To the outside world, no. 19 Ole Miss’s 31-17 win over no. 4 Mississippi State on Saturday represented a much-needed thinning of the playoff field: Following the Bulldogs’ expulsion from the ranks of upper-echelon contenders, the postseason scenarios are fewer and simpler than they were a week ago, and the state of Mississippi can once again be safely ignored. With everything to play for, MSU scored 20 fewer points than its season average, yielded 532 yards, and watched its biggest goals evaporate in a flurry of big plays.1
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen described his team’s defensive effort as “pathetic,” a polite description of a unit that yielded nine plays covering at least 20 yards.
Inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, though, the Rebels’ triumph signified the same thing as always: parochial hatred and an inscrutable turf war spanning generations. For outsiders, playoffs and polls supplied a compelling backdrop. For natives, the scenery didn’t change much. As ever, the excesses of the Grove, the choruses of “Hotty Toddy” and “Hail State,” and the stale jokes at the other side’s expense proved impervious to the rankings. Every year, I suspect, there are young dads like the one I saw this weekend attempting to hoist his small child above the rest of the crowd as the victory celebration began, screaming at the top of his full-grown lungs about an egg.
“DO YOU SEE THE EGG?” he shouted to his bewildered son, in a demented register that channeled the feral frat boy he might have been just a few years ago and who still emerges on game days. “DO YOU SEE THE EGG?!”
If he could see anything at all, the boy certainly could not see the Egg, which of course isn’t really an egg, but a regulation-size, gold-plated football that earned its nickname upon introduction in 1927 and that, at the moment, was fully obscured by the delirious scrum below.2 But seeing had no impact on believing. The kid didn’t have to lay eyes on the prize or wrap his barely formed mind around playoff scenarios to grasp the most basic, lifelong lessons his dad was trying to instill: (1) The Egg is important, and (2) the Egg belongs to us.
I can only guess what this child must have been imagining, but surely the prospect of a colossal, Humpty Dumpty–esque figure sauntering across the turf was more tantalizing than an 87-year-old trophy.
“This is as tough as it gets,” said Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, reflecting the same sentiment from the opposite sideline. “I do not care about the [national] stakes. This game is for bragging rights in the state. It is the most important game we play. So it is obviously a devastating loss because of that.”
Not that the national stakes were lost on the 62,000-plus partisans on hand in Oxford, at least not for those old enough to remember when the notion of the Egg Bowl carrying any weight outside of the state was limited to message board fantasias. For three weeks in October, Ole Miss and Mississippi State occupied top-five spots in the AP poll at the same time — a first, as MSU had never before appeared in the top five under any circumstances — and landed on consecutive Sports Illustrated covers. At 10-1, Mississippi State entered Saturday’s showdown within range of its first conference championship since 1941, and still held the pole position in the race for the fourth and final spot in the College Football Playoff. Although the Rebels had just been bounced from the national conversation with their third loss, a 30-0 flop at Arkansas, the state as a whole continued to bask in a brief, precious splash of outside attention. The 2014 Egg Bowl arrived as the most anticipated in generations, and very likely for another generation or two to come.
In the aftermath, pride is all that remains. At 10-2, the best team in Mississippi State history is, ultimately, just another also-ran: The Bulldogs can still set a school record for wins in their bowl game, but with two losses in their last three games (at the hands of Alabama and Ole Miss), there will be no SEC title, no playoff bid, and — for another year, at least — no escaping the shadows cast by their closest neighbors in Oxford and Tuscaloosa. Ole Miss fans, having just watched their team roar back to midseason form on the heels of a three-game conference losing streak, couldn’t help but wonder, as they filed into the mild November night, what might have been if the offense had managed just one more score at LSU, or if Laquon Treadwell had been able to reach the ball across the goal line in the fraction of a second before his ankle gave way in horrific fashion against Auburn.
For two teams that have so rarely found themselves atop the national pecking order, the exhilaration of occupying the high ground is matched only by the chagrin of having lost it. Saturday was proof that these Rebels really were that good; the Land Shark defense dominated the most productive offense in the SEC and will end the regular season as the no. 1 scoring defense in the nation. The Bulldogs lived up to the hype, too, right up to the end.
Inevitably, by the time the stadium had emptied and the postgame gridlock had taken hold outside, the speculation over potential bowl destinations had given way to contemplating the prospects for even bigger breakthroughs in 2015. Although Ole Miss will lose a handful of high-profile seniors (quarterback Bo Wallace, safety Cody Prewitt, cornerback Senquez Golson) from the current lineup, the roster is built for the future: The Rebels are set to return their top four tailbacks, four of their top five receivers,3 four of five starters on the offensive line, and 10 defenders who have been credited with at least 25 tackles apiece this season. They’ll also be anchored next year by a quartet of former five-star recruits (Treadwell, left tackle Laremy Tunsil, defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, safety Tony Conner) who headlined the ballyhooed 2013 recruiting class; all four have justified the blue-chip billing in their first two years on campus, and as juniors they should form as talented a core as any in the country.4 The only glaring question mark — assuming for now that coach Hugh Freeze is shooting straight when he says he’s not interested in any other job — is at quarterback, where Wallace just broke Eli Manning’s school record for career total offense.
