STARKVILLE and OXFORD, Miss. -- In the week when Mississippi will take its rightful place as the epicenter of the college football world, the Magnolia State is beaming with pigskin pride.
And why not? There are two games, featuring four of the nation's top 12 teams, being played on Mississippi soil.
No. 6 Texas A&M travels to No. 12 Mississippi State, and No. 3 Alabama visits No. 11 Ole Miss as both Mississippi schools sport a 4-0 record in the same season for the first time. In another first, ESPN's "College GameDay" is setting up shop in the Grove in Oxford.
It's almost too good to be true for a state that treats football as nothing short of a religious experience. Of course, the great irony is that even some of the most impassioned Mississippi State and Ole Miss fans would have guessed that only divine intervention would have positioned both programs to make this kind of noise in the big, bad SEC West.
Not since 1958 have both teams been ranked this highly in the polls in the same season. Even more telling, both schools have recruited and developed their programs, including raising the kind of money needed to build state-of-the-art facilities, to the point that there's no reason they won't continue to be relevant in the West race for years to come.
"There have been some big games, some big moments and some great players in this state, but I'm not sure anything tops what we're going to see [Saturday]," said Rockey Felker, who is in his fifth different decade of association with Mississippi State football in some capacity, most recently as the Bulldogs' director of player personnel and high school relations.
"A lot of eyes will be on the state of Mississippi."
And it's a spotlight many, including former Gov. William Winter, are hoping to use to show off a side of their state they think outsiders don't often see.
• • •
The Rebels and Bulldogs have captured the imagination of the entire state, all the way from Yazoo City to Pontotoc to Holly Springs and all of the small towns in between.
Danny Pearson brandished a sour look as he sipped on a cold beer at Harvey's, a popular hangout just off Mississippi State's campus in Starkville.
Yes, he was stoked about the Bulldogs' possibilities this season. But could he possibly bring himself to root for the Rebels on Saturday against Alabama?
"Nah, don't think so, especially the way they look down their noses at us," Pearson said. "They think they're a cut above us, and it's been that way for as long as I can remember. I don't really know why. I just know it sure feels good to beat them every year."
For the record, Mississippi State has won four of the past five games in the series over the "school up north," as Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen refers to Ole Miss.
Mullen hasn't been shy when it comes to gigging the Rebels, but even he raves about how special it is for both schools to have a showcase Saturday like this in the state.
"There are great people here, great family values, great communities," said Mullen, who jokingly refers to himself as a transplanted Yankee. "The fact that there's a lot of success with the two schools in Mississippi right now gives everybody in the state an awful lot of pride and allows them to sit up tall, hold their head up high and stick their chest out further."
Does that mean he'll be an Ole Miss fan come Saturday?
"I don't know if I'd go that far," Mullen said.
That's OK, because the Ole Miss fans feel the same way.
"There are great people here, great family values, great communities. The fact that there's a lot of success with the two schools in Mississippi right now gives everybody in the state an awful lot of pride and allows them to sit up tall, hold their head up high and stick their chest out further."Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen
Megan Patton, who works at the popular Ajax Diner on the Square in Oxford, said she knows exactly one Mississippi State fan.
"I've only been to Starkville once in my life and was there for less than 24 hours," Patton said. "I don't even know how to get there. Does anybody?"
For die-hard Ole Miss fan Oscar Pope, it pains him to have to share Saturday's stage with Mississippi State, but he does so begrudgingly. He even admits that it's pretty cool to think that the road to the SEC championship game in Atlanta could potentially run through the state of Mississippi.
"It's insane to even be talking about it, that the Egg Bowl could be a West Division semifinal, and, normally, I wouldn't acknowledge anything about Mississippi State. But it is pretty surreal," said Pope, who will be at his customary Grove tailgate spot bright and early Saturday: a sea of tents known as the "Eighth Wonder of the World."
John Bond, the star quarterback at Mississippi State in the early 1980s, moved from Starkville to Valdosta, Georgia, when he was a kid, so he found himself having to take up for both Ole Miss and Mississippi State from rival Auburn, Florida and Georgia fans.
"I guess my taste for Ole Miss isn't as bad as some," said Bond, who actually has tailgated with some Ole Miss friends in the Grove. "But, generally, you're going to hear that the doctors and lawyers go to Ole Miss and the farmers and engineers go to Mississippi State. It's been that way forever."
• • •
Mississippi State defensive tackle Chris Jones knows exactly what it's like to be caught in the middle one of college football's most underrated rivalries. A five-star prospect out of Houston, Mississippi, Jones was the subject of a fierce recruiting battle between Mississippi State and Ole Miss two years ago. He had been committed to Mississippi State since his junior year of high school but says he changed his mind and decided to go to Ole Miss a few days before national signing day.
"I wanted to go to both schools, to be honest with you. That's why I struggled with it," Jones said. "Most people from Mississippi understand it, but people outside Mississippi don't really understand it. Either you grow up in a Mississippi State house or an Ole Miss house. I was a little different. My mama liked Ole Miss, and my daddy liked State."
