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Egg Bowl stakes never higher

11/25/2014

Sitting inside Mississippi State’s football facility is something Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze desperately wants. After he got his hands on the Golden Egg Trophy with a win over the Bulldogs in 2012, he watched the in-state rival reclaim it after his quarterback fumbled near the goal line in the final seconds.

“The bottom line is we lost the most prized possession of this university’s football program …" Freeze said. “That’s the facts of it, and it should be enough motivation.”

To get back that coveted prize, Freeze will have to topple a team with College Football Playoff aspirations. The Rebels are hurting, but they're dangerous and have nothing to lose, while Mississippi State has all the pressure on its side.

The Rebels (8-3, 4-3 SEC) have a chance to ruin everything the fourth-ranked Bulldogs (10-1, 6-1) have worked so hard for. The Rebels understand that while their SEC and playoff hopes are gone, they can end Mississippi State’s same hopes Saturday afternoon.

“They’re trying to ruin our season," Mississippi State center Ben Beckwith said. "We’re the top dog in the state right now."

Ah, but one does not merely walk into the Egg Bowl and snatch the egg. Not with so much on the line for the guys in maroon, and the boys in blue looking for redemption. This game might not spark the rest of the country -- or even the Deep South -- like the Iron Bowl, but its hatred is palpable.

Families are divided. Friendships are damaged. Recruiting bitterness motivates guys, and bragging rights fuel that extra push. This is a yearlong rivalry that consumes a state that has no pro sports teams.

There’s a clock that ticks down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the Egg Bowl inside Mississippi State’s locker room. Freeze has family and friends on both sides. Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork even picks at Mississippi State fans on Twitter, and southern transplant Dan Mullen can count the number of times he has said the words “Ole Miss” on a couple of fingers.

“This is always the biggest game of the year for us,” said Mullen, who refers to Ole Miss only as "The School Up North."

“We’re going to get into a hostile environment," Mullen said. "I’ve heard that people in Oxford don’t like me very much. I don’t know, I’m a pretty nice guy. I’m sure they’ll have a lot of choice things to say to me. … This is a special week, this is what makes the game so much fun. I know for everyone in this state, this whole week is all about the Egg Bowl.”

Mississippi State fans think Ole Miss fans exude an annoying arrogance, while there’s a big-brother complex with Rebels fans. It’s blue collar vs. white collar.

Recruiting gets ugly, too. Ole Miss defensive end C.J. Johnson had to deal with Mississippi State fans alleging wild NCAA violations surrounding his recruitment. Mississippi State defensive lineman Chris Jones received with death threats -- from both sides -- before and after he signed with the Bulldogs.

After winning in 2010, Mullen proudly proclaimed, “We’re never losing to this team again.” In 2012, video of Mullen saying that was looped on the video board inside Vaught-Heminway Stadium late in the Rebels’ 41-24 win.

“I’m ready to go back to Oxford and take care of business,” said Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott, who was there in 2012.

Saturday will mark the 111th time these two, separated by roughly 95 miles of rural highways, have played, and it’ll be the first time since 1999 that both will meet as ranked opponents. This one could be the biggest yet. It’s a special game that is getting primetime treatment because of SEC and playoff implications. This is what rivalry games are made of, and while the Egg Bowl’s rich tradition hasn’t really resonated fully on the entire college football landscape, many eyes will be on the Grove this weekend.

"It's the most important game of the year, especially them being 10-1," Ole Miss receiver Vince Sanders told members of the media this week. "They're going to come in after our performance last week and feel like it's an easy win. But I think our guys understand the importance of this game. … All the work we go through in the summer and spring, we worked for this game.

“Everybody will understand it."

In all honesty, these sides plain don’t like each other. There’s some respect, but not much love.

Beckwith, who grew up couple hours southwest of Starkville and was never recruited by the Rebels, has friends on Ole Miss’ team and his brother actually went there for school, so there’s nothing personal, but …

“I just don’t like them,” Beckwith said of the Rebels. “I’ll be honest with you.”

And if his brother tries to cheer for Ole Miss?

“It’s kinda, ‘Hey, you can either cheer for me or you can get out of here,’” Beckwith said.

For Freeze, who grew up in the backyard of the rivalry in Independence, Mississippi, he chooses the respect route. He isn’t into name-calling, is fine with one of his best friends attending Mississippi State and is cordial with Mullen.

“I know this one is pretty intense and sometimes in my opinion it crosses the line to what is good and all of that,” Freeze said. “I want to beat them as bad as they want to beat us, particularly two days out of the year -- this Saturday and then national signing day. Those are the two days I feel that way. I feel that way all the time, but I don’t let it control my emotions. I wish it wasn’t that way."

It’s a game that is gaining national steam this season for all the right reasons, and there will be no shortage of motivation in Oxford.

"It's State,” Ole Miss linebacker DT Shackleford said. “I feel like if you can't get up for that, you probably don't need to be playing. It's everything. It's the Egg Bowl. It's Senior Day. If I have to motivate some people for next week, they probably shouldn't be playing."