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Ole Miss, Mississippi State both looking to climb into the top tier of the SEC West

Ole Miss' Bo WallaceMississippi State edged Bo Wallace (center) and Ole Miss in last season's Egg Bowl. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

GREENSBORO, Ga. -- For one day at least, Mississippi State fans could rest easy. The latest installment of the Bulldogs’ rivalry with Ole Miss took place at the annual Chick-fil-A Bowl Challenge, a charity golf tournament on April 29 in Greensboro, Ga. By tournament’s end, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen had edged Rebels coach Hugh Freeze by two strokes for a second-place finish among 11 head coaches. Mullen’s outing won’t translate to the gridiron, but in this rivalry, he and Freeze will take the upper hand any way they can.

For the last few years, the Bulldogs and Ole Miss have fought similar battles in the SEC West. The teams are working to claw their way to the top of the toughest division in college football, and both are doing so with their in-state rival in tow. It’s a unique situation for two coaches trying to leave their imprint on the SEC.

In 2013, four SEC West teams -- Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M -- combined to go 42-11, including 23-9 in conference play. The division has claimed five of the last seven national championships, and while the Aggies have not won a title, they’ve gone 20-6 since joining the SEC in ’12. That type of dominance has relegated Mississippi State and the Rebels to the bottom half of the division: The Bulldogs have finished no better than fourth in the West in Mullen’s five seasons at the helm; Ole Miss' fifth-place finish two seasons ago was the best of Freeze’s two-year tenure.

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Mullen came to Mississippi State in December 2008, as a sought-after assistant from Urban Meyer’s Florida staff. After going 5-7 in ’09, the Bulldogs went 9-4 in ’10. Still, they have never finished better than 4-4 in conference play under Mullen, and he is just 1-16 against Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M. Entering this fall, he faces a significant amount of pressure.

Of course, prior to Mullen’s hiring in Starkville, Mississippi State had had just two winning seasons since 2000. Last year, Auburn required a touchdown with 10 seconds left in the fourth quarter to beat the Bulldogs 24-20 on Sept. 14, and Alabama registered its lowest point total of the season in a 20-7 win over Mississippi State on Nov. 16. Mullen believes his roster is on the verge of SEC title contention.

“I think we’ve changed what expectations are at Mississippi State,” Mullen said. “When I got there, everybody was like, ‘Man, if you could just get to a bowl game, that’d be good.’ But that’s not good enough for me.

“We’ve won four out of five Egg Bowls. We’ve gone to four straight bowl games. We’ve hit what I think everybody thought the max expectations were, but to us those are kind of the baseline. We want to see that catapult us into SEC West championships.”

Freeze’s directive was much the same. He took over a team that went 2-10 in former coach Houston Nutt’s final stint in 2011 and was suffering through a 14-game SEC losing streak. Freeze won 15 games in his first two years, including victories over Texas and LSU. The Rebels have also won two bowl games (The BBVA Compass Bowl in ’12 and the Music City Bowl in ’13).

Perhaps most importantly, Freeze has changed the school’s recruiting culture. Ole Miss shocked the college football world by landing the nation’s seventh-ranked signing class in 2013, according to Rivals.com, a haul that included five-star defensive end Robert Nkemdiche and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. In February, Freeze inked the country's 19th-ranked class, and he said that his roster had finally “added depth” -- a big reason why he enters year three with lofty expectations.

Division titles and conference crowns are the ultimate goals of both programs. However, for many in the Magnolia State, the Egg Bowl remains each team’s foremost measuring stick. Ole Miss and Mississippi State have faced off 110 times since 1901, and the winner has taken home the Golden Egg Trophy in the previous 86 meetings. Records are thrown out when the Bulldogs and Rebels play. For two schools located within a stone’s throw of each other, no game on the schedule matters more.

“It’s a neighbor-against-neighbor rivalry,” Mullen said. “There are rivalries that are one state against another state. You don’t see those people. You’re talking about neighbor against neighbor [in the Egg Bowl], and that’s bragging rights with your neighbor for the whole year.”

Freeze and Mullen have split the last two matchups, with last season’s installment going down to the wire. Bulldogs quarterback Dak Prescott ran for a go-ahead three-yard touchdown in overtime. On the ensuing possession, Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace fumbled in the end zone to seal Mississippi State’s 17-10 win. “It’s a feeling I’ve never felt before,” Wallace told reporters after the Nov. 28 loss. “It’s like your heart is ripped out, especially in this game.”

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Freeze echoed the unfortunate truth of football in Mississippi: A loss in the Egg Bowl can taint an otherwise successful year.

“We had some tremendous highs -- going to Texas and winning, beating LSU at home -- but the way we ended the [regular] season, it does stick with you,” Freeze said. “We didn’t play our best football at the end of the year, for whatever reason. You can say we had injuries and all that stuff, but we didn’t play extremely well. I think anybody would’ve taken eight wins at the beginning of the year. But to end it that way, it was hard to feel good about it.”

Both coaches’ task is to make the Egg Bowl nationally relevant. That’s why Freeze and Mullen constantly field questions about taking the next step. The good news for both is their rosters’ respective experience: Mississippi State is tied with Kentucky for the most returning starters (16) in the SEC, with Ole Miss (15) close behind. Wallace and Prescott enter this fall as the league’s most productive returning quarterbacks.

It’s hard to ignore the parallels, but standing on the Oconee Course on the Reynolds Plantation, Freeze cautioned against reading too much into comparisons. Both Ole Miss and Mississippi State hope to make a charge at the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta. Considering the current landscape of the programs, though, one team's rise could accompany the other's fall.

“That certainly means they can beat us,” Freeze said, “and we can beat them.”
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