Starkville, MS - Ole Miss defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, the brand name of college football's freshman class, is running the ball for the second consecutive play in a scoreless Egg Bowl.
He's dragged to the ground in part by Mississippi State defensive end Chris Jones, also a five-star freshman. That's 10 stars worth of Magnolia State hype, all colliding on Thanksgiving.
One is a Bulldog, and one is a Rebel. Since they're defensive ends, the pair was never expected to meet on the field. But now that they have, everyone in the stands is sure one or the other of them boys is an evil, cheatin' prick who's everything wrong about college football. The other's just a young man who loves his new university.
Nkemdiche, the highest-rated prospect in the country last year, chose the unlikely Rebels. This infuriates Mississippi State fans to their cores. There's no way Ole Miss should've landed the nation's top talent, and out of Atlanta of all places. Never mind that his brother -- once an ignored, grade-risk, 'tweener-DB -- came to Oxford as a Houston Nutt fire-damage special in the summer of 2010, and that years later their mother wanted them on the same campus. No sir: the Nkemdiches were bought. Cheaters.
Jones is a home-grown Missisippian, a native of nearby Houston. His is a fine example of the path taken by a top in-state football recruit:
- Declare interest in one of the two local SEC programs.
- Weather a barrage of hype, rumor, seduction, and accusation from both fan bases until Signing Day.
- Be forever loathed by one.
To hear Ole Miss folks tell it, the five-star Jones was in love with joining an already-stocked 2013 Rebel class and pairing with Nkemdiche. He had visited the Oxford campus late in the recruiting season, but his family had been bought by MSU boosters. Poor Jones was held captive by a Bulldog shadow government that even forced him to bait key Rebel boosters into potentially offering him money on tapped phone lines. Cheaters.
The moment will be writ large on message boards for months to come, and maybe end up on a billboard.
"When I worked at the University of Kentucky, we had a similar campaign for an existing slogan: 'Welcome to Big Blue Country,'" Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin explains. "We wanted to do something similar, something direct, but spent several months really struggling for what to do exactly. I remember, in a moment of frustration, just telling our team I wanted something direct, like, 'Hey, welcome to our state.'"
Billboards rank just above spray-painted overpasses in tact and subtlety among advertising mediums, which is exactly why more and more college athletic departments are using them.
"I can say they're highly visible, and they create feedback from our fans. I know I hear from Mississippi State fans every time they pass by a new one about how much they love seeing it," Stricklin said. "But I don't know that the R.O.I. is really worth what you're paying for them, other than the non-quantifiable good feeling. I don't know how you put pencil to paper to explain that."
In the 2007 Egg Bowl, MSU's Derek Pegues, one of the rare standouts at Batesville's South Panola High School to eschew nearby Ole Miss (22 miles) for MSU (121 miles), broke a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown. It would push the Dogs to a win and certify Ole Miss head coach Ed Orgeron's pink slip.
The following summer a billboard appeared in Panola County on Interstate 55, near the Highway 6 exit to Oxford. The junction is the most common route for drivers headed to Ole Miss from either Jackson or Memphis and considered the heart of Rebel country. Now a maroon-and-white billboard read "Many Happy RETURNS For Bulldog Club Ticket Holders," featuring a picture of Pegues.
The archduke of outdoor advertising had been shot dead. The modern Mississippi Billboard Wars had begun.
"It can be July and no teams competing, but people will see [the billboards] and instantly gauge where their teams are at," then-Mississippi State A.D. Greg Byrne, now at Arizona, said. "That's the real value, and it's not a television ad you can mute and ignore."
In 2008, Houston Nutt's Rebels sealed the fate of the embattled Sylvester Croom with a 45-0 walloping of the Bulldogs in Oxford. As if such a complete dismantling wasn't enough recompense, Ole Miss flashed a message on its brand-new Jumbotron (MSU would complete its a year later, exactly one cubic foot larger in size):
"MANY HAPPY RETURNS, OLE MISS, 2008 EGG BOWL CHAMPIONS!!!"
"When they shellacked us in the 2008 game and put up 'Many Happy Returns,' I just told our people that's clever. That's not obnoxious. We had that coming. That was very cleverly, subtlety done," Stricklin said.
"I think on that level, that stuff is kind of fun. And anytime you do something from a marketing standpoint, you open yourself up to [a response] if you have a bad day."
Ole Miss is 7-4 in Hugh Freeze's second season, while Mississippi State is 5-6 in Dan Mullen's fifth. The night is less about the Rebels and more about a growing anxiety around the home team. Mullen's offense, his trademark, has faltered this season. MSU fans are impatient despite the current staff's still-intact streak of three bowl bids.
On this night the MSU uniforms are atrocious: Adidas-crafted solid maroon with solid gold numbers and letters topped with gold chrome helmets. Mississippi State is all in on the brand association with the Golden Egg trophy, named not for any connection the state has to poultry, but rather for its poorly constructed golden football that, over the decades, became nicknamed "The Egg."
