Dan Mullen is usually good for a few memorable moments following the Egg Bowl.
From “never losing this thing again” to not sleeping for 365 days.
Saturday was no different.
Mullen entered the visiting media room after Mississippi State’s 55-20 win at Ole Miss with cigar in hand.
Never miss a local story.
“It’s pretty smokey in that locker room right now so they handed me one,” Mullen said of the team’s locker room. “I figured, this might be a smoke-free media room, so I didn’t light it up before I got in here.”
Amped up after the win, which pushed his rivalry record to 5-3, Mullen was obviously in a good, optimistic mood.
Mullen knows the Bulldogs’ odds. Because there aren’t enough six-win teams to fill 80 bowl slots, 5-7 teams with good APR (Academic Progress Rate) get first crack at the remaining spots.
“Camping World (Independence Bowl) guys are here. (AutoZone) Liberty Bowl’s here,” he said. “We’re ready! We’ve got good grades!”
MSU will have to wait to learn its future, but it’s likely the Bulldogs will go bowling for a school-record seventh consecutive season.
Recruiting battle: Not surprisingly, Mullen was asked plenty about quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who gutted Ole Miss’ defense for 258 yards and two touchdowns rushing on top of 109 and three passing.
Who did MSU have to beat out for the 6-foot-5, 230-pound QB out of Georgia?
“U-T Chattanooga,” Mullen replied, exaggerating each letter before chomping on his cigar.
He paused, cigar dangling from his mouth.
“They’re an excellent football team,” he added. “FCS playoff team.”
Mullen has proven an ability to unearth and develop quarterbacks. The last lightly recruited dude is now the front runner for NFL Rookie of the Year. And Fitzgerald? Well, he just earned Co-SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
The redshirt sophomore finished his season with 1,243 yards and 14 touchdowns rushing along with 2,287 yards and 21 touchdowns passing.
Meanwhile, at Ole Miss
Hugh Freeze’s press conference had a much different tone. A subdued Freeze didn’t sugarcoat Ole Miss’ 5-7 finish — the same record as a jubilant Bulldog team boasted in the nearby locker room.
“It’s been the toughest of my professional career. Whether it be from the disappointments to injuries to everything going on around our program. It has just been a very, very difficult season,” Freeze said. “... I’m glad the season is over now. It’s been difficult. Can’t wait to hit the road recruiting.”
A bulk of the Rebels’ offseason efforts will be focused on defense. Ole Miss had the reputation of being able to score at well. Unfortunately for Rebel faithful, their defense had the rep of allowing a score on any play — as highlighted in the Egg Bowl.
“We have to look at everyone and everybody. We were not good. When you can’t stop their base stuff ... We have to figure out is it process or people? What exactly is it?” Freeze said. “We have a lot of young kids over there who I think have the potential to be good. We have some good ones here we redshirted.
“But we have to recruit better and do an exhaustive study on all of our staff and system.”
Let the search begin: First things first, the Rebels will need to identify a new defensive coordinator after the school announced before the Egg Bowl that long-time coach Dave Wommack is retiring.
Some early hot boards have included names like former Auburn coach Gene Chizik (now at North Carolina) and Texas’ recently fired coach Charlie Strong (a former Ole Miss assistant). Both seem like long shots to this scribe. On a staff that hasn’t experienced a lot of turnover during Freeze’s tenure, don’t be surprised if current Indiana DC Tom Allen or Auburn assistant Wesley McGriff end up back in Oxford. Both were assistants under Freeze and have advanced their careers elsewhere. Allen spent one year as South Florida’s DC before returning to his native Indiana. After leaving Ole Miss, McGriff spent three seasons as the New Orleans Saints’ defensive backs coach. At Auburn, like Ole Miss, he holds the title of “co-defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach.”
“A toughness that he’ll bring to our kids. Energy,” Freeze said Saturday, asked what he’s looking for in Wommack’s replacement. “Obviously has to fit with our core values and who we are. I’d love for him to be a great mentor of young men, but really toughness and physicality defensively that he demands that from them.”
Associated Press: No. 1 Alabama, No. 15 Florida, No. 18 Auburn, No. 21 LSU. Receiving votes: Texas A&M, Tennessee.
USA Today/Amway Coaches Poll: No. 1 Alabama, No. 16 Florida, No. 19 Auburn, No. 21 LSU. Receiving votes: Texas A&M, Tennessee.
College Football Playoff: No. 1 Alabama, No. 13 Auburn, No. 15 Florida, No. 17 Tennessee. Dropped out: LSU, Texas A&M.
1. Alabama (12-0)
2. Florida (8-3)
3. Auburn (8-4)
12. Mississippi State (5-7)
13. Ole Miss (5-7)
14. South Carolina (6-6)
Alabama vs. Florida, 3 p.m. (CBS): Alabama opened as a 21-point favorite ... in the SEC Championship. That about sums it up.