Including Treadwell, who hopes to be healthy in time for spring practice.
Other underclassmen — like tight end Evan Engram, defensive end Marquis Haynes, running back Jaylen Walton, linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, and defensive back Mike Hilton — may be less recognizable nationally, but will be no less integral to fueling high expectations.
Mullen also vowed after Saturday’s loss not to let his program go down as a “one-hit wonder,” although his situation is the opposite of that of the proverbial “school up north”: Despite retaining a handful of above-the-fold skill players (quarterback Dak Prescott, who said Saturday that he plans to return unless he earns a first- or second-round draft grade; tailback Josh Robinson; wide receiver De’Runnya Wilson), Mississippi State will lose the majority of this year’s starting lineup, including four-fifths of the offensive line, surefire All-SEC defensive end Preston Smith, and leading tackler Benardrick McKinney, who’s a virtual lock to declare for the draft as a junior. If Prescott does return, his presence alone will yield unprecedented expectations next fall, especially if Mullen is still his head coach; in the long run, though, heavy attrition will make the bar set over the past few months that much harder to clear again regardless of the names on the marquee.
Still, in this rivalry, in this perpetually inward-looking state, it will take years of playing for national stakes in late November to foster the kind of entitlement that might allow anyone on either side to look at the Golden Egg as a mere consolation prize. On Saturday, the Rebels seized the trophy as time expired, paraded it on a four-corners tour of the stadium, took turns kissing the dome like it was the Stanley Cup, and drenched the locker room with whatever nonalcoholic beverages were on hand, all in a state of unrestrained glee. They’d earned a victory lap. After a blistering ascent in September and October, the Rebels hadn’t been able to see the season through to its full, championship potential, but by denying their rival its finest hour, they spared themselves another nine months of wondering whether that potential actually exists. It does: Based on this weekend, the ceiling for Ole Miss is right where its October 4 upset over Alabama suggested it was. The Egg is the evidence. No one who’d been there before had to be reminded what it meant.
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• Playoffs, etc. Two playoff front-runners delivered routine, drama-free blowouts that reinforced their status: no. 5 TCU, which was a 48-10 winner over Texas on Thanksgiving night, and no. 2 Oregon, which recorded a 47-19 thrashing over Oregon State on the strength of another near-flawless effort (19-of-25 passing for 367 yards and six total touchdowns) from quarterback Marcus Mariota. The rest of the top 10 took it on the chin.
Mississippi State lost; so did no. 8 UCLA and no. 9 Georgia, rendering obsolete whatever fantastic playoff scenarios had been swirling in the Bruins’ and Bulldogs’ heads. No. 1 Alabama rallied to beat Auburn, but yielded 628 yards and 44 points in the process, the highest point total Bama has ever allowed in a win. No. 3 Florida State won, as always, but not without enduring its share of misery against Florida: The Gators held FSU to a season low for total offense and picked off Jameis Winston four times, leaving the reigning Heisman winner with an ACC-worst 17 interceptions on the year. No. 6 Ohio State pulled away from Michigan in the second half, but lost wunderkind quarterback J.T. Barrett to a broken ankle. No. 7 Baylor survived a late surge by one of the worst teams in the Big 12, Texas Tech, only by stopping a two-point conversion to tie in the final two minutes; the Bears also lost their prolific quarterback, Bryce Petty, to an apparent concussion.5
Petty insisted after the game that he will play in next week’s all-important finale against Kansas State. “No doubt,” he said.
It wasn’t exactly a bloodbath, since only the losers (Mississippi State, Georgia, and UCLA) in this group took major dips in the AP poll,6 but none of these teams is rolling into championship weekend firing on all cylinders. At this point, they’re just hoping to cross the finish line without running out of gas.
Florida State fell from no. 1 to no. 2, trading places with Alabama, but (1) the gap between FSU and Bama is minuscule (just three points out of a possible 1,475), and (2) the order is semantic, because Bama was already no. 1 in the selection committee’s weekly poll.
