How Mike Leach and Lane Kiffin are influencing the new era of the Egg Bowl rivalry

A few months after Mississippi State hired Jackie Sherrill as its coach in 1991, then-Ole Miss coach Billy Brewer welcomed him to the Egg Bowl rivalry by calling him a "habitual liar."

The insult stemmed from what Brewer believed were improper recruiting tactics being employed by the Bulldogs. He alleged that Sherrill had contacted a former Ole Miss quarterback who had transferred to Texas A&M and enlisted his help in trying to sway a Black recruit away from the Rebels. The SEC reprimanded Brewer for his remarks.

"I haven't spoken with the Reverend Sherrill," Brewer said at SEC Media Days that year. "I don't think he has my phone number, and I damn sure don't have his."

The Egg Bowl doesn't have the pageantry of Army-Navy, the national title stakes of the Iron Bowl, or the regional importance of "The Game" played between Michigan and Ohio State. In fact, there has been only one occasion -- in 1941 -- when the Egg Bowl was played while the Bulldogs and Rebels both still had a chance to win the SEC.

Maybe that's why in 1991, after the Bulldogs defeated the Rebels 24-9 in Sherrill's first season, Sports Illustrated called the Egg Bowl "perhaps the saddest rivalry in all of Division I, a struggle for pride in a state where pride comes hard, then runs too deep and stays too long."

For most everyone outside of Mississippi, it's simply the only college football game to watch on Thanksgiving night (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App). But for those people living in the Magnolia State, it's still the only game that matters. And for a long time, the rivalry was as much about tearing the other side down as winning.

Steve Robertson, an author and sportswriter who has covered the Bulldogs since 2001, told ESPN in 2017, "It's the two runt puppies in the SEC West fighting for the hind teat. When you finally get locked on that hind teat, you do whatever you have to do to stay there, even if the other guy has to starve."

Make no mistake: The animosity between the schools runs deep and has often percolated from the top. Sherrill, during his 13 seasons as MSU's coach from 1991 to 2003, refused to call his team's biggest rival by its preferred name. Former Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen simply referred to it as "The School Up North." Before Mullen's first Egg Bowl game in 2009, his players walked over Rebels jerseys taped to the locker room floor.

C.R. "Dudy" Noble, the namesake of Mississippi State's baseball field, played four sports for the Bulldogs and then coached at Ole Miss from 1917 to 1919. He once famously told a newspaper reporter: "I already know what hell is like. I once coached at Ole Miss."

"When you're at Mississippi State," former Bulldogs coach Sylvester Croom told Sports Illustrated in 2018, "you learn to hate Ole Miss."

Not anymore.

With two outsiders guiding Ole Miss and Mississippi State into Thursday night's game at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Mississippi, the Egg Bowl seems to have far less vitriol than usual. Just like the Middle East needed Jimmy Carter and Drake and Kanye needed J. Prince, Lane Kiffin and Mike Leach apparently came along at the right time for the Egg Bowl.

"Someone said the other day [that] we kind of don't make sense to be here," Kiffin said this week. "We get along. Maybe we were brought here to bring a state together. It's football. You really shouldn't hate people just because they went to a certain school."

The circumstances that led to Kiffin and Leach coaching in Mississippi could have only occurred in a rivalry as unpredictable as the Egg Bowl. In the 2019 edition, in a stunning series of events that are still remembered by State fans as "Piss and Miss," Rebels receiver Elijah Moore caught a two-yard touchdown with four seconds to play. After scoring, he dropped to all fours in the end zone, lifted his leg and pretended to urinate like a dog. After a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, the Rebels missed a 35-yard extra point attempt, and the Bulldogs won the game, 21-20.

Three days later, Ole Miss fired coach Matt Luke, and Kiffin was hired from Florida Atlantic. The Bulldogs fired coach Joe Moorhead after losing to Louisville in the Music City Bowl about a month later and lured Leach away from Washington State.

Since arriving in the state, Kiffin and Leach have traded more compliments than jabs. When the Rebels hosted ESPN's College GameDay show in their famous Grove on Nov. 13, Kiffin was the guest picker. When Kiffin was asked to choose between Mississippi State and Auburn, he said, "Mike Leach is the best offensive coach in America. I'm taking Mississippi State." His answer drew boos from the home crowd.

Leach, who coached against Kiffin's teams while he was at USC in 2012-13, wouldn't take the bait.

"He's setting the stage for a really good Egg Bowl," Leach said at the time. "I'd be lying if I told you he didn't think he's the best offensive coordinator. It was modest of him to say ... We'll just let the love keep coming [in] both directions."

Actually, both offenses have been very good. The Rebels, led by Heisman Trophy candidate Matt Corral, are averaging 36.4 points and lead the SEC in rushing (230.6 yards) and total offense (517.5 yards). The Bulldogs average 31.8 points and lead the league in passing (390.4 yards). MSU sophomore Will Rogers leads the league with 374.1 yards per game, while completing 76.1% of his attempts with 34 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

In his 20th season as a head coach, Leach's version of the Air Raid offense is alive and well. The Bulldogs have attempted 593 passes -- 51 more than any other FBS team.

"It really is amazing. It goes against what you would think," Kiffin said. "I think there was a thought out there amongst a lot of people, including coaches, that the SEC had figured it out last year and it slowed them down there throughout parts of the year. Obviously that wasn't the case because now they're right back to where they started."

Kiffin said it's the same offense Leach was running when the coaches competed on the West Coast.

"Usually when you don't evolve you don't keep up with the game," Kiffin said. "You get fired. You get passed by. That's why people aren't huddling and running I-formation football for the most part anymore. But somehow he came up with something a long time ago that just keeps working."

With a victory in the Egg Bowl, Ole Miss can win 10 games in the regular season for the first time in school history and stay in the hunt for a New Year's Six bowl game. Mississippi State has won four of its last five games, is bowl eligible and would like nothing more than to spoil its rival's postseason plans. The Rebels held off the Bulldogs in a 31-24 victory last season.

"I've waited for this week for however many days it's been since I threw a Hail Mary [on] the last play of the game last year," Rogers told reporters Monday. "I've been waiting for this."

So has everyone else in the state, even if their coaches are on more friendlier terms than those of the past.

"I do think they genuinely like each other," said Mississippi Today columnist Rick Cleveland, who has covered college football in the state for more than four decades. "I don't think it's going to do anything to the rivalry overall. I don't think Ole Miss and Mississippi State fans are suddenly going to start playing nice. I think the hatred will far outlast Kiffin's and Leach's stays in Mississippi."