After Ole Miss cruised to a 38-27 victory over Mississippi State in the 112th meeting between the SEC's Magnolia State representatives, claiming their second consecutive Egg Bowl victory and bringing Hugh Freeze's record against the Bulldogs to 3-1, I felt a level of relief about Ole Miss football that I hadn't felt since the 2008 Egg Bowl. In that contest, Houston Nutt's first and Sylvester Croom's last, an underrated Ole Miss team clobbered Mississippi State 45-0 in a moment that felt like a nail-in-the-coffin situation for the Bulldogs program relative to Ole Miss.
I had the exact opposite feeling after Houston Nutt's 2011 Rebs lost 31-3 to Dan Mullen's third year program in Starkville.
I mention this to emphasize that, while Saturday's convincing win in Starkville was certainly a watershed moment for Ole Miss football under Hugh Freeze, a few short years can change a lot in the fortunes of Ole Miss and Mississippi State football. Yes, a pretty good Mississippi State team was simply outgunned by a better Ole Miss team. Yes, the best quarterback in Mississippi State history turned the ball over twice early, digging his team a grave out of which it wouldn't be able to crawl, especially not with the more statistically prolific Chad Kelly leading the Rebel offense. Yes, Dan Mullen, who placed so much emphasis on the Egg Bowl as to once claim that his Bulldogs would never again lose to Ole Miss, earned a losing record to a coach who took over a 2-10 Ole Miss program four years ago.
But while it may be easy to think that Ole Miss is the one team in Mississippi on the rise, don't fall victim to that type of hubris. There are Egg Bowls left to play, and Egg Bowls left to lose. To boot, focusing on the big picture of the rivalry too much can cause one to lose sight of the fact that Ole Miss beat a ranked SEC West opponent on the road in November. Mississippi State or not and rivalry implications aside, Ole Miss looked great against a good team on Saturday night. What that means for 2016 and beyond isn't even knowable, but what it means for 2015 is that we're riding into bowl season on a pretty damn good high - that, and of y'all in Mississippi can continue to gloat for another 365 days.
How about some good old-fashioned football violence to whet your appetite?
Ohhhh yes, that's some good stuff. I especially like the part where the Mississippi State defender totally blows a tackle and gets knocked over. That's just great.
Also of import is that Akeem Judd has proven himself to be a pretty capable runner in this last half of the season, and Jordan Wilkins has the size and vision to justify being a scholarshipped footballer in the SEC. The Rebs are going to miss Jaylen Walton next season, but having these two back should assuage some of the concerns in the run game.
"That Didn't Sit Well"
Wunderlich wasn't so Wunderbar
I'm not going to hem and haw over little miscues that were ultimately insignificant to this game, mostly because Mississippi State is a good enough team to take advantage of Ole Miss' weaker points. Ole Miss was vulnerable against play action, and struggled with the intermediate passing game, but forced enough stops in the redzone and turnovers to negate those defensive shortcomings. Where Ole Miss was particularly troublesome though was on special teams. Gary Wunderlich has been pretty reliable for most of the season, but missed two medium-range field goals that, in other games, he'd have easily made. Aside from just being a general headscratcher, you have to wonder how the atmosphere at Davis-Wade impacted his game and whether or not a bowl game atmosphere could do the same to him.
Oh, hell, maybe he just missed 'em. Even Steph Curry misses a few.
Okay, ESPN, we get it; you love Dak Prescott
Did anyone else feel like the ESPN crew were getting their talking points straight out of Mullen's Little Maroon Book? They were all-in on the narrative of Mississippi State being a salt-of-the-earth institution, an everyman's school, where people aren't fans, they're family, where the fame and prestige of recruiting rankings take a backseat to hard work and development. Because, I mean, just look at this Dak Prescott guy! And, folks, I got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell!
I'm not a conspiracy theorist, and I certainly don't think Mississippi State is a capable enough institution to successfully pull off any sort of conspiracy as it is, so I'll chalk my observations up to being a product of some home cooking and my perceptions being skewed by my own personal biases. To be as fair as I can, the story of Dak Prescott - that he is the best quarterback in Mississippi State history, that he's faced a lot of adversity, that he's been overlooked for much of his career - is a very compelling and easy one to tell. Punctuating that with "and, despite all of that, he's 1-2 against Ole Miss and is about to be 1-3 in this runaway game" isn't as much fun, I suppose.
No, really, I'm not gonna fuss over anything else. It was a great, complete game from the Ole Miss football team. I had a great time watching it.