Still, the basic assumption regarding the first three playoff slots hasn’t changed: No plausible scenario exists that excludes Alabama, Florida State, or Oregon if they win their respective conferences. The pecking order for the final slot is much more volatile and potentially subject to the untested whims of the selection committee. If Baylor and TCU both win next Saturday, thereby sharing the Big 12 championship with identical 11-1/8-1 records, how will the committee weigh Baylor’s come-from-behind, head-to-head win over TCU in October against the Bears’ perennially putrid nonconference slate? If Baylor struggles to beat Kansas State, is it possible for the Horned Frogs to atone for their loss in Waco with another surplus of “style points” against lowly Iowa State? If Ohio State beats Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, how heavily will the committee weigh Barrett’s injury in its assessment of the Buckeyes? If unknown backup Cardale Jones plays poorly in a winning effort, will OSU’s grade suffer more than it would have if Barrett, a proven commodity, had delivered the same performance? By this time next week, our window into the committee’s thought process will be much clearer, but transparency won’t forestall outrage from the fan bases that get the shaft.
• A bit more about Bama: As mentioned in an above footnote, Alabama actually moved up in Sunday’s AP poll, from no. 2 to no. 1, which is a hell of a trick after one of the most flammable defensive performances in school history. (Auburn connected on six passes of 30 yards or longer, as many as Bama had allowed to its previous 10 FBS opponents combined.) The only silver lining was the Crimson Tide’s performance in the red zone: On eight trips inside Alabama’s 20-yard line, Auburn managed just two touchdowns, settling for five field goals and a turnover on downs on the other six. In fact, all but one of those 3-pointers was the equivalent of a PAT from inside the Bama 10; all told, Auburn put together five drives that covered at least 60 yards apiece but ultimately ended short of the end zone. From that perspective, it was the dozen or so yards the Tigers didn’t gain that really made the difference.
At any rate, the bombs-away approach that served Auburn so well isn’t a very promising template for Missouri, which will face Alabama in the SEC championship game, and which ranks near the bottom of the conference in both yards per pass and completions of 30 yards or longer; quarterback Maty Mauk has never passed for 300 yards against an SEC opponent. On the contrary, Mizzou should be up for a very Saban-friendly slugfest: In conference games, the Tigers lead the league in total defense and rank second (behind Ole Miss) in scoring D. They’ve also produced more negative yardage on sacks and tackles for loss than any other SEC defense, a perk of fielding a pair of NFL-bound defensive ends in Markus Golden and Shane Ray. But the raw nerve Auburn hit Saturday in the Crimson Tide secondary is probably safe until a playoff date against Mariota, Winston, Petty, or TCU’s Trevone Boykin.
• Notre Dame’s nosedive: Remember when Notre Dame was, like, one pass interference penalty away from waking up the proverbial echoes? It wasn’t as long ago or as far away as it now seems: The Irish were still ranked in the top 10 as recently as November 8, when their season veered permanently off the tracks in a 55-31 loss at Arizona State. By that point, though, the signs of impending doom were already obvious: A few weeks before, Notre Dame had yielded 516 yards in a wild, 50-43 win over North Carolina, and the injury-riddled defense never recovered. On Saturday, USC scored on seven of its first nine offensive possessions in a 49-14 win, becoming the seventh consecutive opponent to hang at least 31 points on the Irish, which makes the second half of this season the most generous stretch in Notre Dame history.
After the game, coach Brian Kelly declared that “all jobs are available” during bowl prep, presumably including quarterback, where once-unflappable junior Everett Golson was benched on Saturday amid a dismal first half (7-of-18, 75 yards, one interception). In his defense, Golson was playing less than two weeks removed from minor shoulder surgery to repair a sprain suffered in the Irish’s overtime loss to Northwestern. Still, his turnover problems were well documented prior to the injury, and the big plays that offset the mistakes have begun to run dry. In a little less than a month, Kelly, his quarterback, and his defense have all regressed to square one, with nothing to look forward to except another middling bowl game and a long climb back to respectability.
• Boise’s big move: Quietly, no. 23 Boise State took a giant leap toward securing a big-ticket bowl bid on Saturday night by whipping Utah State, 50-19, to secure home-field advantage in this weekend’s Mountain West championship game. Even before kickoff, the Broncos were the chief beneficiaries of a pair of upsets on Friday, in which Western Kentucky handed no. 24 Marshall its first loss of the season in a 67-66 shootout and Air Force stunned Colorado State 27-24 with a winning field goal as time expired.
After watching its nearest competition fall by the wayside, Boise finds itself squarely in the driver’s seat heading into the final weekend of the season for the major bowl bid reserved for the highest-ranked team (in the selection committee’s estimation) from the so-called Group of 5. With a win on Saturday over the Mountain West Conference’s West Division champ, 6-6 Fresno State, the Broncos will be the choice to fill that chair despite two losses on their résumé from the first half of the year. If Boise loses, the remaining prospects for that seat will look mighty grim.
