Mississippi becomes college football's epicenter Saturday as Ole Miss hosts Alabama and Mississippi State hosts Texas A&M.
Rick Cleveland still remembers the hype preceding the last game this significant in Mississippi. It has been nearly 11 years since quarterback Eli Manning and No. 15 Ole Miss played No. 3 LSU on Nov. 22, 2003. A then-record 62,552 fans packed into Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, where the SEC West title hung in the balance. Within state borders, college football hadn’t mattered like this in a while.
“I didn’t know if the plumbing in Oxford was going to be able to handle the situation,” said Cleveland, now the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in Jackson.
Ole Miss lost the game 17-14, and with it a shot at a conference title. But Cleveland hasn’t forgotten how college football captivated the Magnolia State for seven days prior to the Rebels’ loss. Cleveland served as a longtime columnist for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. He became so synonymous with the state that he eventually earned the nickname “the Governor.” Yet after four decades in that role, the Hattiesburg, Miss., native says nothing has equaled the magnitude of that Ole Miss-LSU game. However, that might change on Saturday.
“I think everybody feels like this is probably the biggest college football weekend we’ve ever had in Mississippi,” Cleveland said.
This weekend the state plays host to two of the nation’s premier matchups: No. 3 Alabama will visit No. 11 Ole Miss in Oxford, while No. 6 Texas A&M will take on No. 12 Mississippi State in Starkville. Both Mississippi teams have 4-0 records simultaneously for the first time in history, and not since 1958 have the Bulldogs and Rebels been ranked so highly in the polls at once. On a national scale, the spotlight has never shined this brightly on Mississippi.
Historically, conference success comes at a premium in Mississippi. Neither team has won an SEC title since Ole Miss in 1963. Since the league split into divisions in ‘92, the Bulldogs and Rebels have claimed just one SEC West championship apiece. Born and bred around football, state residents have watched other SEC programs reach the sport’s pinnacle. Saturday is an opportunity for Ole Miss and Mississippi State to take major steps in their respective climbs.
“The Mississippi people,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said, “they deserve this.”
Football’s stranglehold on Mississippi culture is not unusual to C.J. Johnson. A native of Philadelphia, Miss., the Rebels senior defensive end shares a hometown with 1959 Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon and onetime Oklahoma superstar Marcus Dupree. Football wasn’t so much a choice as a rite of passage for kids like Johnson, who starred at Philadelphia High before signing with Ole Miss in 2011 as the state’s top-rated recruit.
“We had a lot of local businesses, and at around 4 o’clock every Friday, they’d close,” Johnson said. “People would tailgate for our high school football games. It’s just living and breathing football. In our town, when you were 5 years old, you’d start playing football. It’s just something that, for an outsider, it’d be really hard for them to understand.”
Mississippi’s list of homegrown stars reads like a Hall of Fame ballot. Brett Favre, the NFL’s all-time leading passer, hails from Kiln, Miss. Legendary wide receiver Jerry Rice is from Crawford, Miss., and late quarterback Steve McNair grew up in Mount Olive, Miss. But none of those players went to Ole Miss or Mississippi State. For years the state’s top two programs had trouble keeping blue-chip talent from seeking greener pastures.
That’s partially why Johnson decided to follow the example of Archie Manning, a Drew, Miss., product who stayed home and became an Ole Miss legend. Though Alabama and LSU were vying for Johnson’s services, he signed with a Rebels team coming off a 4-8 campaign. State pride mattered from the outset. Still, a final word of advice from his high school coach, Teddy Dyess, aided Johnson’s decision.
“He said, ‘People will always remember you for what you do for this state if you play in this state,’” Johnson said. “That was something that kind of stuck with me.”
Building a fence around Mississippi has been a recruiting theme under Freeze and Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen. In-state products such as Johnson, safety Cody Prewitt and cornerback Tony Conner are now key faces for the Rebels. Likewise, the Bulldogs start a number of Mississippi natives like receiver Jameon Lewis, offensive lineman Ben Beckwith and linebacker Benardrick McKinney.
Coaches love to stock up on in-state guys, but keeping a state’s top talent isn’t always easy, especially in the SEC. “For years, a lot of the best players have gone to Alabama, Florida,” Cleveland said. “What State and Ole Miss have been able to do in recent years is keep that talent here.”
That’s why this weekend’s nationally televised meetings with Bama and Texas A&M could further boost the Mississippi programs. Freeze inked Ole Miss’ highest-rated class (No. 4) in school history in 2013. Mullen’s ‘15 crop ranks 11th nationally and counts five four-star players -- four from Mississippi.
Ole Miss and Mississippi State will both have more than 20 prospects on campus this Saturday, the biggest showcase for Mississippi football in years. That interest, regionally and nationally, is a testament to a changing culture in both programs.
“We’re attracting better talent as years go on and the empirical data continues to unfold that we can compete with the top teams in the country,” Bulldogs assistant recruiting coordinator Niel Stopczynski said. “There’s going to be more momentum generated in our program. We’re going to attract five-star talent. The thing about us that we pride ourselves on is the ability to develop players. It doesn’t matter if it's two-star or five-star talent, we’re going to trust our ability to evaluate players.
“We’re going to bring the right kind of guys in that fit who we are and what we do. That’s what we’re about.”
There was a time when the Ole Miss-Mississippi State rivalry determined the SEC championship. On Nov. 29, 1941, eight days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Bulldogs survived a 6-0 slugfest over the Rebels in in Oxford. The victory clinched Mississippi State’s only SEC title.
The stakes aren’t quite as high on Saturday, but the attention is unquestionably amplified. ESPN’s College GameDay will broadcast from Oxford for the first time, while SEC Network’s SEC Nation will air from Starkville. By the time Sunday rolls around, two teams from Mississippi could have drastically altered the national title picture. An upset by either would set up an intriguing Egg Bowl on Nov. 29.
“It’s great for the state,” Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin said. “People are fired up. A third of the top dozens teams in the country are playing within an hour and a half of each other in this state this week.”
Escaping the weekend unbeaten will be no small task. Ole Miss welcomes an Alabama squad that has scored at least 33 points in all four of its wins. But Saturday marks the Crimson Tide’s first true road game, and it comes against an Ole Miss defense allowing 8.5 points per game. Meanwhile, Mississippi State has already toppled an SEC power with its 34-29 win at LSU on Sept. 20. Coming off a bye, the Bulldogs take on a Texas A&M group that edged Arkansas in overtime.
Clearly, times have changed in Mississippi.
“I think it speaks volumes for our state and for the job both staffs have done,” Freeze said. “Not only in recruiting and developing the talent that we have here in this state, but adding to it from outside the state. And also the vision that the administrations have to continue to elevate our facilities and resources that we need to compete in this league. We’ve made great strides at both places, in all of those things in the last few years.”
Echoed Mullen: "It’s fantastic. It’s great for the state of Mississippi and everybody who lives here, because they take a lot of pride in football in this state. It’s fantastic for everybody that lives in Mississippi to have that pride in their program and be able to go support it.”
As the Magnolia State prepares to become college football’s epicenter, Johnson uses himself as an example of how recruiting is supposed to work. He says he could’ve signed with LSU and, if he made the NFL, been remembered for his days in the purple and gold. But Johnson, like so many others on Freeze's and Mullen’s rosters, wanted to make Mississippi matter again. Now those players have a chance to write another storied chapter in their state’s gridiron history.
“When I signed here -- me and Donte Moncrief and Aaron Morris, those kind of guys -- this is what we envisioned,” Johnson said. “To just see it changing, it really speaks to how far Mississippi football has come.”
SI’s Pete Thamel contributed reporting to this story.