Dogs regroup, look to bowlLiberty, Music City likely destinations for Mississippi State

Published 11:43 am Monday, November 26, 2012

OXFORD — The script got flipped on Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl.

Three years ago in Starkville, Ole Miss came in with eight wins and was on its way to the Cotton Bowl for the second straight year. Coach Dan Mullen’s first Mississippi State team had won four games and was going to stay home for the holidays.

Mullen proclaimed that the Egg Bowl was Mississippi State’s championship. His players bought in and ambushed Ole Miss 41-27. It was the first of three straight Egg Bowl wins for Mullen and the Bulldogs. With each victory, Mullen grew more confident in his boast that the Bulldogs would not lose to the “school up north.”

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That changed Saturday, in a reversal of the 2009 scenario. Mississippi State had eight wins and a bowl game in its future. Ole Miss, under first-year coach Hugh Freeze, had to win to become bowl-eligible. They also wanted the Egg Bowl trophy back.

The Rebels earned both with an emphatic 41-24 victory before 61,005 fans at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Ole Miss students rushed the field afterward. It was the first time they had done that since a victory over Florida in 2002.

Mullen remained steadfast despite the crushing loss to his team’s biggest rival.

“Always, this is going to be the most disappointing loss,” Mullen said. “Do I regret saying what I said about not ever losing to them? Absolutely not. I stand by that statement.”

For Mullen, the focus is now on bowl preparation. With the Southeastern Conference champion — either Alabama or Georgia — set to land a spot in the BCS championship game, every other conference team moves up a spot in the bowl pecking order. Nine teams are bowl eligible and the league has 10 commitments.

Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4 SEC) is in eighth place among the league’s bowl-eligible teams and Ole Miss (6-6, 3-5) is ninth.

The Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., picks sixth from among the pool of SEC teams. The Music City Bowl in Nashville is seventh, and is followed by the Liberty Bowl in Memphis and the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham. Representatives from the Liberty and Chick-Fil-A bowls were in attendance Saturday in Oxford.

The Independence Bowl in Shreveport has the last pick and is out of the mix for an SEC team.

“We have had a pretty successful season at 8-4 and we compete in the best conference in all of college football,” Mullen said. “At 8-4 we will get a good bowl game, and that is our reward to celebrate a great season for our fan base. It will also give our young guys a couple of more weeks of valuable practice time.”

One area Mullen said the Bulldogs will address is the defense’s lack of success against spread teams. Ole Miss had 527 total yards in Saturday’s win, marking the third time in four games that State has given up at least 500 yards.

Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace threw for 294 yards and five touchdowns. The Rebels also had 233 rushing yards, led by Jeff Scott’s 111.

“That is something we will evaluate in the offseason,” Mullen said. “Right now, we have a bowl game to get ready for.”

State’s offense struggled in the second half after battling to a 17-tie at halftime. Tyler Russell had two interceptions including one in the third quarter that set up Wallace’s third touchdown pass of the game and gave Ole Miss a 27-17 lead.

“Tyler held the ball a little too long and the rush got to him,” Mullen said. “It caused him to get out of rhythm.”

The Bulldogs also had just 30 net rushing yards and were 1-of-13 on third down. Mullen said the Bulldogs were missing two offensive linemen.

“We lost two linemen in the first quarter, with (Charles) Siddoway out for a couple of series and Tobias (Smith) in warm-ups just didn’t feel like he could go, don’t know what it was. That hurt.”