Ole Miss and Mississippi State, forever the quarrelsome brothers of the deeply rooted state of Mississippi, have grown up stuck inside the same cramped quarters since their founding in the 1800s. Within their borders, there has never been enough room for both to grow and flourish simultaneously.
In football, which falls a close third to God and family in the heart of the Deep South, the two schools have rarely shared center stage. While one thrives, the other waits impatiently like the seeds of a crop rotating with the season. Since 1970, Ole Miss and Mississippi State have finished the year ranked in the final Associated Press poll a combined 17 times. But only twice have they ended the season ranked at the same time.
The state, despite its nearly 47,000 square miles, doesn't have the population to support two top programs. Alabama, its neighbor to the east, has nearly 2 million more residents than Mississippi. A deeper talent pool has allowed the University of Alabama and Auburn -- which sport the same state-versus-land-grant-college dynamic -- to coexist, for the most part. The Tide and Tigers have, by comparison, finished ranked in the final poll together 11 times in the last 33 years.
"It's awful difficult because of the number of players in the state of Mississippi. There's just not that many," said Jackie Sherrill, who coached at Mississippi State for 13 seasons and described the rivalry with Ole Miss as that of not a lot of people, but highly concentrated in terms of its intensity. "If one school could get all the players then you could be in the upper echelon of the SEC."
Sherrill came to Starkville in 1991 on a wave of popularity after returning a previously sub-.500 Texas A&M program to prominence a few years earlier, highlighted by three consecutive trips to the Cotton Bowl. Upon his shedding one shade of maroon for another, a Mississippi State booster reportedly yelled "This is the best deal since the Louisiana Purchase!" And early on, Sherrill delivered on that ridiculous promise, taking a team that had gone 21-34 in five seasons without a single trip to the postseason and transformed it into a team with back-to-back winning seasons complete with trips to the Liberty and Peach bowls.
But in Mississippi the shift, however gradual, always occurs.
Sherrill's tenure had its ups and downs, and it came as no coincidence that it ended in 2003 when he won just two games, capped by a 31-0 throttling at the hands of Ole Miss. Meanwhile, the same Rebels won 10 games and finished as SEC West co-champions.
The tide swayed back and forth as neither school won much over the next four seasons until Ole Miss hired Houston Nutt for the 2008 season, thumped Mississippi State 45-0 in Oxford and beat Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl to complete a nine-win season. So what did the Bulldogs do? They hired Dan Mullen away from defending champion Florida, crushed the hopes of a ranked Ole Miss team with an upset victory in Starkville and swung the momentum right back in Mississippi State's favor. The then-37-year-old coach was the toast of college football, hailed as the future of the sport in one newspaper and the dream crusher of SEC powers in another publication.
But in the three seasons since, Mullen has done little to capitalize on his early success. And just as suddenly as his program emerged as the "it" school in the state, Ole Miss recaptured the buzz.
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