We were asked to “Bring Out the Best” you could possibly ask for when it came to an Egg Bowl Preview. So Editor Justin Strawn and Site Author Evan Ertel sat down and discussed what they thought were the things you needed to know about the 2016 Battle for the Golden Egg between the Ole Miss Rebels and the Mississippi St. Bulldogs.
Ole Miss broke the significance of home field advantage in the Egg Bowl last season. Do you think home field still matters or has it reverted back to a “throw out the record books” kind of rivalry?
Evan Ertel - I think it's always been a toss up of a game, regardless of home field. There's such an emphasis on both teams to win at risk of a failed season otherwise, especially this season. After beating A&M last week and getting shut down by Vanderbilt, I have no idea what to expect from Ole Miss. Add in the fact that State almost allowed Arkansas to put up 60 points and this game is complete nonsense. Ole Miss will be desperate for a bowl berth and State will be even more desperate to keep them out of one, since the Dawgs will be ending an eight year streak of postseason play. This game is going to be an absolute grudge match because there’s not much else to lose other than sheer respect. I don't see the fact that the game is in Oxford playing into it too much.
Justin Strawn - I tend to agree. Ole Miss entered the season thinking they were going to be playing this season for far more important things than bragging rights in the state. Mississippi State is just trying to keep all the positive momentum since Dan Mullen took over rolling. Both of these teams have had disappointing seasons for very different reasons. I think that will lend itself to a lot more passion from both teams. In an effort to take out some frustration, I could see things getting really heated on the field. Hopefully it won’t be anything like what happened in 1997.
Evan Ertel - All things considered from a student perspective, I wouldn't be opposed to a little pregame warmup pushing and shoving. Not quite 1997 style, something more like what we saw this past week in Baton Rouge between Florida and LSU to set the tone for an intense 3 1/2 hour battle. Maybe we do the "Dawg Pound Rock" on their logo at the 50 yard line, I don’t know, just something. That's just me though.
With that being said, it leads into our next topic of conversation...
Which team needs this game more?
Evan Ertel - Mississippi State 100% needs this game more. After the season that it has been, ending up ineligible to compete in a bowl game paired with a loss in the Egg Bowl would be a crushing blow to the progress that Dan Mullen has made over the course of his tenure at State. We haven't beaten them in 2 years and a third could be the beginning of some changes in the football program. I also think it would be huge for Cohen to start off his tenure as AD with a win against Ole Miss in Oxford. Nothing gets donor money flowing like beating your rival.
Justin Strawn - While I don’t disagree, I do wonder if State fans, and maybe even Ole Miss fans, aren’t considering the importance of this game to Ole Miss from a perception standpoint. Ole Miss is staring at NCAA sanctions to come down in 2017, and they will likely have a difficult time competing at the level they have these past two seasons once those sanctions are levied. With the lofty expectations the Rebels had entering this season, how important would it be to make sure they don’t lose a game to a team they supposedly left in the dust?
Evan Ertel - It would definitely be big for Hugh Freeze in saving some face during a season that some thought was lost. It would also be huge for Shea Patterson to pick up a second win as a starter in a game like the Egg Bowl. I can certainly see Ole Miss fans buying into the hope that this could be their best bet at a bowl game for the next two years or so.
Justin Strawn - Overall, I think we’re in agreement that the Bulldogs need this game more. One of the reasons they need it more I think is because Dan Mullen’s fortunes have taken a drastic turn in the wrong direction in this series, which leads to this...
In your opinion, what has been the biggest reason why Hugh Freeze has won 3 of the last 4 Egg Bowls after Mullen won the first three he coached in?
Evan Ertel - Mostly the games that bothered me were the past two games, featuring probably two of the best Mississippi State teams of the Mullen Era. 2014 was one of the most deflating losses I can remember as a State fan. We were poised to finish with a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoffs, and we just straight came out flat in that game. The defense looked completely unprepared and most importantly, Mullen had his worst play-calling game of the season, just slightly beating out the Alabama game.
Last year was also a massive disappointment as well. It was Senior Night, Dak Prescott's last game in Davis Wade as well as a night game on top of it all. But, we came out, went down 28-3 in the first half and State fans were left with a hole in their hearts. The only thing I saw as a consistent problem in both games? Dan Mullen's play-calling. Which is also why I feel better about this year because, thankfully, Mullen has turned over a majority of the offense to QB's coach Brian Johnson. I think we can both agree that we have seen improvements across the offense since he took over a couple weeks ago. On the other hand, this might be the worst defense we have seen in a while going into the Egg Bowl. Against Arkansas, the Bulldogs allowed 661 yards of total offense. I don’t know about you, but that is absolutely obscene in my opinion. Peter Sirmon HAS to get the defense at least somewhat figured out by Saturday or his head will likely be the first to roll come the offseason, not that he has much job security at this point anyway.
Justin Strawn - There’s no doubt about the offensive improvement since Brian Johnson has done more of the play-calling. The offense has looked like a well-oiled machine since the Kentucky game, minus the expected Alabama beat down. We’re running the ball like I expected us to, and it has made a big difference in our offensive production.
Ole Miss is the favorite and most likely the team all the experts pick to win this game. I’m less convinced this game is a certain win for Ole Miss, but it does bring up an interesting point about Dan Mullen...
No Mississippi State coach has ever been retained after losing three straight Egg Bowls. Dan Mullen likely survives regardless of the outcome, but how hot will his seat get if the Bulldogs lose?
