A lot’s happened since last year’s 31-28 Ole Miss upset in Starkville. That win was apparently enough for the Ole Miss athletic department to make a long-term investment in then-interim coach Matt Luke. At the same time, Mississippi State lost Dan Mullen to Florida, only to pluck rising offensive star Joe Moorhead from Penn State. Those two hires were probably enough to tell you who’d be favored heading into this year’s game.
The Bulldogs haven’t reached the ceiling promised by their preseason hype, but they’re still a damn strong 7-4 team. Meanwhile, Ole Miss is riding a four game losing streak after suffering an embarrassment in Nashville that should have never gone to overtime.
Even then, there’s always potential for the Egg Bowl to get weird — over the past decade, the underdog has won outright five times. Unfortunately for Ole Miss, this is a very different game from a year ago, and State’s looking much less vulnerable nowadays. Over that same ten-year stretch, the winner allowed an average of 18 points. It’s hard to imagine the Rebels hunkering down like that, not to mention the fact that this is one of the best defenses they’ve faced all year.
This will still be a game played by 18-to-21-year-olds, which always leads to some unpredictability, but that’s about the only reason to hold out for hope.
Ole Miss’ offense faces a much bigger challenge this time around.
It’s not like State’s defense wasn’t already good a year ago (they were 20th in S&P+), but there were clear weaknesses that Rebel offensive coordinator Phil Longo was able to exploit through four quarters. State defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s group took a hyper-aggressive approach, ranking fourth in passing efficiency but 128th in passing IsoPPP, which measures explosiveness. Ole Miss took advantage, as their four touchdowns came on an average of 52 yards out, and just five plays made up 75 percent of their total yards from scrimmage. They’re gonna have a hard time replicating that success this Thanksgiving.
After a forgettable year in Knoxville, Bob Shoop took over a State defense that ranked 22nd in returning production heading into the year, including a crazy-deep D-line and an experienced safety duo. That combination has produced the nation’s fifth best defense in S&P+ with a far less vulnerable back end, having improved to 13th in IsoPPP.
The Rebels have seriously struggled to finish drives over the last four games, scoring just 3.2 points per scoring opportunity. They were averaging 5.4 through the first seven. At this point, it’s less of a bad stretch and more just a fundamental flaw in the offense. Part of those struggles is certainly scheme and execution in the red zone, but before, they had been able to make up for that deficiency through big scoring plays. When they trounced Texas Tech ages ago, all of their touchdowns came from 34 or more yards out.
Since D.K. Metcalf’s season-ending injury, Ole Miss hasn’t been able to consistently burn opponents downfield. They’re dearly missing his ability to both murder corners on the outside (he led the team with 22 yards per catch) and stretch the defense for his teammates to operate. Through the first seven games, the offense scored on gains of 20-plus yards 15 times. They’ve done it just twice since. There may be few opportunities for end zone pee-pees on Thursday.
Nick Fitzgerald is back, but they probably don’t even need him to win.
The main point of skepticism, if there was any, surrounding Joe Moorhead was that he’d be transitioning from a gunslinger in Trace McSorley to more run-centric Nick Fitzgerald, who was returning from a gruesome ankle injury suffered in last year’s Egg Bowl.
The skeptics were right, at least to a degree. Moorhead is clearly a good coach, but personnel limitations have prevented him from unlocking what had proven to be a deadly scheme in Happy Valley. State has been one-dimensional all year, ranking third in rushing S&P+ and 84th in passing. The thing is, the four teams who were able to punish them for it are all top-30 in defensive S&P+ (and thus, much better than Ole Miss).
In the Bulldogs’ seven wins, Fitzgerald has averaged just 154 yards through the air, so it’s hard to make a case for why their underwhelming passing offense suddenly matters now. On top of a ruthlessly efficient rushing attack, Moorhead’s offense has demonstrated some big-play potential even with Fitzgerald, ranking 27th in marginal passing explosiveness. The senior QB has somewhat made up for his 52 percent completion percentage with a decent 12.5 yards per completion.
Feel free to debate just how much Fitzgerald’s injury impacted last year’s Egg Bowl result, but it definitely did, forcing true freshman Keytaon Thompson to come in with zero prior snaps to his name. Thompson now has more reps, including a bowl game in which he outplayed Lamar Jackson, so he should be able to lead the offense if need be.
Again, anything can happen, but this year feels pretty cut and dry given the circumstances. Seemingly the only thing keeping the point spread as low as 10.5 is the fact that this rivalry tends to defy expectations. Let’s hope that’s the case again.