who return eight starters on offense and five on defense, play through the pressure? Only time will tell.
MSU does have a strong defensive game to its benefit, something that the 2000 Rebels didn't have.
Interesting facts: MSU returns 45 lettermen and 13 starters from last fall's 8-4 team, which is the largest number of Bulldog returnees since the 1998 SEC West-winning squad.
MSU is the only team in the SEC West to still have a shot at a trip to Atlanta with two weeks remaining in each of the last four regular seasons. They also sport the division's best league record at 20-12 in the past four years.
If the Bulldog defense is able to fill in the gaps on defense with the slew of jucos that were signed, then watch out for the Bulldogs to contend for a birth in the SEC title again in 2001.
The year of the underdogs: If Ole Miss' football team responds to the naysayers the way its basketball and baseball teams this past year, then the Ole Miss faithful better be ready.
The basketball team had its best year ever after being picked at the SEC's bottom and the baseball team had one of its better years after being virtually forgotten.
Year of Eli? What about Eddie?: Much has been made of the "Eli's coming" part of the Rebels upcoming season, but the team's best chance for a successful year will likely be centered around a returning Eddie Strong on defense.
There's no question that Manning will be an offensive wizard, but defense wins championships.
Just look at last year's team.
The Rebs were loaded on offense with running backs McAllister and Gunn, and Miller at quarterback. But UM quickly learned if you can't stop people form scoring, then you're in for a problem.
Ole Miss could surprise people this year on the defensive side of the ball. Throw in a new and aggressive defensive coordinator, Don Lindsey, and the return of All-SEC caliber linebacker Strong, and things could get better fast.
Crystal ball time: I'm usually one to criticize speculating on college football games this far in advance of the first kickoff Alabama last year being a strong point of reference but this year I can't resist.
How about the Rebels finish 7-4 and make it back to Shreveport and the Bulldogs go 8-3 and make it back to Atlanta?
If my predictions end up ringing true, then be sure and remember where you read it first. And if I'm wrong, it won't be the first or last time for that.
Fredie Carmichael is a staff writer for the Meridian Star, call him at 693-1551 ext. 3228, or e-mail him at fcarmichael@themeridianstar.com.