Evan Ertel - It gets supernova hot. He fended off most of the horde by beating A&M, but now even that win is losing some of its luster. Despite a tumultuous start of the season, Mullen was still in prime position to make a charge at bowl eligibility, only needing to top Arkansas at home on Senior Night this past weekend. But, as most of us saw, that didn’t happen. The only way I don't see next season being an "achieve or leave" situation is if Mullen fails to beat Ole Miss. There is absolutely no way fans should tolerate a 3 year drought, especially when two of those years featured the best player in Mississippi State football history.
Justin Strawn - I absolutely agree from a fan’s viewpoint that 2017 should be a year where Dan Mullen has serious heat applied if he doesn't win the Egg Bowl this year. However, the unknown variable in this conversation is how John Cohen is going to handle coaching situations. I tend to think he would make next season an "achieve or leave” season like you said, but that is simply conjecture on my part. Do you think Cohen would have the same viewpoint as fans?
Evan Ertel - I think he will. But, other than the idea that he simply just understands the current climate of college sports and how important a "win now" mentality is, there really isn't much for me to base my opinion on. Look, Cohen is a State alum and obviously wants nothing but success for the university and its programs. If he feels that with a loss at Ole Miss will lead to a step in the wrong direction for the program, I certainly don't think he'll hesitate to make a change. Even in his own coaching career, Cohen has never tolerated prolonged underachievement, so yes, I do think that Cohen will be generally in the same school of thought as fans.
Justin Strawn - Let’s just hope that it doesn’t come to that and the Bulldogs can take care of business on the field with the Rebels. Speaking of on the field with the Rebels...
Who scares you the most on the Ole Miss side of the football?
Evan Ertel - Well, listing some of the obvious guys, Evan Engram is a Rob Gronkowski-type tight end in that he always has the ability to change the game with a single play. Freshman wide receiver A.J. Brown also jumps out to me as someone with incredible play-making ability. It also adds an extra sting knowing he's a Starkville High product. Honestly, the player I'm most concerned about right now is QB Shea Patterson, simply because we don't really know what to expect from him yet on a game-by-game basis. Right now, all we have is him going in to College Station and walking out with a W in his first collegiate start, and then a loss at the sixth best team in the East the very next week. Last week wasn’t statistically much of a regression, but he definitely took a step backwards as a passer. His average yards per pass against A&M was right at 8 yards, but that dropped to just over 5 against Vanderbilt, which tells me that he lost some of his confidence in his throwing ability. Granted, Vanderbilt currently is 66th nationally in total defense, it’s still something to note. Overall, Patterson just adds a certain level of uncertainty to the game, so I'd say he's the guy that "scares" me the most.
Justin Strawn - You pretty much hit on everyone I would have said, so let me take it from a different angle. I’m most concerned this team falls behind big early. I firmly believe Mississippi State can play with Ole Miss, but we are so much better in the running game right now, I’m not sure we can fall behind by more than two scores and get back in it. I know Ole Miss blew some big leads early in the season, but I don’t think the Bulldogs are equipped to make a come back in this game. Do you think they can or are they sunk if they get down big early in your opinion?
Evan Ertel - I completely agree. This offense is not built to mount deficits. I also just wouldn't feel confident with Fitzgerald playing down more than 21. I think that will cause him to be somewhat reckless with his passing and will end up leading to more turnovers than touchdowns. The defense is also not the type to force turnovers in an effort to change the flow of the game. To me, it's either a shootout or a shutout, I just don't see a wild comeback in the cards.
Justin Strawn - Now that we've established where the Rebels have an edge let's turn our attention to the Bulldogs...
What is the biggest advantage Mississippi State has in the 2016 Egg Bowl?
Evan Ertel - Our ability to run the ball has got be the focus of the game plan. We have three drastically different types of runners that we can run various reads with and it just allows us to be so versatile with our running game. Fitzgerald provides one threat with his ability to get outside the pocket while still being a passer, Aeris Williams brings the physicality between the tackles and Brandon Holloway contributes by being a threat outside with his quickness. I think if we can effectively use our running game, Ole Miss' defense will be reeling all day. It also is encouraging that Ole Miss is currently ranked 113th nationally in run defense, allowing an average of 227 yards per game.
Justin Strawn - I think that’s pretty obvious to most. This game is going to come down to how Mississippi State will do at stopping their passing game, and how the Ole Miss Rebels will stop the Bulldogs’ ground attack. It feels like an over-simplification, but it really isn’t.
So time to wrap this up...
How does the 2016 Egg Bowl unfold and who wins?
Evan Ertel - I expect somewhat of a shoot out. Not in the sense that both quarterbacks will be throwing all over the place, well, Shea Patterson might but I digress. Both offenses I think will find their grooves within their respective game plans and neither defense will have much of an answer. I see this game pushing 60 for total points, but I think it's with the Dawgs on top in Oxford, ending the two-year drought and restoring some respect to the program after a rollercoaster of a season.
Justin Strawn - If you had told me this at the beginning of the year, I would have thought you were nuts. But I can totally see it happening. This is going to be Shea Patterson’s first home football game, and I think the emotion and ovation he and his teammates will experience will be similar to what Dak Prescott went through last year. It will be for very different reasons, but the Bulldogs came out way too emotional last year, and I anticipate a similar reaction by the Rebels. It’s going to be close, but I think Mississippi State pulls it out.
There you have it. It’s everything you could possibly need to know about the 2016 Egg Bowl. Let the festivities begin!
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