A pair of Magnolia State rivals square off in the regular season finale in Oxford on Saturday night, as the Ole Miss Rebels play host to the 25th-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs in the Battle for the Golden Egg.
Mississippi State's season got off to a fantastic start with wins in each of its first seven games, but once the schedule got tougher it began to stumble. The Bulldogs lost to nationally-ranked squads Alabama (38-7), Texas A&M (38-13) and LSU (37-17), before snapping their losing streak against Arkansas in their home finale last week, 45-14.
"Obviously this is the biggest game of the year for us," head coach Dan Mullen said of the Egg Bowl. "We have a lot of kids from Mississippi on our team that know how important this rivalry is and they grow up with it. A win from this game would be a great way to finish off the season."
Ole Miss's season has been a pleasant surprise, the team having more than doubled its win total from all of last year. However, the Rebels have had three chances to earn bowl eligibility in the past three weeks and failed to do so, albeit against tough opponents Georgia (37-10), Vanderbilt (27-26) and LSU (41-35). The loss to the Tigers was especially heartbreaking, considering they were winning late in the fourth quarter on the road.
"We are coming off of another disappointing loss," head coach Hugh Freeze said of the LSU game. "I don't know that in my years of coaching high school, NAIA, or Division I football if I've ever had three more difficult ones in one year. We have to put it behind us like we have for a few others this year that were difficult losses. We have to get ready for a huge game Saturday night at home."
The storied history between these two teams dates back more than 100 years, with Ole Miss leading the series, 60-42-6.
It's been a very successful season for the Mississippi State offense (30.8 ppg, 394.5 ypg), which is led by its record-setting quarterback.
Tyler Russell is the reigning SEC Player of the Week after completing 19-of-32 passes for 274 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions against Arkansas. In the process, Russell broke the single-season record for completions (201), passing yards (2,523), and 200-yard passing games (seven) while adding to his record TD pass total (21). The signal caller has been one of the most efficient passers in the league as he has just four interceptions.
With a two-touchdown performance last week, Chad Bumphis (49 receptions, 758 yards) now has 10 scores on the season, padding his school record with 22 in his career. At 150 career receptions, he needs just 12 more to tie the school- record set by Dan Smith back in 1970.
Ladarius Perkins has been one of the best running backs in the league with 895 yards and eight touchdowns, despite missing a game. He's usually not a big factor in the passing game (16 receptions, 144 yards), but last week he caught a pair of touchdown passes.
The Mississippi State defense (20.7 ppg, 377.5 ypg) has been defined by its ability to take the ball away as it ranks 12th nationally with 27 turnovers (and fourth with a plus-16 turnover margin).
The defensive catalyst is without a question Johnthan Banks, who was named a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Away as the nation's best defensive back. The All-American has 56 tackles, four interceptions, 10 passes defended, and a forced fumble. Darius Slay actually has more picks than Banks (five), and Cameron Lawrence has a team-high 98 tackles, four sacks, and two fumble recoveries.
Ole Miss has also had a fine season offensively (30.0 ppg, 417.7 ypg), and its season-highlight may have come last week when it put up 35 points against a vaunted LSU defense.
Bo Wallace (2,549 yards 14 TDs) has shown flashes of brilliance, including last week when he threw for 310 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The sophomore has also been maddeningly inconsistent, as he also completed just 15-of-35 passes and tossed three interceptions in the same game, giving him 13 picks on the season. Wallace is a big threat with his legs too, rushing for 323 yards and another eight scores.
Fellow sophomore Donte Moncrief (53 receptions, 775 yards, seven TDs) has developed a great chemistry with Wallace. He caught six passes last week for a career-high 161 yards and two touchdowns.
Jeff Scott was bottled up against LSU (37 yards), but he's been a steady source of production out of the backfield with 717 yards and six touchdowns.
While the offense has flourished at times, the defense has been a sore spot, allowing 28.9 ppg. The unit failed the team late in the game by allowing LSU to drive for the game-winning touchdown in the final minute.
Denzel Nkemdiche has made plays all over the field, leading the team in tackles (75), tackles for loss (12), forced fumbles (four) and interceptions (two). The Rebels have recorded 31 sacks, but no one has more than 4.5.