College football usually punishes teams that live with small margins for error — 2014 Florida State and 2012 Notre Dame are two of the more notable exceptions from recent years. The sport is an unforgiving creature, because two bad days at the office are usually enough to leave a season short of its goals.
The Mississippi State Bulldogs have won one SEC football championship, in 1941. In the long and snake-bitten history of the program, a 10-2 season is not just mildly good, but extremely impressive. Head coach Dan Mullen has done far more this season than just about anyone expected. He has changed perceptions of his level of coaching acumen. He has shown more about himself and his capabilities in 2014 than in his previous five seasons combined.
Mullen might have entered this season as a coach who was widely but only moderately admired in Starkville, but that has changed over the past three months. Many observers appreciated the demands and limitations of his situation relative to more highly-resourced programs in the SEC, but Mullen certainly left money on the table against top-tier opponents. However, when his 2014 team defeated LSU in Death Valley he began to turn some heads. When his team smacked around defending SEC champion Auburn, Mississippi State had earned a level of respect not previously thrown in the direction of Starkville, a town that has known only one SEC Championship Game appearance, in 1998 under Jackie Sherrill.
Entering Saturday’s Egg Bowl — the first one shown on national network television since 1964 — Mississippi State couldn’t do anything about the outcome of the Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn. Yet, even without an SEC West title and a trip to Atlanta, the Bulldogs could have finished 11-1, which confers a very different level of legitimacy compared to a 10-2 mark. In addition to that goal, Mississippi State had a chance to put a halt to the notion that it was a stale loaf of bread, a team that had played with very little spark in a game of stature ever since the win over Auburn on Oct. 11.
A win in Oxford against Ole Miss — even though the Rebels had lost three of four and had been trucked the previous week by Arkansas — would have given Mississippi State the identity of a team that had completed the race, a team that had built back strength, a team that could take some punches and rebound. The possibility of a College Football Playoff berth was obviously the huge prize the Bulldogs were playing for, but that aspect of the season lay beyond the team’s control. The 11-1 record was the target, and a year after upsetting Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl as a home underdog, the Bulldogs had to wear a different hat, as the team wearing the bulls-eye on its back.
How would Mississippi State, a program that has so rarely sipped the nectar of sweet triumph, perform in the thin air of excruciating late-season pressure?
The answer was anything but positive.
Big football games don’t always provide signature moments that find a permanent place in the mind’s eye. Some games meander along and fail to capture the imagination. Boring contests don’t leave a single imprint, at least not one imbued with any degree of artistic flair.
This was a boring game in the first half, but the Egg Bowl turned into a Denver omelette of colors and tastes in the second half. Ole Miss started to cook, and the most flavorful play of the game took Mississippi State’s low margin of error and reduced it to zero.
Ole Miss, leading 17-10 late in the third quarter, was pinned inside its own 10 and needed to flip field position at the very least. Running back Jaylen Walton did much more than that. He seemed to be trapped at the start of the play, but he wiggled free and reversed course to his left. He roared down the field for a 91-yard touchdown and a 24-10 lead, and although Mississippi State quickly answered with a touchdown to cut its deficit to 24-17, the Bulldogs were forced to play a virtually perfect fourth quarter against the din of a hostile crowd in order to prevail. MSU lacked the ability to make home-run plays on a repeated basis, and that enabled Ole Miss to steer this game to a relatively comfortable conclusion.
Ole Miss, the same team that had looked completely inept at Arkansas in a shutout loss just seven days earlier, transformed its offense in 30 second-half minutes. Bo Wallace shrugged off a flat first half and got out of his own way. In contrast to Dr. Bo, Mississippi State tripped over its own feet.
A successful season can still acquire a great deal of pain and even a gut-punch conclusion. Mississippi State knows that rare and layered reality after throwing all its College Football Playoff eggs into one basket… and losing one of the most hyped Egg Bowls in recent memory.
The search for a second SEC championship and a season of supreme stature continues in Starkville.