Now it is the third time-around for Mullen, MSU, and…the other SEC team in this state. The one that has fallen by scores of 41-27 and 31-23 these past two meetings, and returns to Scott Field this Saturday evening. The Bulldogs (5-6, 1-6 SEC) are strong favorites to defend the home field against the Rebels (2-9, 0-7) for a fourth-straight time.
And, a third-consecutive year, which would be Mississippi State's longest streak since 1940-42. The prospect of a three-peat has meant much perusing of record books, which actually began as soon as the 2010 Bulldogs walked out of Oxford with the second-straight success. With, of course, the Golden Egg in possession for another calendar year. That year ends with Saturday's scheduled 6:02 kickoff.
"It's the biggest week of the year for us, as it is every year," said Mullen today. "I know this means so much to our team, our players, our students, our faculty, our fans, the people of Mississippi. This is as big as it gets every year."
Oddsmakers and forecasters aren't seeing the 2011 edition as especially big in the sense of a close contest, installing MSU as a heavy favorite. Factored in those projections no doubt is that the Bulldogs need this win to qualify for one of the SEC's bowl berths, offering much more incentive—presumably—than simply playing spoiler. Mullen began downplaying this angle Sunday though, and emphasizing that the Battle for the Golden Egg is a game, actually a season, in and of itself.
"The mindset we have to have is that this game is very, very different," he said Monday. "And as we play these guys this is a must-win game, every single year, no matter what their record is. Because this is the one they remember, this is the game we have to win every year. And I certainly believe we're going to win every single year."
Then again the coach has only been part of this arch-rivalry a few years, and posted a perfect start. In fact he is the first Bulldog coach in seven decades to win his first two Egg Bowls, which has some elder MSU folk concerned the brash young boss might be taking things a little lightly this week. Or so Mullen figures based on outside input.
"I've gotten numbers of emails from people around the state of Mississippi just to remind me just how important this game is!" he smiled. "That's what makes these games special, they do mean a lot to everybody. My first year, I don't know if it was considered a successful season or an unsuccessful season. But we won the Egg Bowl so it felt good!"
That was the 2009 meeting, in Starkville, when Mullen's first Dog edition upset the #25-ranked Rebels. Then when State repeated in '10 and finished 9-4 with a Gator Bowl victory, the University exploited further success with billboards and promotional campaigns of the ‘This is Our State' theme adding insults to the on-field injury. Mullen is no more shy showing satisfaction how far he's gotten under Rebel skins—or Black Bear hides—than going on the p.r. offensive the day he arrived in this state.
"All I've heard from the last year is they now know how important this game is, they've circled this game starting last year," Mullen said. "And our guys know from the clock we installed when I got here." That being the digital countdown clock bolted above the door between team and locker rooms. Just in case, the Golden Egg has been moved from its hallway display in the Templeton Center to the locker room for the game week.
So for fans fretting a lax attitude towards this rematch, "Our guys are excited to play and try to keep the trophy," Mullen said. Note the ‘try' part because no matter how confident the claims, this is a football game. Mullen will even apply the 2009 example of how nothing can be taken for granted. Nor does he accept the suggestion an opponent with no bowl ambitions and a lame-duck coach has nothing to play for.
"Because when you get into that rivalry game there is more to play for this week than whatever your record is. Somebody is going to win a championship on Saturday night. No matter how your season is going you have the opportunity to win a championship. As I said, it can change the outlook on how you view the season you just had."
Not just that, but how the man in charge is perceived. When Mullen staked his claim to the high p.r. ground in December of '08 it was just three weeks after State had absorbed a 45-0 thrashing in Oxford. So fans were naturally receptive of such braggadocio. The beaten-down Bulldogs liked such sound, too, but needed real reinforcement along the way. And they still do to an extent, Mullen says, even those who grew up with the rivalry here in Mississippi.
"I'm talking about 18-to-22 year olds, who've just been through a long season and here you are, final week of the year; ‘hey it's big game let's go practice'. Last week was a big game and the week before was a big game." All the more so because State has played all the three SEC West teams atop this week's national rankings. Big games are routine in this league.
So how to keep a rivalry game distinct? "How we refer to a school, and having a clock in locker room, it changes the mindset of the players when you get into this week. "They know this is not just the next game on the schedule."
Besides, the Bulldogs must win to be assured this isn't the last game of their 2011 season. At 6-6 they will be assured of bowling with either the Music City or Liberty classics as the destination by all indications. In the larger national perception of Mississippi State's program this would matter more than winning any rivalry game.
Not to Mullen. Veteran of in-state feuds with Bowling Green (Toledo), Utah (BYU), and Florida (Florida State), he's seen how such outcomes outweigh so many other factors. Including who is calling the sideline shots a year later, even. "I guess rivalry games certainly do have an impact on your tenure as a coach. And if you start losing too many of those, people notice. No matter what you do the rest of the year they remember that game." None doubt that Mullen's fast and furious success has hastened the end of Houston Nutt's stay in Oxford.
An unblemished rivalry record was once fairly common for MSU coaches…though all back before this was technically a university. Eight coaches won all their games against the University of Mississippi in the first four decades of the past century, and Major Ralph Sasse was 3-0 in his short career. But since McKeen began 4-0 there hasn't been a Bulldog boss sweep the Rebels. Until Mullen, who puts that string on the line again Saturday. He claims not to care about streaks and stretches though.
"If we win, I'll worry about keeping it next year. If we lose, I'll worry about getting it back."
And he does worry already. As Mullen noted, "Over the last ten years I think it's been pretty even." Actually, exactly even at 5-5. For that matter, this latest State coach has learned enough program history to know that since the series was moved from Jackson to campus sites in 1991, by former MSU athletic director Larry Templeton, State has the slight 11-9 advantage.
"That to me is what makes a great rivalry. If one team wins all the time it's not a rivalry," said Mullen. Which invited the natural response: would he give up a perfect record to maintain an even playing field between Mississippi State and that school from up north?
"I'll make sure we keep it one-sided!" Mullen grinned. "But I'll make sure it's still a rivalry!"