The Ole Miss Rebels’ Thanksgiving Night showdown in Starkville sets up to be good post-turkey TV.
While a November 23 home date with No. 9 Missouri looms large in determining Ole Miss’ ultimate bowl destination, equally as important the Rebels have a chance to soundly take charge of momentum between the two programs with a second-consecutive Egg Bowl win.
And ahead of the battle, the two teams couldn’t be at further ends of the “momentum” spectrum.
In my “way-too-early” predictions back in February, I suggested the following of the 2013 Egg Bowl:
Honestly, I expect both teams to enter the Egg Bowl on opposite paths than they were on last year.
Mississippi State may very well find themselves fighting Ole Miss for a bowl berth, while Ole Miss should be jockeying for a bowl much more prestigious than the BBVA Compass.
There’s a new sheriff in town, and it’s not Dan Mullen.
And come Thanksgiving Night, regardless of whether or not the Bulldogs knock off Arkansas and enter the Egg Bowl looking to become bowl-eligible or whether or not the Rebels up-end Mizzou in search of win No. 9, my pre-season premonition will come to fruition at Scott Field.
Ole Miss has the potential to build upon recent program success with a win, while Mississippi State has a chance to quell the Rebels rise and finish the regular season on high note.
Regardless, continuing where the 2012 Egg Bowl left off, this year’s edition should be exciting.
However, that hasn’t been the case over most of the past decade.
Rekindling the Rivalry
Over much of the past decade, the Egg Bowl slowly, quietly and unfortunately lost a lot of its luster and excitement. More years than not, one team would enter the game on a high note and the other not so much.
In fact, prior to last season’s 41-24 Ole Miss victory in Hugh Freeze’s inaugural season, it was not since Eli’s senior season of 2003 that the Egg Bowl really packed its typical punch in the eyes of Rebels fans.
Why, you ask?
Former head coaches Houston Nutt and Ed Orgeron simply didn’t give the game as much hype, respect and due as they should have. Further, former State coach Sylvester Croom didn’t recharge the rivalry very much himself upon taking over for Jackie Sherrill.
However, that would all begin to change with the 2009 Egg Bowl.
Life Rule No. 1: Never Say Never
Enter Dan Mullen.
In 2009, the first-year Mississippi State head coach quickly pumped life back into the storied rivalry, with the Bulldogs going on to claim the first three Egg Bowls of the Mullen era in Starkville (2009, 2010, 2011).
Coupled with the disappointing final years of Nutt’s tenure at Ole Miss, State dominated the series.
In the midst of success over a much-maligned Rebels squad, the outspoken Mullen made it his mission to denigrate the Ole Miss program by among other things referring to his rival as nothing but “the school up north.” Further, he proclaimed after the 2011 Egg Bowl that his team would “never lose” to the Rebels again (something that didn’t sit well with the Rebel faithful).
Enter Hugh Freeze, a Mississippi-born, preacher-of-a-speaker well-versed in the rivalry.
From the day he was hired to lead the Rebels, Freeze made his feeling on the series known:
It is not big, it is paramount. I have great respect of the job he [Mullen] has done there. I take nothing away from that job, but being raised here I have a quite good understanding of what that game means. The administration does not have to tell me that. I get it. It is about us regaining the momentum.
In one short year, he ignited the red and blue fan base and snapped the three-game Egg Bowl skid in front of a sell-out crowd last season at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Important to note is the fact that Mullen’s infamous locker room “never lose again” clip made it’s way to the jumbotron in the final minutes of last year’s battle.
After which Mullen simply conceded, “they really love me.”
State of the State
Fast forward to 2013, and Mullen’s youthful arrogance has been sharply honed in. With a home contest against all-world Alabama this week in which the Bullies will fall to 4-6, folks in Starkville are understandably growing restless. Not only did State lose five of its final six games last fall, but they’re suffering through a difficult season again in 2013.
So far this fall, they’ve only beaten Alcorn State, Troy, Bowling Green and Kentucky.
As for the Rebels, their six wins include victories over Texas and LSU.
On the recruitng front, the Rebels currently rank No. 13 in 2014 rivals.com team rankings, while State ranks No. 38. Last year, Ole Miss pulled in the No. 7 recruiting class, whereas Mississippi State signed the No. 26 class per rivals.com. Again, the momentum has swung Ole Miss’ way.
In terms of Mississippi high school talent, the Rebels currently hold verbal commitments from four of the top five in the 2014 class (OL Rod Taylor, RB D.K. Buford, DB C.J. Hampton and DE Breeland Speaks). On the flip side, the Bulldogs only boast one (LB Gerri Green) of the top five rivals.com in-state prospects.
At least based upon last year’s recruiting classes and what’s taking shape for 2014, the Rebels continue to hold a considerable recruitng edge over their rivals.
A Tale of Two Teams
What’s the best-case scenario for Mullen and Co. with Arkansas and Ole Miss left on tap after Bama?
If State is able to beat Arkansas on November 23, the Bulldogs will host Ole Miss Thanksgiving Night with a chance to become bowl-eligible. Unfortunately, a trip to the Compass Bowl won’t exactly go over well with fans a year after playing in the Gator Bowl.
On the other hand, a loss to the Hogs would make the Egg Bowl State’s actual “bowl game” in 2013.
In fact, over his last 15 games, Mullen has only posted a mark of 5-10. Just ask Houston Nutt how long you’ll stick around with that kind of record?
And just to go there, does Mullen survive in Starkville with a 5-7 season?
As for the Rebels, I broke down their most-likely bowl scenarios earlier this week.
In summary, though, if Ole Miss can win out and finish 9-3, they’ll be serious contenders for the Cotton, Outback, Chick-fil-A and Gator Bowls. In my opinion and based upon the remaining schedules of teams like Georgia, South Carolina, Missouri and LSU, the Chick-fil-A Bowl makes the most sense.
And regardless of whether or not the Rebels were to drop one or two contests the rest of the way, a worst-case scenario should land the red and blue in the Music City Bowl.
The bottom line is that the Rebels are on the rise, while the momentum Mullen created in Starkville prior to the Alabama loss last season seemingly continues to fade by the week.
So, when you’re on the couch with your second (or third) helping of Thanksgiving Day grub, be prepared to watch two teams fight throughout the night for much, much more than a single win, a trophy or state pride.
It’s all about program momentum.
–Seph Anderson, Sportswriter to The South, covers timely Ole Miss, SEC, & national news from the sports world. @SephAnderson