OXFORD, Miss. – The lonely strands of red pompoms, empty nips of Fireball and sparkles of cheerleader glitter on the field at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium provided the final remnants from the most magnificent football season this state has ever seen. The giddy aftermath of No. 19 Ole Miss’ 31-17 victory over No. 4 Mississippi State provided a final few items for a time capsule to preserve memories from this peerless season.
Only five times in the 111 meetings of Ole Miss and Mississippi State have both teams been ranked. So with Mississippi State playing for a spot in the College Football Playoff, it’s not a stretch to say that this colorful regional rivalry has never received so much national attention. And because of that, few of Ole Miss’ 62 victories in this series could be more satisfying than a thorough flogging of their archrivals to crush their national championship dreams.
But instead of the national focus finally waning from Mississippi’s season-long moment, the state will remain a high-intrigue location for off-field action the next few weeks. Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze should emerge as the focus of high-profile coaching searches the next few weeks. Multiple sources told SI.com that Freeze is on the short list of Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley. While Michigan’s next moves are uncertain, it’s likely that Mullen will emerge as a prime candidate to replace Brady Hoke when the Wolverines finally formalize the inevitable.
So as the state of Mississippi’s magical season comes to an end, the question looms as to whether Freeze and Mullen will stick around to attempt to produce more of them. Neither Freeze nor Mullen appear anxious to leave. But their names may never be hotter and the opportunities perhaps never more lucrative. The next few weeks will offer a telling referendum on whether Ole Miss and Mississippi State can fight off history to keep their coaches. Freeze and Mullen could face an excruciating decision: Can they be the coach that changes a program’s place in the historical hierarchy of the SEC?
By staying, they’d be attempting to trump nearly a half-century of data against that notion. Ole Miss hasn’t won the SEC since 1963 and hasn’t appeared in a conference title game since the league started it in 1992. Mississippi State has just one conference title in its history, from 1941, and one trip to Atlanta in 1998.
So while both coaches believe their schools can be consistent winners in the SEC West meat grinder, their actions the next few weeks will show if they’re willing to back up that sentiment. On Saturday night, Freeze and Mullen spoke in genuine admiration of their schools, athletic directors and the direction of their programs.
“I am blessed to be the head football coach at University of Mississippi, my home, and work for great people,” Freeze said when asked about the Florida job. Mullen said emphatically: “We’re going to win a championship at Mississippi State. I don’t know when. We came close this year. At some point we will.”
On a dark night for Mississippi State, when its defense forgot how to tackle and its offense kept hitting a sea wall running up the middle, a ray of good news emerged. Dak Prescott, flanked by Mississippi troopers as he walked from his press conference to the bus, told SI.com he intends to stay for his senior year if he’s not projected as a first- or second-round pick in the NFL draft. But it wasn’t as much what Prescott said but how he said it: “I’m 100-percent sure I want to come back. For this reason tonight, just to win the Egg Bowl and bring it back.”
When asked to clarify if he’s definitely returning, Prescott admitted that a projection by the NFL that he’ll go in the first two rounds would be “hard to deny.” And it may be unlikely, as he’s still not refined as a thrower. But he quickly added the core of his feelings: “My heart is in coming back and playing another year.”
While Prescott’s likely return would make Mississippi State a top 25 team next year, the graduation of mercurial quarterback Bo Wallace may not be a significant blow to Ole Miss. Wallace’s cowboy style, epitomized by his damn-the-checkdown interception that cost Ole Miss the LSU game, will slow the sales of antacid around Oxford when he departs. A solid quarterback with all the weapons that Ole Miss can surround him with -- especially if Laquon Treadwell returns in his old form -- could mean a much steadier Ole Miss team than the Good Bo/Bad Bo dichotomy that Ole Miss has dealt with the past three years. (Credit Wallace for playing on a bum right ankle Saturday, as he played through pain and wore a boot in the postgame interview.) With Ole Miss returning nine starters on offense, seven on defense and both of its specialists, the Rebels will likely be a preseason top 10 team next year. At least they should be, but polls are often biased toward bigger brand names.
For Ole Miss, the stakes of the next week cannot be understated. Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley is expected to act quickly. While it’s still unknown where Freeze is in Florida’s pecking order, Ole Miss boosters and administrators are already scared enough that they’re calling around to see if they can secure enough money to keep Freeze. Expect Freeze to be much wealthier by the end of this week, but the question will be whether his paychecks are coming from Oxford or Gainesville. Freeze dismissed any speculation of him going to Florida as “things put on the Internet,” but Oxford could well turn into a drama center for college football this week.
Things may unfold a bit slower for Mullen, as it’s unknown how serious of a candidate he’ll be at Michigan. But with the Wolverines offense a mess and their inability to develop a quarterback glaring, it would only be logical that they give Mullen a look after he led Mississippi State to its first-ever 10-win regular season and helped develop Prescott into a Heisman candidate. Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin realizes Mullen could have options and feels good about where the program is in terms of keeping him. Mullen will likely receive a raise for his work this season. He and Freeze make around $3 million.
“At the end of the day, people have free choice,” Stricklin said. “We have a lot of things in place that allow us to be successful. There’s a lot of reasons why Mississippi State is a good place to be right now.”
Ten years ago, the coaches at these schools would be running for the state borders. The last coach to leave Mississippi State for a better destination was Darrell K. Royal in 1955. In contrast, Ole Miss fans fear Freeze will leave for an SEC rival like Tommy Tuberville did after the 1998 season. The SEC’s influx of cash from its television deals and new network have changed the financial paradigm since then. That has allowed Mississippi State and Ole Miss to build competitive facilities and have many of the same toys as their competitors. But is a competitive salary and better facilities enough of a reason to stay when a blue blood with a more consistent history comes calling?
In a season when the Egg Bowl evolved from a local point of pride to a game of national significance, all eyes will remain on Mississippi in the upcoming weeks. And the decisions that Freeze and Mullen potentially face could well determine just how much juice the Egg Bowl will have next season and in years to come.