Mississippi State

Rivalry tensions have reached new boiling point but don’t detract from Egg Bowl

Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen and his players pose for a photograph with the "Golden Trophy" as they celebrate their 55-20 win over Ole Miss in the annual Egg Bowl in Oxford, Nov. 26, 2016. The Bulldogs will host the Rebels at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.
Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen and his players pose for a photograph with the "Golden Trophy" as they celebrate their 55-20 win over Ole Miss in the annual Egg Bowl in Oxford, Nov. 26, 2016. The Bulldogs will host the Rebels at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. AP

Nine years ago this week, Mississippi State’s young, new coach drew a microphone to his mouth and told the cowbell-clanging fans in attendance that there was only one team in Mississippi on the rise.

Dan Mullen followed that win over Ole Miss in his first Egg Bowl with two more in succession. After his first win in Oxford in 2010, he was videoed in the locker room telling his team that the Bulldogs wouldn’t lose to Ole Miss again.

As was probably inevitable at some point, MSU did in fact lose in 2012 when Hugh Freeze injected some more heat into the rivalry. Recruiting battles, top-5 rankings and scandals have all taken the Egg Bowl rivalry to new heights and Mullen’s team views this game differently every year.

“I want them to embrace it. I don’t have to worry about it; they do. It’s not another game. It’s an important game for everybody,” Mullen said. “One of the fun parts about the game being on Thursday is it makes it unique in its own way. There’s a lot of unique things about this game, and I think everybody in our program embraces it. Just the bragging rights within the state — it means a lot.

“That’s what makes rivalry games so fun and what makes college football so special.”

Players don’t have to be from the state of Mississippi to understand MSU and Ole Miss’ importance in the state. Nick Fitzgerald first experienced the game on his official visit in 2013 when Dak Prescott led the Bulldogs to an overtime win.

Last year, Fitzgerald had one of the best performances by a QB in the game in recent history rushing for 258 yards and two touchdowns in a 55-20 blowout in Oxford.

“It’s a rivalry game. It’s a game that we’ve got to win,” Fitzgerald said. “On top of it being a rivalry game, it’s an SEC game that we have to win to continue on and finish out strong and get a good bowl game. It’s huge. Like I’ve said before, if you’re doing badly in a season, that’s a win. And if you’re having a really good season and you lose the Egg Bowl, some people think the whole season was a loss. There’s animosity and nastiness. It’s a big rivalry and big game. But at the end it’s an SEC game that we have to win.”

As bitter as this rivalry has become, Mullen has taken a step back from it in recent years. After needling the Rebels for the first three years with his “School up North” tag, he rarely uses the term anymore.

MSU (8-3, 4-3 SEC) is looking to have its fourth nine-win season in Mullen’s nine years on campus after having four combined over the course of the first 113 years.

Mullen took the Bulldogs to No. 1 in the country in 2014 and has had them inside the top 20 more often than not in his career in Starkville. The Egg Bowl is still a big part of his selling points in state, but he’s also thinking big picture.

“I don’t want to belittle it; this is still the biggest game of the year for us, within our program and within our fan base. But we’ve also elevated the level of our program to a little bit more national prominence, and it’s not all about one game now,” Mullen said. “We’re trying to compete for championships in the SEC and national championships as a program. That rise in prominence of the program has maybe brought other attentions, not just this one attention. It hasn’t dropped; I just think everything around it in the program has raised up. It doesn’t seem like it’s an all-or-nothing game.”

Remaining focused

The 115th meeting of the Battle of the Golden Egg returns to Thanksgiving night this year with Thursday’s kickoff set for 6:30 p.m. on ESPN. The Rebels (5-6, 2-5 SEC) enter without a shot at bowl eligibility and with interim coach Matt Luke likely coaching his final game.

Luke, a Gulfport native who played for Ole Miss in the late 1990s, insists his team will be ready.

“My job is to focus on these players and give them the best chance to win this game,” Luke said. “I’ve said this before, I’ve been a part of teams that have had a better record. But I’m really, really proud of what this team’s been able to accomplish with all they’ve been through.

“We’ve got one more opportunity to play together. We’re going to enjoy these next four days together. We’re going to enjoy Thursday night.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Game plan

Who: Ole Miss at Mississippi State

When: 6:30 p.m., Thursday

TV: ESPN

Radio: 1580-AM, 96.9 FM, 104.9 FM

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