OXFORD, Miss. -- What should 5-7 feel like?
For Mississippi State, it felt like pure joy. The Bulldogs beat in-state rival Ole Miss, 55-20, on Saturday night, and as the final seconds ticked away, the players sprinted to reclaim the Egg Bowl trophy and proceeded to carry it around the entire field at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. It was their fifth win of the season, and they broke out victory cigars in the visiting locker room.
In his postgame news conference, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen was answering questions and cracking jokes -- all with a cigar in hand.
"It’s pretty smoky in that locker room right now, so they handed me one," Mullen said. "I figured this might be a smoke-free media room, so I didn't light up right before I got here."
This didn’t look like a team that finished 5-7 and lost to South Alabama to open the season. This looked more like a team that had just won the SEC West.
"Winning this game is so huge," Mullen said. "Change a couple plays around, and we end up having a great season. With how they ended up, it’s not as great, and people can judge that.
"To me, what a successful season, because there’s a bunch of young men in that locker room that really learned that no matter what goes on, whether you have success, failure, whatever adversities you face -- if you can buckle up and go harder, if you don’t give in and you keep pushing yourself to be the best you can be, in the end you’re going to be able to taste success."
There was a stark contrast when you walked over to the Ole Miss side. The Rebels finished 5-7, just like Mississippi State, but there were no cigars in the locker room after the game. Instead, it was a quiet, somber environment with guys hugging each other and trying to pick each other up. There were tears shed for some of the seniors who had just played their final game.
"It hurts," Ole Miss senior Akeem Judd said. "But you’ve got to keep going. You’ve got to think about the good times you had here."
Listening to Hugh Freeze’s postgame news conference, you would have thought his dog died. The Ole Miss coach only spoke for about eight minutes, less than half the time Mullen was on the podium, and he went as far to say that this season was the toughest in his professional career.
"From the disappointments to the injuries to everything that’s going on around our program, it’s been a very, very difficult season," Freeze said. "I’m glad it’s over now, and I can’t wait to hit the road recruiting, get the necessary changes made and get to spring ball."
There’s still an outside chance both Ole Miss and Mississippi State make a bowl game, because there aren’t enough bowl-eligible teams to fill the 80 slots needed. But after Saturday’s win, the Bulldogs are now in a better position to continue their season because they have a higher APR score than their rival.
And Mullen, unlike Freeze, isn’t ready for his season to be over just yet. He called out reps from the Camping World Independence Bowl and AutoZone Liberty Bowl who were at the game Saturday.
"We’re ready," Mullen said after the game. "We’ve got good grades."
Bowl game or not, both teams will be expected to do better than 5-7 next season. The bar has been raised in the state of Mississippi, and the coaches know that. But after Saturday’s game, it felt like Mississippi State was charged up and ready to get to work for 2017 while Ole Miss was left picking up the pieces from a season that could’ve been.
5-7 might look the same in the record books five years from now, but it couldn’t have looked any more different Saturday night in Oxford, Mississippi.