Long before Nick Fitzgerald was a record-breaking quarterback for Mississippi State, and years before Dak Prescott was QB1 for the biggest franchise in the country, the two young men were relative unknowns at a game together for the first time. Fitzgerald, a senior at Richmond Hill High School, and Prescott, a sophomore at MSU, were far younger that day in 2013 when Fitzgerald had his first experience with the Egg Bowl.
A no-star recruit on his official visit to MSU, Fitzgerald was cheering in the stands when he watched Prescott make his miraculous comeback in the Egg Bowl’s first-ever overtime game, and when MSU safety Nickoe Whitley forced Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace to fumble into the endzone and secure the win for the Bulldogs, Fitzgerald was among the loudest of those celebrating the win.
“That was my first taste of it,” Fitzgerald said. “That was a good one to come to.”
It wasn’t until the next morning, however, that the depth of the rivalry sunk in for Fitzgerald. At a breakfast for the official visitors, Fitzgerald got to hold the Golden Egg Trophy for the very first time, and though he didn’t know it at the moment, the last time for nearly three years.
“It was a really cool experience seeing how we fought and won it the night before and saw the environment and atmosphere and how people reacted,” he said, “so I really understood the gravity of the situation and how good it was to have that trophy.”
Fitzgerald had to watch from the sidelines as his team lost the next two Egg Bowls, frustration and anger festering until he finally got a shot at the Rebels on his own terms. In his first Egg Bowl as the starting quarterback, Fitzgerald put on a career performance as he led his Bulldogs to a 55-20 victory in 2016, re-claiming the Golden Egg and securing the last victory necessary to send State to a bowl in game in south Florida.
Three years after that breakfast in Starkville, Fitzgerald got to lift the Golden Egg again, and what he learned about the rivalry that day in 2013 still hasn’t changed.
“There’s animosity. There’s nastiness. It’s a big rivalry,” he said.
Except that, well, now …
“It’s a big game, but at the end, it’s an SEC game you’ve got to win,” Fitzgerald admitted. “Once you’re out there and playing, it’s just another game.”
MSU’s head coach attempted to explain that idea, as well. When Dan Mullen first got to Starkville, the program didn’t have much going for it, and winning the Egg Bowl was really the only realistic thing the fanbase could hang its collective hat on at the time. When MSU won the Egg Bowl to finish with a 5-7 record in 2009, Mullen’s first season, fans were ready to build a statue. When MSU won the Egg Bowl to finish with a 5-7 record in 2016, there were those among the fanbase calling for his job.
The reason for that, Mullen said, is that in the years between, MSU’s program has grown significantly, rising to national prominence and developing expectations of doing far more than winning one game at the end of the year.
“We’re looking to try to have our third nine-win season in four years,” Mullen said as his team sits at 8-3 entering Thursday’s Egg Bowl. “As I look at it right now, we’ve changed a little bit of the image, the profile, whatever the right word is. We’ve just changed the program around. Now we’re a nationally-prominent program with the expectation of being a Top-20, Top-15 team every year. I don’t want to belittle it, because this is still the biggest game of the year for us within the program and in the fanbase. It’s still the biggest game of the year. But we’ve also elevated the level of the program with a little more national prominence. It’s not all about one game now. We’re trying to compete for championships in the SEC and National Championships.”
He’s certainly got a point. The year MSU was No. 1 in the country, it also lost the Egg Bowl. And that was rough, certainly, but it didn’t make or break the season. The Bulldogs still went to the Orange Bowl.
With MSU in a position of prominence it hasn’t experienced in decades, the passion of the rivalry lies in seeming juxtaposition with the bigger goals of the program. Fitzgerald and his coach, however, think the Egg Bowl and the big picture go hand-in-hand, even if the big picture is much bigger than just the Golden Egg.
“A rivalry game fits right into that,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a game you’ve got to win if you want to keep getting better, if you want to go to a warmer bowl. On top of it being a rivalry game, it’s an SEC game. It’s a game that we have to win to continue on and make sure we finish out strong and get a good bowl game.”
To be clear, Mullen says, the rivalry hasn’t been lessened. It’s just that everything else about the program has risen in importance to match the Egg Bowl. Now, the game is about the trophy and what it means for the postseason. Entering the game at No. 14 in the playoff rankings, MSU has a chance to not only lock up a good bowl destination, but to potentially earn a berth in a New Year’s Six Bowl for the second time in four years if they can pull off a Thanksgiving win.
But for all that’s on the line, Mullen is a realist, and a passionate one, at that. He could tell his team to treat it like any other game, and perhaps in the moments between kickoff and the final whistle it can feel that way for the teams involved, but Mullen knows this game is different, no matter the stakes.
“I want them to embrace it and I don’t have to worry about it. They do. It’s not another game. The rivalry games are just not. It’s an important game for everybody. I don’t even have to bring it up,” he said. “I think everybody in our program embraces it. And I mean everybody in our program. I’m not just talking about the players or the coaches or the trainers or everybody just in this building. I’m talking about everybody in the Bryan Building embraces it. I know everybody in the President’s office embraces it. It’s a big game for Mississippi State people. It’s a big game for their people, as well, just the bragging rights within the state. That’s what makes rivalries so fun and makes college football so special.”
The only trophy not displayed in a case or out in the lobby of the team complex in view of the public, the Golden Egg today sits on a table right beside the door to Mullen’s office. If Mullen gets his way, that’s exactly where it will stay for the next 12 months – except, perhaps, for another breakfast with the Egg Bowl stars of tomorrow.