Can’t we all just get along?
Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin thinks so. Even with his Rebels about to play in the biggest rivalry game of the season.
“It is football, you know,” Kiffin said. “You really shouldn’t hate people just because they went to a certain school.”
Typically, Ole Miss and Mississippi State fans hardly stop to consider that when the two programs play for the Golden Egg Trophy during Thanksgiving week. The resulting Egg Bowl rivalry games have been full of animosity between blue and red and maroon and white, verbal jabs back and forth on social media and all the chaos on the field fans could want — or could do without.
The last time the Rebels faced the Bulldogs in Starkville — the locale of Thursday night’s game between Ole Miss (9-2, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) and Mississippi State (7-4, 4-3 SEC) — the home team came out on top thanks to a missed extra point. That kick was 15 yards longer than it needed to be because Ole Miss receiver Elijah Moore pretended to pee like a dog in the end zone after a potential tying touchdown, drawing a penalty flag.
It’s precisely that kind of weirdness that Kiffin doesn’t see a need for this time around, his second Egg Bowl as the Rebels’ head coach. Asked about the “toxicity” of the rivalry in the past, Kiffin said he didn’t know much.
But he knows Mississippi State coach Mike Leach well, picking the Bulldogs to win their Nov. 13 game at Auburn and calling Leach the “best offensive coach in America.” Kiffin said it might not make sense that he and Leach get along, but he’s not questioning it.
“Maybe we were brought here to bring a state together or something — get you guys to get along,” he said Monday, not without some sarcasm.
That’s far from likely. And Kiffin surely knows it. He’s focused on football, after all. Mississippi State has won four of its past five games and always poses a threat at Davis Wade Stadium.
“Very good opponent coming up, extremely hard place to play — very loud, full place that makes you have a lot of challenges on offense to have to play in a place like that in the SEC,” he said. “Best passing offense in the country and one of the best rush defenses in the country, also, that gives you a lot of problems and is very multiple and has a lot of long, strong players on defense.”
The Bulldogs have knocked off four teams who have spent time in the College Football Playoff rankings this season: NC State, Texas A&M, Kentucky and Auburn. Ole Miss, which checked in at No. 12 in last week’s edition, is hoping not to become the fifth.
The Rebels have won three straight games, including a home win over A&M, since a loss Oct. 30 at Auburn. Kiffin knows Ole Miss can make a New Year’s Six bowl game a lot more likely with a victory, which would secure second place in the SEC West for his team and finish the regular season with 10 wins.
But it’ll take getting past Leach to get there. Kiffin said he’s “always liked” the second-year Bulldogs coach and praised Leach’s ability to remain successful without changing his Air Raid scheme.
“He’s done a great job wherever he’s been,” Kiffin said. “Usually when you don’t evolve and you don’t keep up with the game, you’re fired, and you get passed by. That’s why people ain’t huddling and running I-formation football anymore, for the most part. Somehow he came up with something a long time ago that just keeps working.”
Mississippi State wins largely by throwing the ball a nation-best 53.9 times per game and averaging 31.8 points per contest. The nation’s seventh-ranked run defense plays into that success.
An Ole Miss defense that was almost unanimously derided to start the year hasn’t been horrid, though it hasn’t been anything to write home to Oxford about. But the Rebels have the No. 5 total offense in the country and rack up more than 36 points and 500 yards per game.
And with the No. 7 rush offense in the land and the 20th-ranked passing scheme, Kiffin doesn’t mind the chilly, precipitation-laden forecast for Thursday night in Starkville.
“People would tell you if you throw the ball 70 times you probably don’t want it to rain, so maybe it’s in our favor,” he said.
But no matter how big an advantage Ole Miss might have — and the gap does not seem all that large — this is the Egg Bowl, and anything can happen. Kiffin knows errors like Moore’s can happen in the heat (or the cold) of the moment.
They can’t happen this time, though. Not if Ole Miss wants to bring home a win Thursday night.
“Don’t be the team that makes those mistakes,” Kiffin said.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.