By MATTHEW STEVENS
Here’s what we know about this game tonight.
These two schools, two head coaches and combined 170 players on both sides don’t care for each other at all.
Welcome to the first trip to Oxford for Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen since taking the job when his 25th-ranked Bulldogs play Ole Miss in the 2010 Egg Bowl matchup (6 p.m., ESPNU).
“There’s probably not many people in Oxford, Mississippi, that like me,” Mullen said with a laugh Monday. “Maybe a couple more like our team, but not many. We know we’re going into a tough environment, so that’s easy to keep the focus.”
In all this hype about the name Mullen and the players in Starkville are using for its instate opponent (The School up North), on the field the roles have reversed for both programs since State’s 41-27 victory last season. That victory at Davis-Wade Stadium to end the 2009 season for MSU (7-4, 3-4 in Southeastern Conference) was followed by a pronouncement by State’s head coach that his program was the one in better shape that day along with long term.
“I had read something somewhere that week that someone said some other school was the one on the rise in this state and I wanted to make clear that was not the correct statement,” Mullen said Sunday. “I didn’t plan on getting the microphone or anything like that. I was planning on celebrating with my team and somebody handed me the microphone to say something.”
Conversely, Ole Miss (4-7, 1-6 in SEC play) has suffered through a dismal season and can’t get bowl eligible unless the bowl committees are allowed to accept a team with a 5-7 record after every 6-6 school has found a home in a postseason game.
“After last year, when really Mississippi State had nowhere to go at the end of the year, kind of how hard they played, it really opened my eyes,” Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt said. “It really opened my eyes. This is the biggest, biggest game of the year. I have a real appreciation for all rival games now much more.”
The Rebels offense, that is ranked second in the league rushing but ninth in passing, may be even more one-dimensional with the suspension of 6-foot-7 receiver Melvin Harris for a violation of team rules. Ole Miss quarterback Jeremiah Masoli’s top target on the outside is now redshirt freshman Ja-Mes Logan (25 catches for 328 yards and one touchdown), who has started only three games this season.
State’s running game, led by tailback Vick Ballard, may enter the Bulldogs record books as the transfer from Gulf Coast Community College is just one rushing touchdown away from tying the school record in that category originally set by Jackie Parker in 1952. The 25th ranked Bulldogs plan to get back to its running roots after panicking in back-to-back losses against Alabama and Arkansas.
“Controlling the tempo of the game and a continued focus of the game is a major key for us,” Mullen said. “Our motto has to be, don't change the focus. We learned the week before in Alabama that we changed everything in our approach and the game got away from us.”
With a victory, Mississippi State can maintain its position in a bowl game near New Year’s Day and potentially make its first trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl since 1999 when they defeated Clemson 17-7 in the contest then-named the Peach Bowl.
For the players that line up on Saturday, the consequences of the game are more crucial from an emotional standpoint.
“It’s an understanding,” MSU senior center J.C. Brignone said. “It’s your rivalry. It’s guys you don’t want to deal with and guys you don’t want to be around. If you dislike somebody, you’re not going to say his name. That’s the thing we go by. If we don’t like him and we don’t want anything to do with them, then they’re the school up north. I’m sure they have a name for us now, like the school down south or something.”
In a emotionally charged rivalry contest, the rule of thumb is teams usually lose the game with a mistake instead go take the victory themselves. Under that premise, turnovers will be extra critical as the Bulldogs are plus-11 in their seven wins. However, MSU is minus-4 in its four losses in 2010.
“We tell our players that great players have great eyes,” Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “(Ole Miss) presents a lot of eye candy to get your eyes distracted with all the emotions going into this game, it is more important to put your eyes in the right plays.”