After Dan Mullen beat Ole Miss in the first Egg Bowl of his career, the underdog-winner took the field at Davis Wade Stadium, grabbed a mic and announced to the crowd,
“There’s only one school in this state that’s on the rise.”
The school he was referring to, of course, was his. Mississippi State.
Constantly referring to, but never naming, “That School Up North,” he pushed his Egg Bowl dominance to the front of conversations, an effort which only got easier as he continued winning them, now sitting on a streak of three-straight egg victories. He’s undefeated.
However, and for whatever reason, the talk slowed after that third victory. The last year has been unusually quiet on the trash-talking front for Mullen.
Is it because the Rebels have a new coach? Because they’re playing better? Because he couldn’t come up with any more jokes?
Maybe, he sees a team steadily improving and doesn’t want to stoke the fire.
Why has he ceased the verbal lashing of the Rebels from Ole Miss?
“Not on purpose,” Mullen said. “I don’t have any more respect for them now than I did last year or the year before or the year before that. It’s the same to me. Maybe they just haven’t changed their mascots, or done anything. They haven’t given me the layup to poke fun at them or anything like that this year.”
Boom. There he is. There’s the Dan Mullen we saw for three seasons of Egg Bowl victories.
Now, he’s back for a fourth. He hopes so, anyway.
“Obviously, the biggest game of the year for us,” Mullen said. “It is every year. It’s of huge importance, the final game of the year, you’re rivalry game. It means a lot to these kids.”
It means much to the players, but it means a lot to Mullen, too, and while he’s sometimes more subtle than others, the shots kept coming on Monday in his opening-of-the-week press conference.
“A lot of these kids play against each other on both teams growing up, at least a lot of guys from Mississippi on our team that know how important this rivalry is,” Mullen said.
He’s pointed out in the past the number of Magnolia State products MSU has compared to other schools in Mississippi.
And speaking of Magnolias, Ole Miss played one of its top rivals just a few short days ago when it lost a close game to LSU.
More from Mullen on what makes the Egg Bowl so important: “it’s not an intra-state rivalry like some are. It’s a neighbor-to-neighbor which makes it an even bigger game. And our guys know what an important deal it is, and we always make a huge emphasis on it.”
A shot at Ole Miss claiming rivalry with LSU? Perhaps. Or it could harken to his days at Florida, when the Gators considered both Georgia and Tennessee to be rivals, while neither was located within the friendly confines of the Sunshine State.
At least one crack was more clear, though.
On Monday, Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze let the media know only a specific few players would be allowed to speak with reporters, hoping to head off any potential quotes that might be taken badly.
Mullen’s response when asked about it by reporters in Starkville?
“We won’t [do that]. You can talk to our guys,” Mullen said. “I don’t put the reins on our guys that much.”
When asked about the Rebels quarterback, a player Mullen recruited out of junior college, he jumped into a story about himself as a quarterback.
As Mullen tells it, he wasn’t a good passer and he wasn’t a good runner, but he found a way to win games.
“I didn’t like that I wasn’t very talented, but I liked that I won,” he said.
After the story of his past, Mullen was complimentary of Bo Wallace, saying he, too, is a quarterback who wins games and his teammates clearly believe in.
But no, Mullen isn’t shying away from subtle jabs or obvious trash talk.
And neither are his players.
Senior linebacker Cam Lawrence, though, said he saves most of his words for the field.
Not only does the All-SEC tackler spend a great deal of time studying film, he’s followed in the footsteps of Fred Smoot himself and researches information on opposing players before the game kicks off.
“I always have a little background information on quarterbacks and running backs. I gotta know something about them,” Lawrence said. “I try to get in opponents heads. I try to attack them mentally and physically.”
Then, there’s LaDarius Perkins, the speedy running back who had his breakout game in the Egg Bowl of 2010 and has amassed over 400 all-purpose yards, as well as plenty of points, in his two contests against the “Black Bears,” as he calls them.
His success has not gone unnoticed, by him or by fans.
“I’ve heard them call me Rebel Killer, Black Bear Killer,” Perkins said. “I love it.”
His motivation dates back to high school.
“They never offered me,” he said.
And if he needed more inspiration, his quarterback Tyler Russell has been receiving text messages and phone calls from Ole Miss fans, supplying plenty of trash talk of their own.
“If fans are calling your phone, texting your phone, you must be doing something good,” Perkins said. “It’s motivation to go out there and beat them worse.”
Perkins said the “We always beat Ole Miss” mentality the team has is a good one.
But the difference, according to both him and his coach, is how much work they put into making sure that happens. The scouting, the practicing, the preparing and the playing are taken to a level higher when Egg Bowl week starts.
To be sure, nothing said by Mullen or his players is inflammatory. But it’s a far cry from the previous 11 games of phrases such as “They’re a good team,” “We have a lot of respect for them,” they’ve got a great offense/defense,” “We have to make sure we’re focused,” and plenty of other clichés and attempts to avoid any particularly colorful commentary.
While the dragon may have slumbered for a time, Mississippi State’s Egg Bowl banter and Saturday smack talk is back.
Mullen once entered the locker room after an Egg Bowl win and said, “We’re never losing to this team again.”
He’ll have the chance to back up his words on Saturday night.