Rivalry Renewed

Justin Smith sat surrounded by media in the team meeting room of the indoor practice facility Monday. He couldn't find the words. He didn't want to talk about it, really.

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His head coach, Houston Nutt, is in the last week of his coaching career at Ole Miss. Nutt was dismissed two weeks ago today. Smith, a senior defensive tackle, credited Nutt as the reason he signed with Ole Miss in the class of 2008.

"It's tough. He's probably the main reason most of us are here," he said. "He's the only reason I came here. I was going to Arkansas before. It's been tough."

Ole Miss is 2-9 overall and 0-7 in Southeastern Conference games. The Rebels travel to face in-state rival Mississippi State Saturday at 6 p.m. in the annual "Battle of the Golden Egg." Mississippi State has won two in a row in the series.

Smith said the game, which always carries added significance, is of even greater importance now. Not only is Nutt coaching in his final game, but the Egg Bowl is also the final hoorah for the senior class.

"We really want to win this one for Coach Nutt, his last game. For the seniors, it's our last game. They beat us two years in a row. We want to get a ‘W,'" Smith said. "We definitely want to give it our best shot this week."

Mississippi State (5-6, 1-6 SEC) is a win away from bowl eligibility. Ole Miss is the only team Bulldog head coach Dan Mullen, who has consistently referred to Ole Miss as ‘the school up north,' has beaten from the SEC West. He is 2-12 against the West.

Not since World War II has Mississippi State won three straight games over Ole Miss.

Justin Smith
File Photo

"It's gotten really more intense now, especially since Mississippi State had a different coach," defensive end Kentrell Lockett, another senior, said. "This coach now, actually, I think he likes to fuel all of that by saying ‘the school up north' and all that.

"When I got here, I understood the rivalry. But now, being all in it for a while, the rivalry is so heightened now. It's so much more on the line. Bragging rights for a year, especially for (players) who are Mississippi residents. You go home for Christmas break, you got to hear it. It's something to build on for them."

Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Bryon Bennett is one of those Mississippi residents. Bennett, of Madison, Miss., was recruited by both Ole Miss and Mississippi State. He signed with Ole Miss two years ago.

"It's definitely huge," Bennett said of the rivalry. "It's bragging rights over the year. It doesn't stop until the season starts next year. This game, it ends the season. Most of the time, it predicts who goes into a bowl game. It's definitely bragging rights for recruiting. It's consistently held where everyone buys into the game at the end of the year. Newspapers and stuff, it's hyped up and brings out the best in players and fans."

Adding fuel to the proverbial fire is a number of Mississippi State-themed billboards sprinkled across the state. The billboards read simply ‘Our State,' referencing the Bulldogs' recent success in games played against Ole Miss.

One such billboard is located down I-55.

"People actually told me about it," Lockett said. "When I finally saw it, I didn't get it. Then I thought it was clever. You can't really say it's your state. I love the play on words. I love the way they did it and all. But, OK, that's not true."

"It's definitely a bigger deal since I got here," Smith said. "I'm from Georgia. Mississippi State-Ole Miss rivalry never meant anything to me until I got here. It's gotten increasingly more important with the billboards and the stuff (Mullen) says."

The game will be the 108th meeting of one of the nation's most-played rivalries. Ole Miss holds a 60-41-6 advantage in the series dating back to 1901. The home team has won 10 of the last 12 games.

"No. 1, it's very important," Nutt said of the rivalry. "When we first got here, the very first year, and it's 45-0 after coming off beating them nine out of 10 years, I didn't think much about it. But it only takes one loss against them. Then you understand it much, much, much, much, much better. I understand it fully, totally. We understand the emphasis that needs to be put on this game, 100 percent."

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