STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — It's Egg Bowl week and Mississippi State's Dan Mullen has been strangely quiet.
In previous years, the fourth-year coach hasn't missed an opportunity to needle rival Mississippi — though he still refers to the Rebels as "The School Up North." But for the most part, he's been downright cordial, even praising Ole Miss' better-than-expected season under first-year coach Hugh Freeze.
Mullen insists his slightly more congenial attitude isn't a sign that he's lost any fire to beat the Rebels. The 25th-ranked Bulldogs (8-3, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) travel to face the Rebels (5-6, 2-5) on Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
Mullen has never lost an Egg Bowl — winning three straight. And he's talked a steady stream of smack while doing it, especially after the Rebels changed their on-field mascot to a Black Bear two years ago.
"I don't have any more respect for them now than I did last year, or the year before, or the year before that," Mullen said. "It's the same to me. Maybe they just haven't changed their mascots, or given me the layup to poke fun at them this year."
It could also be because Ole Miss looks like a much more formidable opponent. The Rebels will be highly motivated, needing one more win to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2009.
Ole Miss came close to earning bowl eligibility the past two weeks but blew fourth-quarter leads in back-to-back losses against Vanderbilt and LSU.
"Obviously the Egg Bowl is enough, but I sure would like to send these seniors out going to play in a postseason game and our fans to get to experience that," Freeze said. "They're a team that deserves to do that in my eyes."
Mullen said he watched Mississippi's 41-35 loss to LSU and there's no doubt that the Rebels are a much improved team. Oddsmakers even have Ole Miss as a slight favorite for Saturday's game.
Freeze "took over a young team and he got them to buy into what he wants to do," Mullen said. "They play hard. That's the one thing I see. Not that they didn't play hard before, but you see just a little more energy and sense of urgency."
Mississippi State is coming off a 45-14 victory over Arkansas last Saturday, which ended a three-game losing streak that knocked the Bulldogs out of contention for the SEC's Western Division title.
It was a particularly good game for Mississippi State's pass defense, which needed some good news after giving up big yardage in losses to LSU, Texas A&M and Alabama. Now the Bulldogs have to prepare for Bo Wallace, who is fifth in the SEC with 2,549 passing yards and 14 touchdowns, but also has a tendency to make mistakes with 13 interceptions.
He runs the Rebels' fast-paced offense that has been the hallmark of Freeze's first season. Ole Miss is averaging 30.0 points per game.
"Bo Wallace does a good job getting the ball to his receivers and they've got good hands — good talent," Mississippi State linebacker Cameron Lawrence said. "But I think they've got some similarities to our offense, and we go against those guys every day, so that should work to our advantage."
Egg Bowl week has already been full of the usual shenanigans. Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell said a few Ole Miss fans have already found out his cellphone number. Wallace has acknowledged the same thing in Oxford.
"If they weren't texting me than I would feel bad, but they are, so I must be doing something well," Russell said with a grin.
A Mississippi State victory would mean the current crop of seniors will have never lost to Ole Miss.
It also would keep the Rebels from receiving the extra practices and publicity that comes from making a bowl game. But Mullen said that angle isn't a concern.
"I could care less if they were 11-0 or 0-11 or whatever it is coming into this game," Mullen said. "When you get in these games, the record is completely irrelevant. Our focus to me is winning that trophy for Mississippi State. That's 100 percent of the focus. What effect it has on them, that has nothing to do with me for the game."