OXFORD, Miss. – At this point in the most sun-kissed of Mississippi State seasons, every game amounted to an audition. With the College Football Playoff selection committee staring discerningly at their souped-up iPads, every line delivered and every note sang is analyzed and criticized.
The No. 4 Bulldogs entered Saturday’s Egg Bowl against No. 19 Ole Miss needing a virtuoso performance, the type of win that resonated with style points, game control and any other nebulous phrase the committee may make up next week. Instead, Mississippi State flubbed its lines, sang like it gargled Tabasco sauce and got an emphatic hook from the playoff chase and SEC title contention.
Ole Miss burst past Mississippi State, 31-17, behind a flurry of big plays, a stifling run defense and the red Pom Pom-waving crowd energy inherent to crushing your archrival’s biggest dreams. The victory by the Rebels will allow teams across the country to lobby for that fourth and final playoff spot. TCU, Ohio State and Baylor fans all cheered loudly as Mississippi State flopped in its biggest moment.
Here are three thoughts on the Rebels' win.
1. Ole Miss' running game ruined Mississippi State's playoff dreams
Ole Miss delivered the dagger in the cruelest fashion possible, a transcendent moment by an obscure player. Ole Miss reserve tailback Jordan Wilkins ran for 41 yards on the first play of a fourth-quarter drive and followed that up by throwing a 31-yard touchdown pass on a trick play to Cody Core. The tidy two-play, 72-yard drive with 9:14 remaining put the score at 31-17 and essentially sealed the game. For Wilkins, a redshirt freshman, the moment outshone anything achieved in his modest, young career.
Any notion of a last-ditch comeback got crushed by Ole Miss’ defense, which entered the day as the country’s top unit in points allowed and proved its mettle possession after possession.
The victory by Ole Miss (9-3) puts the playoff picture in flux entering the final week, with one of the few certainties being that the Bulldogs will have a difficult time re-entering the conversation. Their weak non-conference schedule is a glaring argument against them with two losses.
The thing that will haunt Mississippi State (10-2) about the loss Saturday will be the glut of big plays it allowed. The Bulldogs tackled poorly, as Ole Miss ran 31 times for 205 yards.
That included a dazzling breakout performance by tailback Jaylen Walton. Late in the third quarter, Walton took a handoff from Bo Wallace, juked Mississippi State defensive back Tolando Cleveland, broke through a doggy paddle tackle attempt from Will Redmond and darted 91 yards into Egg Bowl lore. He finished with 148 yards on 14 carries. But his dash into the dark of night kicked off a celebration they’ll talk about for centuries here.
On a night when an injured Bo Wallace completed only 13 of 30 passes, Ole Miss just kept running. With everything at stake, the Rebels delivered a definitive victory in an Egg Bowl when the stakes were highest.
2. Expect news on Hugh Freeze’s coaching future soon
The next week will be one of the most fascinating in the history of Ole Miss athletics. Coach Hugh Freeze is on Jeremy Foley’s short list to replace Will Muschamp at Florida, according to multiple sources. It’s unknown if Freeze is the favorite, but he’ll clearly be in the conversation. No one is more aware of this than Ole Miss officials and boosters, who have been scrambling to try to raise enough money to pay Freeze to stay.
Any buzz that Florida offered him already doesn’t make sense, as it would go against Foley’s own promise to make sure that he handles the situation through proper channels without interrupting the season. Now that the regular season is over, however, that time is coming soon.
Foley’s target date to get a coach in place is early December, which means that things will play out quickly over the next three to four days. It’s unknown whether Freeze will be offered, but by the end of the next week he’s expected to have either a significant raise from his bosses in Oxford or a lucrative deal in place to coach Florida.
Whether Freeze has to choose between staying or going remains to be seen, but expect it to be a tense week in Oxford until there’s some resolution -- one way or another -- in Gainesville.
3. The Egg Bowl lived up to its heightened spotlight
To best quantify the hatred, vitriol and sheer contempt that fuels the annual game between Ole Miss and Mississippi State, consider the origin of the game’s name and trophy. Following Ole Miss’ victory in a 7-6 game in 1926 at Mississippi State, Ole Miss fans charged to uproot the goalposts to celebrate the victory. Mississippi State fans didn’t appreciate the Ole Miss fans trying to loot their goal posts. According to the Ole Miss media guide, they defended the goal posts with wooden chairs, many of which ended up splintered. The moment was immortalized by this passage in Mississippi State’s yearbook: “A few chairs had to be sacrificed over the heads of these to persuade them that was entirely the wrong attitude.”
After that fracas, an Ole Miss honorary fraternity proposed that a trophy be awarded to the victor to replace the postgame violence.
The Golden Egg trophy, in reality, is a treaty that represents the uneasy peace between two archrivals.
What’s been missing amid all the venom over the years has been actual games of resonance outside the Magnolia State. Consider that in the 111 years this game has been played, only five of the games have featured two ranked teams.
With arguably the highest stakes and biggest national stage, the nation saw a taut battle and a juiced stadium. When asked before the game what to expect on the day, a Mississippi State support staff member said flatly, “Hatred.”
While there weren’t chairs taken out to defend anyone’s honor, the Egg Bowl showed well on its biggest stage.