Much of Mullen's persona has been built around a zeal to conquer and humiliate Ole Miss. He validated his claims, winning three in a row against an increasingly hapless Houston Nutt from 2009-‘11. He calls them "TSUN, the school up north" and even let himself be videotaped promising that MSU was "never losing to this team again" after the 2010 game.
He did eventually lose. Last November, 41-24. As deft as Mullen was at rallying Mississippi State against big brother, Hugh Freeze was as skilled at washing Ole Miss' local elitism in the blood of the Lamb. A son of Tate County, he's yet to miss an opportunity to publicly preach about a team winning for the love of each other and not the hate of an opponent, all while recruiting with Mullen's brand of fearlessness.
Even after finally losing his first Egg Bowl, there's no restraint from Mullen, no dampening of the mission statement that brought MSU to this point. if anything, MSU has doubled down and shamelessly lacquered itself in rivalry lust.
"Let's face it, our fans aren't telling us that the one game we absolutely have to win is against some FCS opponent," Stricklin says. "I don't think it matters what we wear, really. Our fans aren't halfway in, so there's no reason for us to be."
MSU has come to claim Mississippi as its state, or specifically "Our State." As Stricklin tells the story, the "Our State" campaign was created and put in motion well before Mullen's second Egg win.
"They were actually scheduled to go up around the first of the new year, but the sign company was ahead of schedule, believe it or not. Almost as soon as the second in 2010, the billboards started going up, and fans on both sides took it to be a shot, which it really wasn't intended to be."
The billboards sprang up on graduated schedule across Mississippi, on the state line of every major interstate, along with major highways and cities. And gold trim started making its way onto the MSU uniforms for each Egg Bowl.
"I don't think there is any reaction. It's hard to say this in a blanket statement, but I don't think people see it as a big deal," counters Ole Miss senior associate A.D. for marketing and communications Michael Thompson.
Thompson is the Rebels' image maker, to a degree, an ex-ad man who's worked to overhaul everything from the specific hues of red and blue used in the Ole Miss logo to the meticulously planned change in mascots two season ago.
"I need to make sure I clarify that," he adds. "That game is a big deal, but I don't think that our people want us to put out a uniform change or tweak for that game. That's not part of our brand standards guide. It's just not who we are."
Since Mullen and Stricklin's embrace of beating all things [school name redacted], Ole Miss has opted to aim its nose even higher. The Rebels responded to the "Our State" campaign with a series of non-State billboards around Memphis and the state of Mississippi, never acknowledging their disdain for MSU's growing confidence.
"I think Dan Mullen might pick the billboard locations personally," Thompson jokes, referencing a recent wave of MSU billboards that seemed specific to the location of key recruits. In early 2012, MSU was hit with a secondary NCAA violation for a billboard in Oxford that read "Play with the Best," which the NCAA considered a call for prospects. Ole Miss fans felt it was because highly sought-after Oxford recruit Jeremy Liggins was about to sign his LOI.
And it's not just billboards. Shortly after Donte Moncrief split the MSU secondary for the second time in the Rebels' blowout in 2012, Ole Miss cued up video of Mullen's promise to never lose the Egg again:
"Hey it was a promise that wasn't kept," Thompson says of the clip.
"There was a lot of talk about that clip leading up to the game. It had surfaced online a good bit. Our athletic director [Ross Bjork] happened to ask if we had that clip queued up, and we happened to have it available. At a certain point in the game, he asked us to play it."
No fan base is a homogenous group that's the opposite in every way of its rival. There are ag schools and business schools and private schools and commuter colleges, and at some point every school's fans become classless trash by somebody else's standards. But there are gray areas.
However, in Mississippi, a sparse state population and a feeble economy strangle out the periphery. There's little in the way of outside immigration, and not only are you loyal to either one team or the other, you personally know your town's next great linebacker prospect and the opposing school's local bag man. You know for a fact they're up to something, because you heard from the guy who saw it all.
As both universities slowly grow, each is discovering it's impossible to keep an entire student body and fan culture in step with any one image. But on Egg Bowl week it's still suitable to boil everything down to the rednecks vs. the country club.
Before the game you can notice how willing the participants are to play to their own stereotypes in order to perpetuate the myths. This is not the Iron Bowl. There are no national titles at stake. There haven't been since the early 1960s. The Egg Bowl is a potent distillation of Mississippi as compared to its neighboring Southern cultures, a stronger high and a harsher burn.
Live in Mississippi long enough with an open ear and you can learn to hate everybody. Trust me.
You're either a red-dirt, hillbilly dipshit, kin to farming families outside Tupelo (and a cheater) or a racist, fork-tongued Jackson lawyer (and a cheater). And tonight everybody's a damn cheater, a "cheeeetin son of a bitch" precisely, as it echoes through the stands.