But what about the cowbells?
Oh, yeah, those things are obnoxious. Whatever. It's their thing and I'm fine with letting them hang on to it. My opinion on this is liable to change the next time we lose the Egg Bowl.
"Going Back for Seconds"
Chad Kelly punctuating a remarkable regular season
Kelly was great against Mississippi State, rushing for a touchdown, throwing two more, and not turning over the ball in a performance that showed his convincing command of the Rebel offense. But, instead of looking at just the Egg Bow, I'd like to zoom out a bit and look at the season he's likely to put together once we're on the other side of a bowl victory.
Let's talk stats. Each of these sets of numbers is from a season's worth of offense for a recent SEC quarterback. The first number represents total yards of offense, the second is pass completion percentage, the third is total offensive touchdowns, and the fourth represents interceptions. Look at them, and see if you can guess who these belong to:
- 5116 yards, 68% completion, 47 total touchdowns, 9 interceptions
- 4,524 yards, 65% completion, 40 total touchdowns, 13 interceptions
- 4,435 yards, 62% completion, 42 total touchdowns, 11 interceptions
- 4,327 yards, 66% completion, 50 total touchdowns, 7 interceptions
- 4,181 yards, 67% completion, 55 total touchdowns, 6 interceptions
Got your guesses ready? Good, let's see how you did.
The first is Johnny Manziel in 2012, the second is Chad Kelly's crudely projected output this season post bowl game, the third is Dak Prescott in 2014, the fourth is Cam Newton in 2010, and the fifth is Tim Tebow in 2007. Two of these quarterbacks won national titles and three of them won a Heisman trophy. All of them are, statistically speaking, the most prolific quarterbacks in the history of the Southeastern Conference. If Chad Kelly keeps playing like we think he should, his 2015 season will fall in the top-5 all time for passing and total yards - on top of it already owning Ole Miss' single-season touchdowns and passing yards records.
And to think there was a chance he wasn't going to make it to Oxford after an offseason dustup in Buffalo. Whatever you may think of Chad Kelly, you can't deny his remarkable skillset, and you can't help but hope he returns for his senior season at Ole Miss.
Demarquis Gates makes us not miss Denzel Nkemdiche
All of the sudden, I'm not all that worried about linebacker depth for next season. Okay, I am, but at least this team will have Demarquis Gates leading that unit. A week after earning SEC honors in a double-digit tackle performance against LSU, Gates was again flying to the ball and making strong, fundamentally sound tackles. One of his hits on Dak Prescott forced the early Tony Bridges pick six to give Ole Miss a 21-0 lead. He had a half of a sack, a part of Ole Miss' seven-sack night (that's a season high, by the way). He was so good that it makes us wonder a bit why he hasn't seen the field more this season.
Damore'ea Stringfellow's big night
Ole Miss will miss Laquon Treadwell dearly, but if Damore'ea Stringfellow can continue to improve, he should turn into Chad Kelly's top target next season. He has 503 yards and five scores on the season, adding a season-high 84 yards and two scores on five catches during the Egg Bowl. He's not as powerful or as fluid as Treadwell, but he's still big and physical with sure enough hands to make a difference.
For middle linebacker C.J. Johnson, the Egg Bowl holds a lot of significance. He's a Mississippi native who joined Ole Miss at its lowest of lows, has endured a lot of unfair criticism from Mississippi State fans, and been vocal in his love for Ole Miss, for better or for worse. On Saturday, Johnson carried the golden egg trophy from the Rebel team bus to the locker room, and was the first player to braggadociously hoist it upon the game's final whistle, making sure to take a lap around the field at Davis-Wade Stadium with it for maximum trolling effect.
On this Twitter feed, he offered a reason as to why this rivalry contest means so much to him:
3-1 ain't bad considering I was suppose to lose them all according to him https://t.co/1EIOoooqQO— C (@24Hour_Ent) November 29, 2015
For the unitiated, C.J. is claiming that, once he decommitted from Mississippi State to commit to Ole Miss as a part of the 2011 class, Dan Mullen was #mad enough to tell C.J. that he'd never get a chance to beat Mississippi State while he was in Oxford. C.J.'s five years with the program saw Ole Miss go 3-2 against the Bulldogs, and 3-1 in games in which C.J. was a part of the team (he was given a medical redshirt for the 2013 season due to a leg injury). Having a coach who C.J. Johnson was once committed tell him that he was joining a squad of to-be losers was motivation enough for Johnson to prove him wrong.