Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State: 10 biggest storylines for the Egg Bowl
Well, it’s that time of year again. No, we’re not talking about Thanksgiving, which tends to be the appetizer for the day. We’re talking about the main course – the annual Egg Bowl, featuring longtime rivals Ole Miss and Mississippi State. The Bulldogs (7-4, 3-4) will no doubt be heavy favorites against the Rebels (5-6, 1-6), but fans of both sides can agree that this rivalry is anything but predictable.
Here are the 10 biggest storylines for this year’s Egg Bowl.
10. How much will the outcome affect recruiting?
One game in any given season rarely impacts a recruiting class in any significant way, but the Egg Bowl can be viewed as the exception to the rule. Why? Because these two teams literally compete for the same exact players throughout the Magnolia State every year, and there will be a plethora of recruits on hand who are being courted heavily by both the Bulldogs and Rebels, not only from the 2019 class but 2020 as well. Who wins this game and how they win it will certainly leave an impression on the recruits, especially with the early signing period right around the corner.
9. Does location matter anymore?
Not so long ago, it seemed like the home team almost always won the game, and from 2004-14 the home team was the victor in nine of 10 contests. That trend has been bucked in recent years, and the road team has now won each of the last three games. With this year’s game being played in Oxford, will that have any tangible impact? Frankly, I doubt it. Any player can attest that no matter the environment, once the ball is snapped, the crowd may as well not even be there. It all comes down to what happens between the lines.
8. Final sendoff for Ole Miss seniors and juniors
This won’t be the final game for the Mississippi State seniors and premier juniors like defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons. The final regular-season game, yes, but they still have a bowl game to look forward to. For the Rebels, this is the bowl game. This is the final game for an Ole Miss senior class that has truly been through hell. Guys like Jordan Ta’amu, DaMarkus Lodge, Javon Patterson, Sean Rawlings, Victor Evans and Ken Webster will play their final games in an Ole Miss uniform. It will also likely be the last time we see two of the stars from the fateful 2016 recruiting class, A.J. Brown and Greg Little. For Brown, a Starkville native who became the greatest receiver in program history, it’ll no doubt be a highly emotional game.
7. Can the Rebels stop the Bulldogs’ rushing attack?
This will be absolutely critical for the Rebels to have any chance of winning this game. The Bulldogs are No. 2 in the SEC in both rushing yards per game (218.9) and per carry (5.7). The Rebels are dead last in the SEC in both rushing yards allowed per game (212.8) and per carry (5.0). Granted, the Rebels defense has shown some improvement as the season has progressed, but honestly, I’m not sure how they’ll be able to slow down this rushing attack, which they’ve struggled to contain each of the past two years. In ’16 and ’17, the Bulldogs averaged a jaw-dropping 375.5 rushing yards per game against Ole Miss. Will that be the case in ’18 as well?
6. Can the Bulldogs stop the Rebels’ passing attack?
Just like the rushing attack is the bread and butter of the Bulldogs offense, the passing attack is what makes the Rebels offense hum. Led by Ta’amu, Brown and Lodge, the Rebels have the No. 1-ranked passing attack in the country, averaging 364.1 yards per game. The Bulldogs secondary is not exactly a weak link, however. The State pass defense is the best in the SEC and No. 8 nationally, allowing just 165.3 yards per game, and it is aided by one of the most ferocious pass rushes in the country.
5. Does Fitzgerald play like he did in second half against Arkansas?
It’s no secret that the Bulldogs offense has been nearly identical to the play of its senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald – one week he looks great and the offense rolls, the next week he struggles and the offense can’t move the ball. In the second half against Arkansas this past week, Fitzgerald looked as good passing the ball as I’ve seen him all year, completing 5 of 5 passes for 89 yards and 4 touchdowns. More importantly, he looked poised and confident in the pocket, going through his progressions and showing touch, timing and precision. If he plays like that this week, this game is going to get out of hand in a hurry.
4. Does Scottie Phillips play?
The junior tailback really emerged this year as a terrific rushing threat for the Rebels, giving balance to a unit that for years has lacked it. With that said, he has missed almost all of the last two games with a sprained ankle and is listed as day to day. Whether he’ll be able to suit up against the Bulldogs is questionable, and if he does play, can he be effective against one of the best defenses in the country? Backup Isaiah Woullard admirably filled in for Phillips against Vandy, rushing for 107 yards, but he’s just not on the same level in terms of power or playmaking ability.
3. Can the Bulldogs continue their defensive dominance?
The Mississippi State defense has been truly fantastic this year. The Bulldogs are second nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 12.8 points per game, the program’s best since 1981, when they allowed just 11.4 points per game. And believe me, slowing down offenses today is considerably more difficult than it was in the early ’80s. They’ll get a good test from the Rebels offense, however, which is putting up a whopping 539.7 yards per game (fifth nationally) and averaging 7.4 yards per play. With that said, time and time again we have seen the Rebels offense stumble against elite defenses, and this will be the best defense they’ve seen all year.
2. New era begins for Ole Miss on Friday
The Egg Bowl officially marks the end of the 2018 season for the Ole Miss Rebels, and on Friday, the page officially flips to 2019. More importantly? Friday marks the first day of the post-NCAA sanctions era, which has plagued the program for years. The cloud hanging over the program, which has had a devastating effect on recruiting and perception, will at long last be gone. Regardless of the outcome of Thursday’s Egg Bowl, Friday will be a joyous day for those inside the Ole Miss program.
1. Under new coaches, will civility return?
Look, we all love a good rivalry. And rivalries are good for sports. They make for compelling drama due to increased intensity and shared history between two teams and their fan bases. And for much of the Ole Miss and Mississippi State rivalry, which has raged since Oct. 28, 1901, it has been a healthy and productive one.
I think it’s safe to say that changed dramatically the past few years under Hugh Freeze and Dan Mullen, and the rivalry took a horrible turn for the worse. It became entirely too caustic and hateful. The rivalry used to bring out the best of each team and their fan bases, but under Freeze and Mullen it eventually came to bring out the very worst. The NCAA investigation compounded matters by forcing Leo Lewis into the limelight to admit he took money from both programs, and now the poor kid is literally being sued for what he said to the Committee on Infractions. Way to protect the student-athlete, NCAA.
Hopefully, though, things will settle down now that both Freeze and Mullen are gone. Matt Luke and Joe Moorhead, unlike their predecessors, actually appear to be adults and adults who care more about the success of their programs than the demise of their rival. Perhaps this will be the start of a more civil rivalry that cherishes the common bond between the two – being the sole representatives for the state of Mississippi in the most iconic athletic conference in college sports. For a state that perennially gets unfairly mocked and ridiculed across not only the SEC but the country, these two rivals need to build each other up, not tear each other down.