It kind of figures. If it were a movie you might have seen it coming.
All season long, the state of Mississippi was the toast of college football, and as reporters and orators from all over swooped in to tell the story, they all appeared unable to stay away from the past. Right or wrong, they seemed to think the only way to contextualize the present was to re-visit history. A history of discord dating back to the Civil War when the whole country was tearing itself apart.
Jump ahead 150 years and (despite what others may imply) the only truly large source of hatred remaining in Mississippi involves football, the one faction of the world where it’s still OK to dislike someone just because they’re different from you.
So it figures that potentially the greatest season in Mississippi’s history was ruined by warring amongst her own people.
It is the Battle for the Golden Egg, after all, and Ole Miss beat Mississippi State, a 31-17 final resulting in crushed dreams for those in the Maroon and White.
Weeks prior, the teams were tied at third in the country, and once the Rebels hopes were dashed, the Bulldogs carried the flag for the state of Mississippi. On Thanksgiving day, MSU was poised to become one of the first four teams to make the inaugural College Football Playoff. They were going to be the first undisputed National Champions in a new era and bring the first title to a school that’s been desperate for one for over a century. They were going to bring glory to their name.
Then the Egg Bowl happened. The last game of the year, the final hurdle to jump.
“It sucks,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said. “We’re here to build a team that’s going to finish at No. 1, not just be No. 1 at some point.”
When he walked into the press conference in a crowded concrete room underneath Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Mullen was as unhappy as he’s been since getting to Starkville in 2009. The defense, he said, was abysmal. The offense, he admitted, wasn’t much better. There were bright spots for each, certainly, but they don’t matter at the moment.
Sometimes a man just likes to be left in the dark, and an Egg Bowl loss is no time for silver linings.
“Heartbreaking,” junior quarterback Dak Prescott said.
He felt like he let the seniors down. The seniors felt like they let everyone else down. Coaches felt like they let their team down and the team felt like they let their coaches down. Every single one of them felt like they let their fans down.
“Devastating loss,” Mullen said.
It’s not even about what was on the line, Mullen continued, but about who they lost to. The Rebels, their neighbors, That School Up North. Ole Miss. He can’t even stand to say the name, let alone admit he lost to them.
But, in an odd way, a bit of the big picture started to form in Mullen’s head as his press conference continued. When he came in and talked about how poorly his team played, it was fine. It’s his team, he’s allowed to do that. But when reporters started questioning his players and staff, when they implied the season lost its meaning, Mullen couldn’t help getting defensive.
Most wins in regular-season history, he pointed out. First time ever ranked No. 1, first time on the cover of Sports Illustrated, a Heisman candidate, playoff contention and second place in what is probably the hardest division in the history of college football. Certainly the most difficult at any level of the game right now.
Mullen has been building something in Starkville, and this season was its first turn on the main stage. It’s a spot in the limelight he expects to keep.
“I don’t plan on being a one-hit wonder,” Mullen said.
And nor should he. This season, despite how it feels in the moments after loss, was the greatest in school history. More was accomplished in five months than the previous 100 years of football combined, by many measurements.
“It was a great season,” senior defensive tackle Kaleb Eulls said. “Great run. It was a chance to do something that’s never been done at Mississippi State.”
The end of that run was as jarring as the far-too-fitting wreck MSU’s buses hit on the highway out of town. But it didn’t take the run away. It didn’t even end it, really. Just changed it. MSU still has a bowl to go to, still could finish the season with its highest ranking and most wins ever.
Egg Bowl victoriess feel like they’ll last forever, while getting beat makes it feel as if everything has been lost. MSU knew that euphoria last year, as Ole Miss had to take a trophy-less ride home to Oxford from Starkville. But nothing, except for the emotions surrounding the game, is forever. Mississippians have been playing this game since 1901. 364 days will feel long to these Bulldogs, but it’s only a few grains of sand in the Egg Bowl hourglass.
Heartbreaking for the night, yes. For several nights, probably. But with time comes perspective, something Mullen knows, despite the passion pounding inside him. It was the best season in school history, and no one can take that away.
“We set a new standard at Mississippi State,” Mullen said.
And it’s a standard he aims to maintain.