Last Saturday, the state of Mississippi held its collective breath as its top two college football teams attempted to make a loud statement and join the college football playoff discussion.
By 6 p.m. Central Time, Ole Miss and Mississippi State had pulled off impressive -- and possibly historic -- wins. Mississippi State thrashed Texas A&M 48-31. (The week before, the Bulldogs scored a 34-29 win over then No. 8 LSU). The Rebels' 23-17 victory over second-ranked Alabama broke a 10-game losing streak against the Tide.
The victories vaulted the teams into a tie for third in this week’s AP Poll and threw the SEC West and the college football landscape into upheaval. And neither team can rest just yet: undefeated Auburn visits Starkville on Saturday, while Ole Miss goes to College Station to face Texas A&M.
For one weekend at least, the Magnolia State was front and center of the college football universe and it did not disappoint.
ESPN’s College GameDay (and music star Katy Perry) took over the Grove in Oxford and fans screamed “Hotty Toddy” until they were hoarse, setting the stage for one of the program's signature victories.
What the Rebels looked like in 2012 was a far cry from the talent that was displayed on Saturday.
“The first spring I was here [in 2012] I almost threw up when I watched our practice,” defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said.
It took the power of persuasion to get blue-chip athletes to the university, and recruits were told in not so many words: Don’t follow others to Tuscaloosa, help us beat Alabama. Before Saturday, Ole Miss hadn't done that since Eli Manning was on campus. The Rebels haven’t won the SEC since 1963, while Alabama has won three national championships in the past five seasons.
About 100 miles south of Oxford, in Starkville (population 23,000), another football transformation is happening at Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs are like their state rivals. With Mississippi State devoid of an SEC crown for more than 70 years, cowbells ring through the air to let you know there is a new atmosphere and winning attitude around town.
The team's resurgence is led by junior quarterback Dak Prescott, who completed 20 of his 26 passes against A&M for 268 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran 23 times for 77 yards and scored three more times on the ground. His name is in the thick of the Heisman Trophy race, and coach Dan Mullen credits the team's success to the type of athlete he recruits.
“These kids are desperate to be great and came here wanting to develop. If you are a prima donna, you wouldn’t be real interested in us,” Mullen tells SI’s Pete Thamel.
For more on Mississippi State and Ole Miss, check out this week's Sports Illustrated (subscribe here). Also featured in this issue is Ben Reiter’s feature on Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake and coverage of the MLB playoffs.