Welcome to your father’s Egg Bowl. Maybe your grandfather’s too.
When Ole Miss and Mississippi State meet Thursday night in Starkville the game won’t be like those earlier this decade when both teams had bowl hopes – maybe big bowl hopes – on the line.
Remember Mississippi Mayhem? Remember Sports Illustrated covers?
This is not that game.
Remember 1977? Remember 1984?
This is that kind of season.
Only Mississippi State on Thursday will be thankful for the opportunity for a break-even regular season and the chance to earn a legitimate bowl bid if that’s what 6-6 postseason really is.
Trivia question. What state made up half of the College Football Playoff rankings in the first batch ever released? Answer: Mississippi. The year was 2014. Mississippi State was No. 1, Ole Miss No. 4. In between were No. 2 Florida State and No. 4 Auburn which had just beaten Ole Miss.
The teams had slipped a bit by the time the Egg Bowl rolled around, but both teams would go on to play in New Years Six bowl games. The Rebels won that Egg Bowl 31-17 in Oxford. No home team has won since then.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey hopes this Egg Bowl is one that doesn’t produce a bench-clearing brawl, a fight where one player rips off another’s helmet, where multiple players are ejected and everyone on both teams is assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Maybe that was your grandfather’s Egg Bowl, maybe not. It was definitely last year’s Egg Bowl, and Sankey, who watched from the press box at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, added to the off-season drama with his announcement that athletics directors from both schools would be summoned to the SEC office in Birmingham to discuss the rivalry moving forward, his version of Mississippi peace talks.
When I spoke with him earlier this week Sankey was pleased with how multiple rounds of those talks progressed through the year. He’s hopeful this year’s game will have no fight but would not speculate on what actions, if any, he’ll take against violators of the peace.
For all the things this Egg Bowl is not it should be very exciting. Mediocrity can often produce exciting football.
And it’s not without meaning. Pride is on the line, and pride matters. Oh, it’s not the, ‘This is the biggest game of my life because it means so much to everyone in Mississippi,’ kind of pride, the pre-game hyperbole that often accompanies a matchup of rivals.
And sometimes that pride isn’t on display when the game gets too far out of hand one way or the other.
But the pride is there, and it’s going to be a motivating factor for one team if not both Thursday night.
Honestly, it should be a bigger factor for the Rebels, the team beaten soundly 35-3 in this game last year.
That should be a memory that stings, that makes you want to be at your very best, to show that last year’s result was an isolated incident, not a trend.
That wasn’t, however, the public story line coming out of The Manning Center this week.
It’s kind of weird how closely these teams match up on paper.
In the SEC team stats they line up: No. 1 (Ole Miss and No. 3 (MSU) in rushing offense, No. 11 (Ole Miss) and No. 12 (MSU) in passing offense, No. 7 (MSU) and No. 8 (Ole Miss) in scoring offense, No. 13 (MSU) and No. 14 (Ole Miss) in passing defense, No. 11 (Ole Miss) and No. 12 (MSU) in scoring defense, No. 11 (MSU) and No. 12 (Ole Miss) in total defense.
So which team will be able to exploit the other?
Can an average MSU passing game take advantage of a poor Ole Miss passing defense?
Can the impressive Ole Miss run game do its thing against an MSU rushing defense that has been racked by suspensions throughout the season but will have all its key players on the field for this game?
The Rebels have run the ball against some pretty good defenses this season with 279 yards against Alabama, 204 against Missouri, 250 against Texas A&M and 402 against LSU.
That’s what it will take for Ole Miss to win this game.
It’s unreasonable to expect an Ole Miss offense – even against an MSU secondary little better than its own – to suddenly make the big plays in the passing game, to win the one-on-one matchups that Matt Luke and Rich Rodriguez have longed for all season.
If the Rebels are going to reclaim the Golden Egg it will be with the feet of this year’s Golden Boy, freshman quarterback John Rhys Plumlee, who needs just 11 rushing yards to reach 1,000 for the season, Plumlee who will likely be the top rusher in the SEC once he qualifies for NCAA statistical record-keeping after this game, Plumlee who just rushed for 212 yards and four touchdowns against LSU.
If the Rebels’ offensive line can create cracks and crevices in the MSU defense and/or if Rich Rodriguez through formations and pre-snap motions can lure a defender or two just a little bit out of position, well, recent history suggests that’s all Plumlee needs for a big, big play.
One big play here, one big play there, and pretty soon you’re talking about redemption for last year’s embarrassing home loss.
That’s how the Rebels can win your father’s Egg Bowl.
Prediction: Ole Miss 27, MSU 26