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It’s Time to Rethink: The Changing of the Guard in the Pac-12. Naturally, just two weeks after I post 3,000 words about Stanford losing its mojo, the Cardinal respond with a thorough, 31-10 throttling of no. 8 UCLA, the same Bruins I singled out last week as a team hitting its stride. Friday’s victory was vintage Stanford across the board: Offensively, the Cardinal were ideally balanced between run (202 yards) and pass (234), didn’t commit a turnover, and racked up a 15-minute advantage in time of possession. Defensively, they held Brett Hundley to his worst efficiency rating of the season (101.8), and held the UCLA offense as a whole to a new low for yards since Hundley took over as the starting quarterback in 2012.
Meanwhile, Hundley’s beleaguered counterpart, Kevin Hogan, turned in his best game of the year, by far — adjusted for a top-10 opponent, it probably stands as the best game of Hogan’s career — just in time to bounce the Bruins from the Pac-12 championship game. (Hogan is 4-0 against UCLA as a starter, with a chance to add to that mark if he returns next year as a fifth-year senior.) The upset wasn’t enough to get Stanford back into the Top 25, but it did snap a six-game slide against ranked opponents, which goes a long way toward refuting rumors of the program’s demise. Given that three of their five losses this season have come by a total of nine points, I’m willing to call the Cardinal the best 7-5 team in the nation, and I mean that as a compliment, I think.
With UCLA’s implosion, the hot new thing in the Pac-12 South is … wait, let me check my notes … Arizona! Come on down! The Wildcats vaulted into the AP top 10 over the weekend with a solid, 42-35 win over no. 13 Arizona State, thereby clinching the South division title and a rematch with Oregon in Friday’s Pac-12 title game. Arizona has taken two in a row from the Ducks, including a 31-24 ambush in October that, in retrospect, told us a lot more about Zona’s potential than about Oregon’s vulnerability. Don’t be surprised if the Wildcats prove to be worthy heirs to the throne.
Quote of the Week
“I remember the ball coming out of the air like God put it there.” —Stanford wide receiver Devon Cajuste, on a 37-yard touchdown pass from Hogan just before halftime of the Cardinal’s win over UCLA
• Scooby Wright III, LB, Arizona: Wright, a true sophomore, was credited with 13 total tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks, and a forced fumble in the Wildcats’ win over Arizona State, cementing his reputation as the most active, statistically gonzo linebacker in the nation. Compare Wright’s numbers in 2014 to Manti Te’o’s numbers when the latter was the runner-up for the freaking Heisman two years ago:
Wright has two games to surpass the FBS record of 32 TFLs in a season, set by Western Michigan’s Jason Babin in 2003. Maybe then Wright will finally get noticed by the people who run the Butkus Award.
• Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama, and Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn: The specter of Ess-Eee-See Defense was meaningless in the face of the league’s most unstoppable deep threats, who combined for 18 receptions, 430 yards, and five touchdowns on 23.9 yards per catch in the most offensively oriented Iron Bowl on record. I could elaborate, but I don’t think it’s necessary since you probably watched the madness for yourself: Alabama-Auburn posted a 7.2 overnight rating, matching USC–Ohio State in 2009 for the best number ESPN has ever earned for a regular-season college football game. Of course, as integral components of the broadcast’s success, Cooper and Coates will be compensated with a significant cut of the revenues from … oh yeah. Right.
• Artavis Scott, WR, Clemson: Freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson posted a gem of a box score against South Carolina — 14-of-19 for 269 yards and two touchdowns, good for an outrageous efficiency rating of 227.4 — but most of the credit belongs to Scott, who single-handedly accounted for nearly 70 percent of that output and both touchdowns, on a pair of glorified handoffs that covered 53 yards in the first half and 70 yards in the second.
Clemson won easily, 35-17, with Watson playing the entire game on a torn ACL. When your receivers write half of your stat line for you, it’s apparently not that hard.
• Tony Conner, DB, Ole Miss: The Rebels held Mississippi State well below its season averages for total offense and yards per play, and no one had a bigger impact in that effort than Conner, who was credited with seven tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack, a pass broken up, and a quarterback hurry. Conner is occasionally overshadowed on the Ole Miss defense, but as discussed above, much of the optimism about the immediate future begins with him.
• Catch of the Year of the Week — Allen Lazard, Iowa State: The Cyclones moved to 0-8 in Big 12 play Saturday by blowing a 14-point lead against West Virginia, but they also got this ridiculous third-quarter catch from Lazard, a true freshman, so let’s call it a wash.
Lazard is the most hyped ISU recruit in recent memory, as well as the team’s leading receiver for the season, and is therefore the only positive development for a team barreling toward a last-place finish.