Mississippi State has clinched a winning season.

Coach Mike Leach’s team will play in a decent-but-not-great bowl game, and the outcome of the Egg Bowl on Thursday night will do little to improve or lessen the Bulldogs’ destination.

But there is still plenty at stake for State when it faces Ole Miss in Oxford.

Yeah, it’s Ole Miss, it’s the Egg Bowl, it’s national TV on Thanksgiving night.

But there’s more to this game than just that.

The credibility of Leach and his program is at stake.

Leach is winding down his 3rd season in Starkville just as Lane Kiffin is winding down his 3rd in Oxford.

The Bulldogs and the Rebels are always judged to a large degree by how they stack up against one another, not just in the Egg Bowl, but in recruiting, in overall record, in the quality of bowl trips – all of which are intertwined.

Kiffin is clearly ahead of Leach. The State head coach needs to start closing the gap.

It’s not like Kiffin had a head start. He took over a program that had just finished 4-8 and 2-6 in the Southeastern Conference. Leach took over a program that had just finished 6-7 and 3-5.

Kiffin’s 1st team went 5-5 and Leach’s 1st team went 4-7. Kiffin’s 1st team won the Egg Bowl, 31-24.

Kiffin’s 2nd team went to the Sugar Bowl and Leach’s 2nd team went to the Liberty Bowl.

Kiffin’s 3rd team is No. 14 in the rankings for the college football playoff. Leach’s 3rd team is nowhere to be found on that list.

Another loss in the Egg Bowl would emphasize that this Rebels team is better than this Bulldogs team – and that Kiffin’s program might be widening the distance between itself and Leach’s team.

State had a fun-filled afternoon in its home finale Saturday.

The 56-7 victory against East Tennessee State could be seen as a promising launching point for Egg Bowl week.

It also can be seen as a showcase of what this team is at its best.

Will Rogers essentially operated a 3-quarters-long 7-on-7 drill until Leach pulled him. He had 5 touchdown passes.

Five pass catchers combined for 6 touchdown receptions.

Lideatrick Griffin showed off his ability as a receiver and kickoff returner.

Jo’quavious Marks ran for a touchdown and had 58 of the 76 rushing yards that pass for being complementary in Leach’s offense.

Emmanuel Forbes established a record in the Football Bowl Subdivision with his 6th career interception return for a touchdown.

Leach’s best players put on a show.

It was a showcase for how Leach’s team is supposed to operate.

But it also was a reminder that it’s one thing to do all that good stuff against a Football Championship Subdivision team with a losing record.

It’s a reminder that it’s another thing to operate successfully against SEC competition.

State is going to fall short of a winning conference record for a 3rd time with Leach. The Bulldogs were 3-7 in 2020, 4-4 last year and needs to beat the Rebels to get to 4-4 this season.

A victory in the Egg Bowl would be a breakthrough. It could start to change the image of Leach’s program.

But another loss would reinforce the suspicion that State is spinning its wheels.

Leach had one 11-2 record in his 10 seasons at Texas Tech. He won 64 percent of his games the rest of the time.

That’s a good percentage, but it’s not a great one and it was a while ago.

He had one 11-2 record in his 8 seasons at Washington State. Otherwise his record was 44-45.

Leach has not had an 11-win season at State, and he takes an 18-17 record into Thursday’s game.

If the Bulldogs are headed in the right direction, this would be a good time to provide evidence of it.