I've often wondered out loud around Oxford and Starkville that if everybody's cheating so damn much, is anybody really cheating? The answer around Thanksgiving week is, "yeah, those sons of bitches are."
If you ask the other side, you can find much to hate about the Rebels. Ole Miss, a postcard town stained to the bone by a cancerous, self-created mystique that's so vapid, so invalidated by modern culture that one extra cufflink, one extra bow tie, one extra flair on an already obscene cocktail dress would implode the whole damn Grove in a fit of pretentiousness, like a dying star with a little alligator embroidered on it.
The Grove: that giant, ham-fisted paean to a world that either never really existed or did and should be forever forgotten. A WASP Freaknik of doctors, lawyers, and politicians blocking traffic seven times a fall.
Ole Miss: a grown-ass man, bereft of self-awareness, wobbling around his fake fiefdom in an outfit straight from the boys department of a Dillard's after-Easter sale in 1986.
So to hell with Ole Miss.
If you ask the other side, you can find much to hate about the Bulldogs. State, a lot so ignorant to their circumstances that their baseless pride becomes downright noxious, a poison in the air. Mississippi State, the worst of all nondescript land-grant institutions, a sorry smattering of brick buildings and hills and as war-torn as a Serbian armpit without the excuse of having suffered an actual war. There's no way to explain away the alarming amount of local self-regard for so much hopeless blight.
Starkville: a Springsteen song without melody or lyrics or any remote significance to the fabric of American identity. A people united by the cultural mantra of scorched-earth, fit to forever wage a kamikaze war over the last bunk of a basement cell in the SEC West.
Mississippi State: a churlish, bell-ringing, camo-coated Flannery O'Connor villain trapped inside a 3 Doors Down chorus.
So to hell with State.
He was and is a brazen, smirking carpetbagger from New Hampshire who trolled an entire state of old-money traditionalists. Watching Dan Mullen work the postgame press conference in the wake of a surprise upset win over the Rebels is witnessing a master.
"I think now at this point we certainly expect to be considered for the best bowl available, especially when you consider we've now got a better conference record than the school up north," he beams, the Golden Egg Trophy freshly returned to his side.
In the course of the evening, Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace fumbles away the game while diving into the end zone in overtime. The gaffe ends with the quarterback face down on the maroon grass, a maneuver that will become a (local) internet trend hashtagged as #Wallacing. Ole Miss fans will fume, especially when extended clips show State safety Nickoe Whitley squatting over Wallace to celebrate.
Nkemdiche will become, as one lifelong MSU fan tells me after the game, "the most hated Rebel in Starkville since Eli Manning." He allegedly spent the fourth quarter smack-talking MSU players and fans while Ole Miss' defense struggled to stop the Bulldogs from moving the ball.
Inside how Ole Miss landed the No. 1 recruit
It was more than just the good fortune of having Robert Nkemdiche's brother on the roster. Let's walk through everything that had to break just right for the Rebels.
But nothing will top Mullen himself, whose voice cracks, who sheds visible, fat tears when talking about the "medical miracle" return of injured quarterback Dak Prescott to win the game. Prescott, thought to be suffering nerve damage in his shoulder and out for the regular season, entered the game late to spark MSU's comeback. This will enrage Rebel fans, convinced Mullen is willing to trade on his players' health.
A week later Stricklin admits with equal parts pride and sheepishness that more billboards are on the way.
"It's hard to make too much of a rivalry game," he says.
Thompson, in response, holds the company line for Ole Miss, now losers of four of the last five Egg Bowls.
"No, as of right now, I know of no plans for any kind of advertising specific to that game. I think that you have to choose those things wisely. On any campaign you have to look at all the potential scenarios that could occur. You don't want all your eggs in one basket," he deadpans.
There is no such restraint in Davis Wade Stadium after the game. The air is freezing cold, but there's no wind to carry the celebratory fireworks out. It's a mash of gold-and-maroon hugs, young men and even some of their coaches unashamed to weep, to exalt. Absent the rivalry, this alone is a moment of pure, positive joy. Victory. Validation. A coaching staff earning a sixth year.
Above the smoke and the Egg and the university-issued golden pom-poms flying into the air is State's Jumbotron, with a giant hashtag: #WONTHEDAY, mocking Freeze's oft-repeated catch phrase for Rebel football.
"That one was not run by me. I promise," Stricklin says with a bit of a laugh. "Our marketing staff must have come up with that one during the week. I've asked in the future they run all of those by me."
Photos: Steven Godfrey, SB Nation; Stacy Revere, Getty, Spruce Derden, USA Today
Read the other three pieces of this series:
- Clemson vs. South Carolina, overwhelming narratives. And Tajh Boyd being a down-to-earth superstar.
- The Keg of Nails, where the only way to win is to leave. Tommy Tuberville wants you to have fun.
- Tennessee vs. Vanderbilt, which is not a rivalry. Nope. No, sir. Sure feels like one right now.