TRENT SANSBURY held out his right hand on Sunday morning and showed off the damage. "There's one," the son of two Mississippi State graduates said, pointing to a blister on his palm. "There's another one." What had turned Sansbury's paw into pulp? The handle of a cowbell, which can wreak havoc when wielded with unaccustomed vigor.
Sansbury, 35, who played tight end at Furman rather than at his parents' alma mater, joined Mom and Dad in Starkville last Saturday to watch the program he cheered as a child reach a level he never imagined possible. As the Sansburys joined in the cowbell-clanging at Davis Wade Stadium—imagine the sound of some 60,000 people simultaneously firing nail guns into a tin roof—the Bulldogs raced to a 21--0 lead over second-ranked Auburn, then held on despite four first-half turnovers. The 38--23 disposal of the reigning SEC champion made a resounding statement: Mississippi State is not just the best team in the conference; it's also the best team in the nation.
Of course, another 6--0 school from the Magnolia State can make that claim. After beating Alabama 23--17 on Oct. 4, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze wondered if his sophomore-dominated team could throw that victory "in the trash" and turn its focus to winning at Texas A&M. He had his answer last Saturday by the second quarter, when the Rebels went up 21--0 before cruising to a 35--20 win. "It was great to be a part of [a] 110,000-plus [crowd]," Freeze said, "and great for them to be silent at the end."
A week earlier the unbeaten Mississippi schools might have been nothing more than a cute story. By winning on Saturday, however, they both proved they have staying power. Ole Miss moved to No. 3 from No. 4 in the coaches' poll and remained at No. 3 behind Florida State in the Associated Press poll, picking up first-place votes in each. Meanwhile, voters in the AP and the coaches' polls elevated Mississippi State to No. 1 from No. 3 and No. 6, respectively. The Bulldogs are the first team in the AP poll's 78-year history to go from unranked to the top spot in five weeks.
Aware that a five-week rise can always be followed by a five-week tumble, the Bulldogs wisely downplayed the accomplishment. "It means the same thing it meant before the season, when we weren't even ranked," quarterback Dak Prescott says. "It doesn't mean much."
Outside the locker room, though, it means much more. Athletic director Scott Stricklin paced the sideline early Saturday evening. The win was in hand, but he still couldn't relax. As the players walked toward the middle of the field to shake hands, a wide smile spread across his face. "I still feel like I'm living in an alternate universe," the 1992 Mississippi State grad said. "But I like living in this universe."
IN THE standard universe, the Mississippi schools are plucky also-rans who occasionally put a scare into Alabama and Auburn. They are not supposed to beat those teams, and they are especially not supposed to beat them as soundly as Mississippi State beat the Tigers. Even the rivalries serve to reinforce the hierarchy: Alabama and Auburn clash annually in the blast furnace of the Iron Bowl, while Ole Miss and Mississippi State meet in the adorably named Egg Bowl.
The usual order had existed for historical and financial reasons. While the influx of television money into the SEC has enriched every program, a huge gap remains. According to figures submitted to the U.S. Department of Education for the 2012--13 school year, Alabama spent $41.6 million on football. Auburn spent $36.3 million. Meanwhile, Ole Miss spent $25.2 million, and Mississippi State—which outranks all three—$15.3 million.
Freeze and Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen know how difficult it will be to remain on this perch. Quarterback Bo Wallace and Ole Miss still must host Auburn. Mississippi State must play at Alabama. Both teams face Arkansas, which, if not for an early fumble through the end zone, would have knocked off the Tide last Saturday. Both coaches have asked their players to ignore the praise, which is nearly impossible when it comes in waves of first-place poll votes. Freeze preaches that his players can only find the truth on the game video. When they look, the Rebels will see a defense that returned an interception and a fumble for touchdowns to put Texas A&M in a deep hole, but that also surrendered 401 passing yards. When the Bulldogs watch their win, they'll see opportunistic offense and a stingy red-zone defense. They'll also see those four turnovers.
If Mississippi State and Ole Miss continue on their current trajectories, they'll meet in Oxford on Nov. 29 with far more than an egg-topped trophy hanging in the balance. While poll voters aren't yet sure whether the Bulldogs or the Rebels are better, they do agree on one thing: In the bizarro universe in which we now reside, the state of Mississippi is No. 1.