Growing up as a huge Florida Gator fan, I have been firmly immersed within the religion that is SEC football. And just like any other belief system, the creed of SEC football carries with it several central truths. For those ensnared by the culture of the Southeastern Conference, it is established fact that the SEC plays the purest brand of football, that one is compelled to cheer for conference foes in non-conference games for reasons unknown to non-SEC observers, and that, barring very few exceptions, both Mississippi schools would forever be marginal teams within the scope of the SEC.
Until this year, that is. As of right now, the Mississippi State Bulldogs and the Ole Miss Rebels are ranked #1 and #3 respectively, the highest rankings that either school has ever attained. Going into the season, the Bulldogs were unranked and the Rebels were ranked eighteenth, so their emergences into the top 3 were wholly unexpected.
The success of the Mississippi schools has been so surprising not because of the teams themselves, but rather because of the culture that has been created surrounding them. Both teams have, for the last several decades, been seen as perennial cellar-dwellers within the loaded SEC. Even in successful years, such as 2008 and 2009, when Ole Miss won back-to-back Cotton Bowls, the Rebels seemed to take teams by surprise. They were not considered to be in the conference’s upper echelon in the way that LSU, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Auburn historically have been, at least since the Rebel’s run of dominance in the 60’s. Since then, Mississippi teams by and large seemed to be considered inconsequential within the SEC.
Ole Miss’s revival should not really surprise anyone, however. Under the leadership of Coach Hugh Freeze, the Rebels have created a formidable program that has improved over the last four years. Freeze has made a strong commitment to recruiting, and his efforts have paid off dramatically, with the Rebels boasting strong classes in each of his three seasons, including their top-5 nationally ranked 2013 class, led by superstar defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche.
The Rebels’ success thus far in 2014 is largely due to their formidable defense, considered by many to be the best in the nation, having only allowed 11.8 points per game, which leads the nation. Led by Nkemdiche and preseason first-team All-American cornerback Cody Prewitt, the Rebels’ fast, hard-hitting defense held Alabama’s balanced attack and Texas A&M’s high-powered passing game to 17 and 20 points respectively in their past two games. With one of the nation’s top quarterback-wide receiver duos in Bo Wallace and Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss has undoubtedly looked the part of legitimate national championship contender.
In their two marquee games thus far against Alabama and Texas A&M, the Rebels showed their ability to win in different ways. Against the Crimson Tide, Ole Miss fell behind early but surged back with 3 fourth quarter touchdowns thrown by Wallace. The Rebels then traveled to College Station to face the Aggies in what many thought would be a letdown in front of a hostile crowd of over 110,000, an SEC record. But, the Rebels jumped out to a 21-0 lead by halftime and the game was never really in doubt.
The success of their intrastate rivals, the Mississippi State Bulldogs, was even more surprising. We knew that the team’s leader, quarterback Dak Prescott, was talented, but no one predicted a potentially Heisman-worthy breakout season. At times, Prescott has had to shoulder the burden of the Bulldog’s offense, where he, in addition to being a dynamic passer, also leads the team in carries and has rushed for over 500 yards and eight touchdowns. His unproven receiving corps, led by explosive Sophomore De’runnya Wilson has played well thus far, as has their dominant offensive line. Prescott and company have produced one of the nation’s most prolific offenses, having scored 41.8 points per game, good for eleventh in the country.
The biggest surprise for the Bulldogs has been the success of their defense. In the past two games, they have faced two of the nation’s most potent offenses, Texas A&M and Auburn, and have kept both in check. In both games, their defensive front seven has been key, getting pressure on Auburn’s quarterback Nick Marshall and Texas A&M’s Kenny Hill, two of the best in the nation. The pressure forced a combined 7 interceptions and 7 sacks during these two key wins.
The emergence of both Mississippi teams has set the stage for what will assuredly be the biggest ever Egg Bowl, the season-ending rivalry game between the schools. The Egg Bowl historically boasts an exciting game between impassioned instate rivals that is lost in the fanfare of rivalry weekend, but this year it could be the most important game of the season.