For fans who have been reluctant to believe, it is time to embrace the Mississippi Mayhem gripping the college football landscape.
It is not going away any time soon, as evidenced by Sunday’s climb to the top of The Associated Press poll by No. 1 Mississippi State (6-0, 3-0 SEC). The Bulldogs displaced Florida State, last week’s top-ranked team, despite the Seminoles’ undefeated record (6-0) and a 38-20 victory over Syracuse in Saturday’s matchup.
Mississippi State, which has posted three consecutive victories over top-10 opponents, completed an unprecedented five-week journey from unranked to the top of poll by taking down then-No. 2 Auburn 38-23 in Saturday’s showdown in Starkville, Miss. The Bulldogs sit two spots above their cross-state rival, No. 3 Ole Miss (6-0, 3-0), after the Rebels pounded Texas A&M 35-20 in front of 110,633 fans Saturday night in College Station.
The two Mississippi schools have handed No. 21 A&M (5-2, 1-2) a pair of double-digit defeats in consecutive weeks, using those triumphs to emerge as the undefeated co-leaders of the rugged SEC West at midseason. In the SEC’s preseason media poll, the teams were predicted to finish fourth (Ole Miss) and fifth (Mississippi State) in the division.
Yet each school already has defeated one division heavyweight: MSU beat Auburn; Ole Miss took down No. 7 Alabama 23-17 on Oct. 4. Each overcame the alleged Sports Illustrated jinx (they shared last week’s magazine cover) to post two of Saturday’s most impressive victories one week after thrusting themselves into the national spotlight with eye-catching upsets.
For teams unaccustomed to the national spotlight (both schools qualify), the game following a significant upset often is tougher to win than the original triumph. Yet MSU raced to a quick 21-0 lead over Auburn and never trailed. Ole Miss quieted a loud A&M crowd by building a 21-0 halftime edge and led 35-7 in the fourth quarter.
That pair of validation victories has everyone anticipating the most-watched Egg Bowl in the history of the Mississippi-Mississippi State rivalry. In terms of national importance, it may trump this year’s Iron Bowl (Auburn-Alabama), also scheduled for Nov. 29.
For now, the respective coaches are happy dealing with their exalted poll positions in college football’s first playoff season.
“It’s pretty cool. It’s fun,” said Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, whose team will have a bye week to enjoy its No. 1 status before returning to action Oct. 25 at Kentucky. “Everybody is proud of what we’ve been able to build here a little bit. Rankings are really cool. But they have nothing to do with our goal.”
Mullen, like Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, is focused on winning an SEC championship. Everything else is gravy. But as SEC title contenders, both schools become potential participants in the College Football Playoff’s four-team bracket.
In this upset-filled season, both schools have the look of playoff teams at this juncture. Ole Miss certainly drove home that point in College Station, building a 35-7 lead before a pair of garbage-time touchdowns by the Aggies made the final score less lopsided than the game.
“To come out there with great intensity in a hostile environment, it was crazy. I couldn’t even hear at the beginning of the game,” Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche said. “We came out and we didn’t let them get anything. The defense was great. Going into halftime 21-0 was really big for us.”
It certainly made a point, even if it did not carry as much weight with poll voters as Mississippi State’s 15-point victory over Auburn, the reigning SEC champion. The bottom line, at this point, is that fans who have grown accustomed to seeing these two teams near the bottom of the SEC standings need to embrace the upside-down reality of 2014.
These are two deep, talented and fundamentally sound teams that are capable of being in the four-team playoff mix in December. Along with No. 4 Baylor (6-0, 3-0 Big 12), they comprise the upstart portion of the potential CFP playoff bracket.
Common sense, based on remaining schedules, suggests all three cannot earn berths when the playoff field is set Dec. 7. But if the Egg Bowl winner joins Baylor in college football’s Final Four, no one should be surprised.
Expect plenty more Mississippi Mayhem to surface this season. And, possibly, during the postseason, too.
AP top 10
|1. Mississippi State||6-0|
|2. Florida State||6-0|
|5. Notre Dame||6-0|
|8. Michigan State||5-1|
110,633Fans at Kyle Field for Saturday night’s Texas A&M-Ole Miss game, a record crowd for any football game played in Texas (college or pro) and the largest to watch an SEC game.
Egg Bowl anticipation: The season-ending showdown between No. 1 Mississippi State (6-0, 3-0 SEC) and No. 3 Ole Miss (6-0, 3-0) never has loomed larger on the national horizon than it does this week.
Big 12 bowl projections: League teams may not fill all of their available bowl slots unless Texas (2-4), Texas Tech (2-4), Kansas (2-4) and Iowa State (2-4) pick up the pace in the second half of the season.
Key games this week
No. 5 Notre Dame at No. 2 Florida State : Both undefeated teams get their biggest remaining regular-season test to prove their playoff mettle.
No. 15 Oklahoma State at No. 12 TCU: Horned Frogs face their third consecutive ranked opponent in pursuit of a Big 12 title.
No. 21 Texas A&M at No. 7 Alabama : Aggies will try to recapture their 2012 magic in Tuscaloosa despite a two-game losing streak.
If the college football season ended today, here’s a projected playoff bracket based on games played thus far (including playoff seeds):
Semifinal: Mississippi State (No. 1) vs. Baylor (No. 4)
Semifinal: Florida State (No. 2) vs. Ole Miss (No. 3)