By David Brandt/The Associated Press
OXFORD — There’s much at stake in this year’s Egg Bowl.
No. 25 Mississippi State (8-3, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) is trying to win four in a row in the rivalry for the first time since the 1940s when the teams meet on Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mississippi (5-6, 2-5) is one victory away from bowl eligibility for the first time since 2009.
Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen said what makes the rivalry so special is there aren’t many areas of the Magnolia State that are dominated by one of the two fan bases. Instead, there are Bulldogs and Rebels sprinkled together in almost every city.
There’s no avoiding the other group.
“It’s a neighbor-to-neighbor (rivalry), which makes it an even bigger game,” Mullen said.
First-year Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze is well of aware of the demographics.
He grew up outside of Senatobia, Miss., which is about a 45-minute drive from Oxford, and his personal experience with the rivalry is longstanding.
And he badly wants the Golden Egg to make a return to Oxford.
“I actually have family members that are on the other side,” Freeze said. “I have great respect for some coaches down there, also. I won’t get into the name calling. We have great respect for them. We want to beat them as bad as they want to beat us. I understand the impact it has on the program, our fans and the people of this state. We’re going to go about it the right way and try to beat them that badly on Saturday.”
Ole Miss might love a lopsided win, but oddsmakers see the game as a close one, giving the Rebels a slight edge.
Mississippi State recovered from a three-game losing streak last weekend by beating Arkansas 45-14 in Starkville. The Bulldogs are led by quarterback Tyler Russell, who has thrown for 2,503 yards and 21 touchdowns and already owns several single-season passing records.
The Rebels will counter with an undersized but speedy defense that is second in the SEC with 31 sacks. Linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche is the poster child, a 5-foot-11, 203-pound redshirt freshman who leads the Rebels with 12 tackles for a loss.
“They have a really good defense,” Russell said. “We have to go play. I feel like if we do the things we need to do, we will take care of business. If not, we won’t.”
The issue for Ole Miss has been playing four good quarters. The Rebels have had a late lead against Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and LSU this season, but let all three games get away.
There are certainly valid excuses for the late breakdowns. Ole Miss is young in several spots and doesn’t have much depth.
But players say those shortcomings shouldn’t matter, especially when it comes to the Egg Bowl and earning a chance at the postseason.
“We’re definitely ready,” Ole Miss offensive lineman Emmanuel McCray said. “We have a lot of coaches that played for the university, so they have the same passion … It’s a little more intense, but it’s still calm. You don’t want to be overemotional.”
Even though he’s from the northeast, Mullen has always been passionate about the rivalry during his four years in Mississippi. He’s seen firsthand how it can hit close to home.
His neighbor in Starkville is an Ole Miss fan. And when Mullen’s 3-year-old went to visit his friends next door last week, Canon Mullen was rooting for “The School Up North.”
Albeit against LSU.
Canon and the neighbor’s children were all watching SEC football like a lot of kids in this state and several were rooting for the Rebels to beat the Tigers.
“Since we lost to LSU the week before, he was not real high on LSU at that point,” Mullen said with a grin. “He wouldn’t mind seeing them lose.”
But that’ll change Saturday. Now it’s the Rebels who are the enemy.
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