High stakes for both teams in this year’s Egg Bowl

Published 4:59 am Thursday, November 22, 2012

The past few years, as Ole Miss sank deeper into the cellar of the SEC under previous coach Houston Nutt, the luster of the Egg Bowl rivalry didn’t shine as brightly.

That still doesn’t stop Mississippi State from proclaiming from billboards, “This is our State,” or on its athletics website with a graphic at the top left detailing how long the Bulldogs have held the Golden Egg traveling trophy. For those keeping score at home, the streak is up to 1,089 days and counting as you read this.

The reason why the Bulldogs have won the past three in the series is simple: The Egg Bowl means something to the roster. Of State’s 116-player roster that includes walk-ons and redshirts, 62 percent hail from the Magnolia State.

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Even though State coach Dan Mullen is as Southern as Dunkin Doughnuts vs. Krispe Kremes, he understood that building a program loaded with in-state talent would give State a big advantage in the annual rivalry game. He needled the folks from Oxford with pithy jibes and put special emphasis on the Egg Bowl with his team. The Bulldogs responded.

“We have a lot of kids from Mississippi on our team that know how important this rivalry is and they grow up with it,” Mullen said. “It is not an intrastate rivalry like some rivalries are. It’s a neighbor-to-neighbor rivalry, which makes it an even bigger game, and our guys know how much of a big deal that it is and we always put a huge emphasis on it.”

Nutt, on the other hand, recruited primarily out of state. On his final team in 2011, only 39 players hailed from Mississippi. The history of the Egg Bowl rivalry means little or nothing to someone from Florida (17 players on last year’s Ole Miss team came from there), Georgia (nine players) or Alabama (11 players).

First-year coach Hugh Freeze is the perfect antidote to that. An Independence native who grew up dreaming of coaching Ole Miss, he has spent his life knowing and feeling the rivalry. With the way he’s hit the recruiting trails instate as he did in his previous stint at Ole Miss as Ed Orgeron’s top recruiter, he’s looking to blunt State’s momentum in the biggest rivalry in the state.

“I can’t wait for Saturday,” Freeze said. “I try not to be anxious. I don’t think that’s a good emotion to have for an entire week. It’s very difficult to fight it. You just want to get the preparation done and feel like you give your kids a solid plan that gives them a chance to compete with a very good, talented football team. There’s a lot riding on this game for us. We’re going to stress the importance of this game every single day this week.”

Saturday’s game could be a turning point in the rivalry. Freeze has seemingly found a miracle by taking a depleted roster to within one win of bowl eligibility, while Mullen will be losing seven critical seniors including his top three wideouts and both cornerbacks.

A win for Ole Miss puts the Rebels in a bowl, an incredible achievement by any stretch. A win by State gives the Bulldogs nine wins and puts them in position for Mullen’s best season yet in Starkville.

As the cliché goes, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Steve Wilson is sports editor of The Vicksburg Post. You can follow him on Twitter at vpsportseditor. He can be reached at 601-636-4545, ext. 142 or at swilson@vicksburgpost.com.