MSU enters Egg Bowl as hunted, not hunter
In the aftermath of last year's upset victory over rival Mississippi in the Egg Bowl, a jubilant, Gatorade-soaked Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen grabbed a microphone at midfield and delivered a phrase that's resonated for 12 months across the Magnolia State:
''There's certainly one program in this state that's definitely on the rise and going in the right direction.''
At the time, Ole Miss fans snickered. The Rebels were nationally ranked and headed to the Cotton Bowl.
Mississippi State's season, even with the win, was over with a 5-7 record.
But Mullen's proclamation has proven prophetic, as No. 25 Mississippi State (7-4, 3-4) Southeastern Conference) has jumped into the national rankings for the first time since 2001, had a six-game winning streak for the first time since 1999 and is bowl eligible for only the second time in a decade.
As for Ole Miss? The Rebels (4-7, 1-6) have suffered through a miserable season - littered with embarrassing losses to Jacksonville State and Vanderbilt - and won't make a bowl game for the first time in Houston Nutt's three-year tenure.
Mullen said he doesn't regret his comments from last season. If anything, he's even more adamant.
''Obviously, since that game to now we are the program on the rise,'' Mullen said. ''And we plan to keep it that way.''
But Mississippi State has had issues the past couple weeks, losing two straight games, including last weekend's emotional 38-31 double overtime loss to then-No. 13 Arkansas. Now the Bulldogs must travel to face an Ole Miss team that will certainly be ready for revenge after last season's humbling loss.
The rivalry is traditionally dominated by the home team, which has won 10 of the last 11 Egg Bowls. Ole Miss has won the past five in Oxford.
Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, who is 1-1 in the Egg Bowl, said he fully understood the importance of the rivalry after last year's 41-27 loss. The Rebels went on to win nine games and a second straight Cotton Bowl, but the hot topic of the next few months wasn't those success stories.
''All summer long all I heard was people talking about the Mississippi State game, nothing else,'' Nutt said. ''It was about this game and when your state is divided, you really and truly understand what the word rival means. It's big.''
Mullen embraced the rivalry from the first day he arrived in Starkville, calling Ole Miss ''The School Up North'' and never missing an opportunity to play up the rivalry or needle the Rebels with a snarky comment.
Mississippi State's players have embraced their coach's brash approach, and said the constant focus on the game has made it certain that there will be no overlooking the Rebels, no matter the two teams' records.
''If you can't get up for this game you're not a real Bulldog,'' MSU center J.C. Brignone said. ''... No matter what, we have to get up for this game. This is what we do - this is what our season's for. We put this game at the top of our list. Sure, we want to win an SEC championship and want a chance to win the national championship, but our season isn't completed until we beat The School Up North.''
Brignone added that Mullen's approach have made Egg Bowl week ''more fun.''
But it's only fun for the Bulldogs if they win. And to do that, they likely need to improve a defense that's given up 68 points over the past two games. MSU defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said the defense was out of position to often against Arkansas, and compared finding the correct defensive alignment to a test in the classroom.
''We got the answers wrong before the play even began,'' Diaz said. ''Once the play started, we had already lost. You have to give yourself a chance. They can ask you 61 questions and you can get 59 right, but even if you just miss two it makes it really difficult to win.''