Rebels in unusual position of playing catchup

By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal

It was the Ole Miss time slot at SEC Media Days in Hoover on Friday, but it felt like the whole affair could have been hosted on the MDOT hill in Tupelo.
For Houston Nutt’s part, most of the questions were local. They were about the highways in Mississippi and the billboards placed along their strategic points.
You know the ones. The dominant themes are maroon, a football coach, the catch phrase simple: “Our State.”
Ole Miss has gone from being the team out front to the team trying to catch up, an unusual position for the Rebels in their series against Mississippi State, which the Rebels still lead 54-24-5.
Now, though, they’re playing from behind and trying to flip the field, so to speak.
There are a couple of things that can help Ole Miss in this quest. One is history, another education.
The history is that not since the 1939-1942 seasons has Mississippi State won as many as three straight games in the series.
Three times in that span, the Bulldogs have won twice and had a chance to win a third straight. Once, in 1976 and 1977, the wins were overturned by forfeit.
Past performance can be an indicator of future results.
One problem that has led Ole Miss to this point is its comfort with history, its own in the series as well as Nutt’s against MSU when he coached at Arkansas.
With the Razorbacks, Nutt was 9-1 against the Bulldogs.
In his first year at Ole Miss, the Rebels beat their rival 45-0 in the most dominant performance I’ve seen by either side in my history with the series.
That was against a downtrodden MSU team with its coach, Sylvester Croom, on the way out. The Bulldogs’ new coach, Dan Mullen, made it his mission to change history, and so far he’s done it.
“The reason they’re loud right now is that they’ve won the last two years,” Nutt said.
Remember that quote in November. There have been times in this series when the only reward has been “bragging rights,” and sometimes the worth of such a win is questionable.
There is no audio associated with those billboards, but they blast away at deafening volume.
“That first year we beat Mississippi State 45-0 and didn’t think anything about it, because the previous nine out of 10 times we’d beaten them,” Nutt told the ballroom crowd.
And that brings us back to education.
Nutt, who never had an in-state rival at Arkansas, spent the next several minutes assuring everyone that he is now in tune with this rivalry, using the word “understand” four times in his next paragraph.
“I do understand the Egg Bowl. I do understand how passionate our fans are. It’s a real tense rivalry, I understand that. And our fans have to live with it for a full year. Our players and coaches understand that, and there’s only one thing to do about it,” he said.
State’s marketing clearly has Ole Miss on the defensive, and Rebels offensive tackle Bradley Sowell had his own take on things Friday.
“I feel like we’ve already won Mississippi in Step 1 in the recruiting this year. We got most of the talent out of Mississippi,” he said.
Sowell is correct. The rivalry is year-long, a contest of heart and mind, and the Rebels did indeed win the recruiting part.
Winning perception alone won’t drive a capital campaign.
Perception, however, is important, and Ole Miss responded this week when athletics director Pete Boone in an email news release and UMAA Foundation director Danny White on Twitter referred to their school as the “flagship” university in Mississippi.
So it’s marketing wars: “Our State” vs. “Flagship.”
Neal McCready, who covers Ole Miss for Rivals.com, summed it up nicely. “Mississippi State should be very happy. The enemy is engaged.”
And it should make for an interesting football season.
Parrish Alford (parrish.alford@journalinc.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily at NEMS360.com.