Behind all the hype and hope and bluster heading into tonight’s Battle for the Golden Egg, I detect a slight note of unease among the fan bases of both Ole Miss and Mississippi State.
At mid-season, it didn’t appear this game would be close. Now, 7-4 Ole Miss is regarded as only a field-goal favorite over a 5-6 team. That adds to the unease.
Ole Miss fans are delighted to be headed to another bowl game, win or lose, but they know that a three-game losing streak to end the season – last week against Missouri, tonight and then in a bowl – would leave them with the same 7-6 record as a year ago.
And it would mark a fourth season in a row with a sub-.500 record in the SEC.
A victory tonight, and one in the bowl game, would wrap up a nine-win campaign that would be a solid sign of progress in Hugh Freeze’s second season. Another year of bragging rights in the rivalry game would be the cherry on top.
In a business where perception is so important, that would be a big deal.
The issue of perception is also weighing on the minds of Mississippi State fans.
Did they think they would be in better shape as a program in Dan Mullen’s fifth season? It’s possible that the program is, in fact, in much better shape today, but that nine-win season in 2010 suggested possibilities that have since remained elusive.
A victory tonight would give the Bulldogs a fourth consecutive bowl trip, but we all know there are too many bowl games and Birmingham in January is not New Orleans or Atlanta in January.
And MSU fans know that, but for a play or two here or there, the Bulldogs could easily be 2-9 right now. Barely beating the two worst teams in the league, Kentucky and Arkansas, is not cause for confidence heading into a league game with such high stakes.
Meanwhile, fans of both teams have had to watch as Auburn – a team that was dead in the water last season – has unexpectedly battled its way into the national championship conversation this fall.
It’s a reminder of how quickly the story line can change under the right set of circumstances. And a reminder of how daunting the task the Rebels and Bulldogs, whatever tonight’s result, still face to be competitive in today’s SEC.
John L. Pitts (firstname.lastname@example.org) is sports editor of the Journal. He shares his random thoughts on Twitter at @johnlpitts