Just two years ago, the Egg Bowl had national title implications. In November of 2014, No. 4 Mississippi State lost to Ole Miss in Oxford, knocking the Bulldogs out of the Playoff. The Landshark defense held Heisman candidate Dak Prescott and the Mississippi State offense to a season-low 17 points and Jaylon Walton’s 91-yard touchdown run helped the Rebels pull away. Regardless of the result, many believed the game would serve as a turning point for both programs, perhaps signaling that the Egg Bowl would carry national significance for years to come.
Unfortunately, those expectations have failed to turn into a reality. This Saturday’s Egg Bowl will once again determine last place in the SEC West, and the teams resemble the struggling squads of the early 2010’s more than the national contenders of 2014. The Rebels will be looking to earn their sixth win and salvage a bowl berth in a season that has failed to live up to lofty expectations. The Bulldogs are simply playing for pride, hoping to knock off their rivals and manufacture some momentum for in-state recruiting heading into the offseason. So how are we back here? Let’s take a look at how the two programs, in just two years, have fallen from national contenders to division doormats.
For the Rebels, the most obvious decline is on the defensive side of the ball. The 2014 Landshark defense led the country in opponent’s points per game. This season’s defense ranks 93rd in that same category, good for 12th in the SEC. Following the 2015 season, much was made of the departures of Ole Miss’ trio of five-star recruits, (DL Robert Nkemdiche, WR Laquon Treadwell, and OT Laremy Tunsil), but it’s the losses of safety Trae Elston and do-it-all corner Mike Hilton that have had the most devastating impact. The Rebels surrender over 450 yards per game on average, with the majority of that coming through the air as a depleted, young secondary has struggled to lock up opposing receivers.
Despite these struggles, the Rebels are not ranked last in the SEC West in total defense; that distinction goes to the Mississippi State Bulldogs, whose defensive ineptitude has served as a season-long Achilles heel. The Bulldogs expected to struggle on offense coming into the season, with sophomore quarterback Nick Fitzgerald replacing All-SEC and current Cowboys star rookie Dak Prescott. However, Fitzgerald has performed admirably as Prescott’s replacement, while the defense has been increasingly responsible for State’s woes. In the past five games, the Bulldogs have given up an average of 43.6 points, including back-to-back 50-point games to Alabama and Arkansas.
Of course, the downward trends of both programs cannot be blamed solely on defensive downgrades. The Rebels have been plagued by injuries all season long, which began in the opener against Florida State with the early exit of two key players in DB Kendarius Webster and RB Eric Swinney. Additionally, the playcalling and game management by the Ole Miss coaching staff has been questionable at times. The Ole Miss offense averages the third-shortest time of possession among Power 5 teams, while its defense averages the third-longest time on the field. For the Bulldogs, problems on special teams have exacerbated their misfortunes. They are 10-18 on the year in field goals, with key misses in losses to BYU and, unforgettably, South Alabama.
So where do we go from here? For both Ole Miss and Mississippi State, the Egg Bowl will only serve as the beginning to a long and vital offseason. Hugh Freeze will be forced to address questions surrounding his defensive staff as well as the impending NCAA violations that loom heavily over the program. Dan Mullen will face questions regarding his future with the Mississippi state program and will also be tasked with recruiting to rebuild a defense that could very well finish dead-last in the SEC. The answers to these questions have the potential to define both programs. Will they return to the heights of 2014, or will historical difficulties keep them affixed at the bottom of the SEC West standings? This Saturday’s Egg Bowl may not offer the answer to all of these questions, but for one team it will at least serve as a good start.