Outside of perhaps the season debut against FCS Central Arkansas, there hasn’t been a single absolute-must-win decreed for the Rebels this entire season, what with the flaming mess that former head coach Houston Nutt left and the lack of available talent and depth headed into this season.
On the eve of the 2012 regular season finale, Freeze faces his first must-win. And while Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen and a MSU marketing staff operating with the ethos of an Internet troll have boiled this rivalry down to its bitterest taste in decades, this game is a must-win for every reason other than bragging rights and pride.
Regardless of the opponent, Ole Miss has one chance left to finish the year 6-6 — an unbelievable turnaround for a program written off for seasons to come just a year prior. Finishing with six wins would earn the Rebels a bowl, which would provide for more program revenue, a better recruiting platform and nice late December excursion for fans tired of losing seasons.
But the real value of a bowl — and it doesn’t matter which — are the NCAA approved extra practices teams can hold between the end of the year and the game.
Regardless of the bowl opponent — again, it really doesn’t matter — the young and thin Rebels will get a chance to build on what Freeze’s staff have begun to rebuild this season. If they miss that chance, the team won’t see each other after Saturday night until March.
Then there’s the small issue of recruiting. Let me be clear in saying that many if not most prospects hinge a commitment or a decision between two particular schools on any one outcome. However, in this case it’s a matter of perception in the state for a collection of homegrown players that are as of yet undecided.
Another MSU win would mean four in a row, and given the age of your average high school player, that’s an absolute lifetime.
Perhaps most important of all is the matter of simple psychology, which mainly applies to those outside the locker room. Throughout the progression of three Egg Bowl losses and the growing noise of bravado down in Starkville, State’s mere presence has grown from an annoying buzz to a mental tic in the minds of most Rebel fans.
No doubt who cares more
As long as I’ve been around this rivalry there’s never been a doubt which side cares more — a hell of a lot more, specifically — but losing in succession has changed that dynamic.
Last week was a hard and bitter loss forged out of unbelievable effort relative to small expectations against another historic rival — formerly THE rival — for Ole Miss. But unlike LSU, Mississippi State is, for the moment, the more important team to beat in terms of the Longview for Ole Miss. Before it can regain any kind of relevance in the conference, it absolutely must take care of its own house first.
(Steven Godfrey is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn. Contact him online at email@example.com or on Twitter, @38Godfrey.) (November 22, 2012, Page 8A)