Picking between the two schools was excruciating for Jones, but leaving the state was never a consideration.
"This is my state. I wasn't going anywhere else," he said. "It was important to me that I represent this state, and you're going to see more and more players doing that. Everybody knows there are great players here, and you don't have to leave the state to go play great football."
Jones said he didn't finalize his decision until signing day, switching back to the Bulldogs at the last minute.
"Up until then, I was planning on going to Ole Miss," Jones said. "That's where I was going, but my dad talked me into going to Mississippi State. It was really close, but I'm glad I chose State. It's what was best for me."
The fact so many of the Mississippi State and Ole Miss players are homegrown isn't lost on anybody in the state. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze grew up on a dairy farm in Independence, Mississippi, and still loves traveling around the state and visiting the mom-and-pop stores and restaurants in the small towns. One of his favorites is Bill's Hamburgers in Amory, and he once bought himself some boots at a little country store just outside Louisville.
When he's out recruiting, Freeze keeps a stack of pictures of himself in his briefcase, and when he sees an Ole Miss sticker or flag on a mailbox, he'll stop, autograph one of his pictures and leave it in the mailbox.
"Some of the emails I get back from people are just great," Freeze said. "I get the people here, and I think that's one reason we've had success recruiting. I've got guys here on my staff and myself who understand the people and can sell what Ole Miss is about. It's more than a place. It's a feeling. It's a family."
Unlike his counterpart at the "school down south," Freeze hasn't been big verbally on stirring up the rivalry any more than it already is. His brother, Carey, graduated from Mississippi State, so Freeze isn't necessarily allergic to maroon.
"I know the people on both sides and know what they're like and know the goodness of the Mississippi people," Freeze said. "I hate to see it become so fueled with negativity and hate for each other. On the positive side, the two programs are doing really well, and it's not surprising to me because I was here for three years [under Ed Orgeron], and there's so much undeveloped talent in this state."
A big part of the challenge at both schools is finding what Mullen calls the hidden talent in the state.
"For a lot of these kids at small 1A schools, their weight room may consist of one bench and a rack," Mullen said. "We try to do a great job of figuring out not where they are right now but where they're going to be when they get put in a program two or three years down the road."
Freeze and Mullen have done a bang-up job of keeping the best players in the state at home. A few of the blue-chippers still leave the state, but most of them are staying put.
"The recruits in the state are seeing what we've built, both schools, and just want to take it further," said Ole Miss All-America safety Cody Prewitt, who is from Bay Springs. "There's a pride here. I grew up here. I've seen the bad parts of Mississippi and the good, and the good heavily outweighs the bad.
"Now, you've got two football programs here that are putting the state on the map. It's only going to reinforce to everybody around the country what all of us here in the state already know.
"This is just the start of something great."
• • •
The attention lavished on the state Saturday will be a welcome chance for residents to show a positive side. They know just because their football teams are good doesn't mean everything is perfect. But they're happy to showcase their state pride and what they're convinced is a changed, more progressive Mississippi.
It was another football game, 52 years ago, and the events surrounding it that brought shame to Mississippi that the state is still trying to live down.
A black man, James Meredith, attempted to enroll at Ole Miss, triggering a riotous, fatal night on campus, the day after a defiant and pro-segregation speech at halftime of the Kentucky-Ole Miss football game.
The state's governor, Ross Barnett, stood at midfield in Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson and made his infamous "I love Mississippi" speech, saying, "I love and respect our heritage" as a giant Confederate flag was draped across the field.
Winter, a budding politician at the time, was in the stands that night and still shudders at Barnett's words and the wild reaction they elicited from the Confederate-flag-waving fans. Winter would go on to serve as Mississippi's governor from 1980 to '84, and the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation on Ole Miss' campus is named in his honor.
Now 91, he's grateful he's still around to see the day when the national spotlight will shine on football games in his dear state for much more positive reasons. He says he will be keeping close tabs on the Bulldogs' game in Starkville before attending the Ole Miss game in Oxford.
"I'll never get over that experience that night in Jackson," said Winter, who served on a race relations advisory board to President Bill Clinton in 1997. "We're still suffering from that old stereotype, still fighting to recover from it, and, hopefully, close to removing it. We have a lot of lessons we can teach a lot of places -- Ferguson, Missouri, for instance -- and it's events like this weekend that will help us emerge from that dark period in our history.
"There's no question that athletics have played a huge role in moving us forward in race relations."
John Currence, the renowned chef at City Grocery who said he is "in his 23rd football season" in Oxford, echoed Winter's sentiments.
"This state has been the repository for the nation's racial guilt for too long now," Currence said. "So this Saturday is a great opportunity for this state to shine for all the right reasons."
Mullen embraced the pride shown by fans.
"A lot of times, Mississippi gets a bad rap on what we're bad at: education, health, everything that happened in the past with race relations. It certainly doesn't deserve one on the quality of people in this state.
"So what we're both doing now in football just gives the people in this state something else to be proud about."