Buzz, momentum shifts to Ole Miss
Ole Miss and Mississippi State, forever the quarrelsome brothers of the deeply rooted state of Mississippi, have grown up stuck inside the same cramped quarters since their founding in the 1800s. Within their borders, there has never been enough room for both to grow and flourish simultaneously.
In football, which falls a close third to God and family in the heart of the Deep South, the two schools have rarely shared center stage. While one thrives, the other waits impatiently like the seeds of a crop rotating with the season. Since 1970, Ole Miss and Mississippi State have finished the year ranked in the final Associated Press poll a combined 17 times. But only twice have they ended the season ranked at the same time.
The state, despite its nearly 47,000 square miles, doesn't have the population to support two top programs. Alabama, its neighbor to the east, has nearly 2 million more residents than Mississippi. A deeper talent pool has allowed the University of Alabama and Auburn -- which sport the same state-versus-land-grant-college dynamic -- to coexist, for the most part. The Tide and Tigers have, by comparison, finished ranked in the final poll together 11 times in the last 33 years.[+] EnlargeMarvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsIt's rare that Ole Miss and Mississippi State have both been good in the same season.
"It's awful difficult because of the number of players in the state of Mississippi. There's just not that many," said Jackie Sherrill, who coached at Mississippi State for 13 seasons and described the rivalry with Ole Miss as that of not a lot of people, but highly concentrated in terms of its intensity. "If one school could get all the players then you could be in the upper echelon of the SEC."
Sherrill came to Starkville in 1991 on a wave of popularity after returning a previously sub-.500 Texas A&M program to prominence a few years earlier, highlighted by three consecutive trips to the Cotton Bowl. Upon his shedding one shade of maroon for another, a Mississippi State booster reportedly yelled "This is the best deal since the Louisiana Purchase!" And early on, Sherrill delivered on that ridiculous promise, taking a team that had gone 21-34 in five seasons without a single trip to the postseason and transformed it into a team with back-to-back winning seasons complete with trips to the Liberty and Peach bowls.
But in Mississippi the shift, however gradual, always occurs.
Sherrill's tenure had its ups and downs, and it came as no coincidence that it ended in 2003 when he won just two games, capped by a 31-0 throttling at the hands of Ole Miss. Meanwhile, the same Rebels won 10 games and finished as SEC West co-champions.
The tide swayed back and forth as neither school won much over the next four seasons until Ole Miss hired Houston Nutt for the 2008 season, thumped Mississippi State 45-0 in Oxford and beat Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl to complete a nine-win season. So what did the Bulldogs do? They hired Dan Mullen away from defending champion Florida, crushed the hopes of a ranked Ole Miss team with an upset victory in Starkville and swung the momentum right back in Mississippi State's favor. The then-37-year-old coach was the toast of college football, hailed as the future of the sport in one newspaper and the dream crusher of SEC powers in another publication.
But in the three seasons since, Mullen has done little to capitalize on his early success. And just as suddenly as his program emerged as the "it" school in the state, Ole Miss recaptured the buzz.
Hugh Freeze, the congenial, fresh-faced coach from the nearby town of Independence, took the SEC and college football by storm when he was hired by Ole Miss late in 2011, first by fighting tooth and nail in his inaugural season, surprising many by winning seven games and playing competitive football against SEC powerhouses Alabama and LSU. Then his popularity truly soared thanks to his work on the recruiting trail. Out of nowhere, the smooth-talking Freeze and his staff had gotten the attention of many of the nation's top prospects. The interest almost felt phony until Feb. 2 when No. 1 overall recruit Robert Nkemdiche signed his letter of intent, along with three of the top prospects at their positions: offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and juco defensive tackle Lavon Hooks.
We won the Egg Bowl and won our bowl game, and then the way their season ended with several losses was a factor, too. We then had that recruiting class, so you felt it swinging." -- Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze
Where Mississippi State is seen as treading water, winning its fair share of games without a truly signature win, Ole Miss has emerged as the hot topic, an up-and-coming program that's aiming higher than simply winning its state.
Ross Bjork was hired as Ole Miss' athletic director only a few months after Freeze was brought in, but he knew right away he'd found the perfect fit when he saw Freeze's way of restoring the "confidence and teamwork and dedication and belief and energy and hope" that have inspired the program's turnaround.
"There's a lot to it just because of the way he's built. And again, being a perfect fit for our program, he understands what it takes to make this click.
"We're off to a good start, but for us this is only the beginning. We think that the foundation is being laid and there's a lot more to come."
Meanwhile, the question around Mullen is whether his program has hit its ceiling. Mississippi State only this season played its first ranked nonconference opponent since 2009, and it lost. The streak of defeats by ranked teams is currently at 11 and the overall record sits at 2-18, with both wins coming in his first two seasons. The Bulldogs have finished in ESPN RecruitingNation's Top 25 rankings just twice in Mullen's tenure.
Sitting at 2-2 this season with five games against ranked teams coming soon, it doesn't appear that there's much of an opportunity to move Ole Miss off its high standing.
Freeze himself admitted to feeling the momentum swinging his way. Playing a good game against No. 1 Alabama on national television Saturday night could do even more to raise his program's profile.
"It started when we beat [Mississippi State last season] and then carried over into recruiting," he said. "We won the Egg Bowl and won our bowl game, and then the way their season ended with several losses was a factor, too. We then had that recruiting class, so you felt it swinging."
Sherrill can relate. He had Mississippi State on top only to see it fall. He lauded the hire of Mullen and watched pridefully as he posted 24 wins over the last three seasons. But Sherrill knows full well the power of buzz and he recognizes that his former program has taken a back seat to its rival in that department.
Ole Miss is 3-0 for the first time in more than a decade with two prime-time wins over Vanderbilt and Texas already in the books. If you went out across the country, most of what you'd hear would be people talking about the Rebels, Sherrill admitted.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Michael ThomasThings are looking up for Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss.
"When you finish in the top five in recruiting that gives you a big plus. You're in the national media, every place in the country. And when you recruit the No. 1 player in the country and players from different states that are No. 1 in their state, yes it does [have a tangible effect.]
"They don't have the luster on them that [Ole Miss] has right now."
That could all change, though, according to Sherrill. He, like many, is looking at the tough stretch of games ahead of Ole Miss, starting with top-ranked Alabama before hosting No. 10 Texas A&M and No. 6 LSU in consecutive weeks. The question is whether Freeze's young bunch will continue to play above expectations or drop dramatically back to earth within the month.
"If they lost those games, the luster is gone," Sherrill said emphatically. "The bottom line is you have to do it on the field."
And Freeze, for his part, sees it the same way. He spent much of the offseason tempering expectations and he continues to do so in spite of his team's undefeated start. His players are young and unproven, as he's said time and time again. So much of Ole Miss' 3-0 record can indeed be attributed to its freshman class. Maybe expecting a team that's so green to compete against veteran powers like Alabama and LSU might be unreasonable.
But buzz knows no age. How Ole Miss grows up over the next few weeks will help determine its future, and in turn, the fate of its embattled brother, Mississippi State. After all, so much of their fates is intertwined.
"I've been in this state long enough to know that it can swing back in the other direction in a short amount of time," Freeze said. "The challenge is how you keep the momentum rolling in your direction, and that's what we've got to figure out."
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