Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers called the annual matchup with Ole Miss the “biggest week of the year, every year.”
And it’s easy to see why. The animosity between the two teams battling for the Golden Egg Trophy is clear season after season, and it’s likely to be there when the Bulldogs (7-4, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) face the ninth-ranked Rebels (9-2, 5-2 SEC) at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.
To get the scoop on Mississippi State’s rival, The Dispatch spoke with Nick Suss, Ole Miss beat writer for The Clarion-Ledger. Suss is in his fourth season covering the Rebels.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ole Miss is 9-2 and on the fringe of the top 10 in most rankings. How have the Rebels played compared to your preseason expectations?
Suss: I thought this was going to be an eight-win team that could compete to get to nine or 10 wins if the defense improved to be essentially average. That happened. So it’s on the higher side of the expectations window but not outside the realm of possibility.
Jerrion Ealy’s quotes about Starkville this weekend were certainly unmitigated. Do you have a sense of how important winning this game would be to Ole Miss as far as the rivalry aspect and getting to 10 wins?
Suss: That differs player to player. Some players really, really care about winning the Egg Bowl. Others think of it as just another game. Ole Miss certainly has a lower population of key players who grew up in Mississippi than normal; Ealy is one of just four offensive starters from in-state. I’d say compared to previous years, the stakes in this one are higher not because people care more about beating a rival but because both teams are better and the postseason implications are grander.
I know Ole Miss’ defense was maligned heading into the 2021 season, but it seems to have played pretty well for most of the year. How well is Ole Miss equipped to slow down Will Rogers and an Air Raid offense that has been rounding into form lately?
Suss: I like Ole Miss’ secondary. The safety room built around Jake Springer, A.J. Finley, Otis Reese and Keidron Smith is probably one of the deepest and best in the SEC. The cornerbacks, especially Deane Leonard and Deantre Prince, are rounding into form as of late, too. But the real keys to Ole Miss’ pass defense are the pass rushers and the turnovers. Ole Miss is the only Power 5 school with three players who have six or more sacks. When the Rebels are creating negative plays, the defense is on another level. The same goes for turnovers. Ole Miss has six interceptions in its past three games. Will Rogers isn’t turning the ball over much lately. One of those streaks is going to have to give. So if the Rebels can pressure Rogers and force him to be careless with his throws, there’s going to be a lot of success. If Rogers can sit in a clean pocket and pick apart holes in a zone, Ole Miss probably won’t be too successful.
Matt Corral, Braylon Sanders and several other key offensive players have been injured or limited for Ole Miss. What’s their status for Thursday, and how good can Ole Miss’ offense be when those guys are healthy?
Suss: This is probably the healthiest Ole Miss’ offense has been since SEC play started. At this point it’d be surprising if any key contributors other than guard Ben Brown miss Thursday’s game, and Brown is out for the season. Corral probably isn’t going to carry 30 times like he did against Tennessee. But if he needs to bowl forward for five or six yards to pick up a first down, he can. Sanders and Jonathan Mingo are going to play, although Mingo might be on a pitch count if he’s not fully able to push off like he normally can. This offense is back to having its full arsenal of weapons, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be as polished as they were in September.
If you are comfortable making one, what is your prediction for how Thursday’s game will play out?
Suss: I think Mississippi State has a slight advantage in this one. It’ll be close. Probably a one-score game. But I think the Bulldogs have been too good in the second half this season to let one slip away late.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.