STARKVILLE, Miss. — Forget about recruiting and bowl games. And rankings and records, too.
When it comes to the Egg Bowl rivalry between No. 25 Mississippi and Mississippi State, Bulldogs coach Sylvester Croom explained to reporters this week, none of that matters. It’s simply personal, a game that will resonate 20 years down the road when rivals meet again on the street.
“You will look him in the eye and neither of you will say a word, but each of you will know that one of you got whipped in this game,” Croom said.
Hating each other’s guts makes for good drama. The coaches save their most colorful quotes for this game. Every recruit is looking closely for validation of their decision. And the players get themselves worked up and say things that might be mistaken for dialogue in “The Sopranos.”
“It’s all about respect,” Ole Miss defensive tackle Peria Jerry said. “This game is all about respect.”
First-year Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt hasn’t been involved in a bloodthirsty intrastate rivalry since he was a player at Oklahoma State.
But he said he felt the intensity of the Rebels-Bulldogs rivalry shortly after making the move from Arkansas.
“I know from the first time I got here whether you go to a coffee shop or down the road, it’s always Mississippi State or Ole Miss — ‘I graduated from Mississippi State; no, I graduated from Ole Miss,”’ Nutt said. “There’s a rivalry, and it’s competitive. This will be the most competitive game of the year, forget about the records. You throw it all out. It’s going to be a fight.”
This year, though, there is much more to be fired up about because all that other stuff really does matter. After long droughts, both teams believe they are on the move toward contender status.
For Ole Miss (7-4, 4-3), a win Friday against those confounded Bulldogs will mean a second-place finish in the Southeastern Conference Western Division and a likely Cotton Bowl berth. The game in Dallas would pay two to three times more than the bowls the Rebels would likely be invited to with a loss and is set in one of Nutt’s favorite recruiting grounds.
And for Mississippi State (4-7, 2-5), a win against the Rebels would help coaches hang onto a promising recruiting class and wipe away the disappointment of a lost season following the team’s 8-5 resurgence last year. This year, the Egg Bowl is the only bowl they’ll play in.
The Bulldogs took the Golden Egg last year when they scored 17 points in the fourth quarter to rally from 14 down. They went to the Liberty Bowl and beat Central Florida 10-3.
But little has gone right since. Injuries, inconsistency and even a missed extra point have added up to an early end for a team that expected to challenge for the division title.
“I have never been through a season where I have seen so many bad things happen to one team,” Croom said.
“I can honestly say there has not been a day in practice I thought we gave up and there has not been a game I felt they did not give their all. You can question a lot of things about this football team, but you cannot question their heart or their character.”