OXFORD, Miss. – It was a majestic toss, smooth and high arcing, especially considering that it was a paper cup, launched from deep in the grandstands, filled with a good 16 ounces of soda and perhaps whatever else was still around to juice it up with by the end of this overdressed, over-served, overwrought Egg Bowl.
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, perhaps the intended target, had just sprinted by, right out the tunnel on the southeast corner of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium and into safety, not wishing to stay on the field for another second.
His players were shuffling behind him, slower and more sullen. They wore the grimaced faces and 1,000-yard stares that come when the school's dream season, the one no one other than themselves ever believed possible, had collapsed over the course of three-plus hours spent chasing sprinting Rebels.
From playoff contention, from fourth in the rankings, from still having a shot at a SEC title, to this …
A scoreboard reading Ole Miss 31, Mississippi State 17 … a cup sailing right toward a couple of them … Rebel fan after Rebel fan above them waving red pompoms and hailing State with a singsong of "we just beat the hell out of you."
The drink wound up sailing a bit too deep, missing the unaware Bulldog players and just breezing by the oversized brim of the hat of a Mississippi highway patrolman, who spun and stared into the zoo above and realized no matter how much he'd like to, finding the culprit was impossible.
It hardly mattered, the moment said it all … everything had rained down on Mississippi State here Saturday, everything they dreamed, everything they imagined, everything at all.
In a season when the state of Mississippi became the unprecedented and unlikely epicenter of the sport, the Bulldogs and the Rebels wrote the ultimate Mississippi story, one side taking down the other, holding back their peers in a rivalry that may have long lacked national importance, but never local indignation.
"Yeah, it sucks," Mullen said later. "I'm not going to be able to freaking sleep for 365 days until they show up at our place next season."
At the moment Mullen wasn't even talking about everything that was lost, the conference and national title opportunities. He was just talking about beating Ole Miss. In a state of 2.8 million, in a state forever told what it can't accomplish, from prosperity to playoffs, the neighborhood still matters most.
The programs and fan bases can hardly stand each other, but the similarities are everywhere, especially with two bodacious coaches who looked at years of mediocrity sprinkled with heartbreak and saw sleeping SEC giants, saw potential in places too many are so quick to write off.
This was likely Mississippi State's final game before the College Football Playoff field was set and an 11-1 record likely would've gotten them in. That was gone now, though, and it wasn't even what bothered Mullen the most.
Just losing to Ole Miss was. Letting Ole Miss steal it all away was. Having Ole Miss sing its song and wave its pompoms and flood the old square downtown to test the city's bourbon reserve was.
Mississippi State was 10-2 and somehow miserable.
"It sucks," Mullen repeated. "We're here to build a team that finishes at No. 1. It's been a great season, I'm proud of my guys, but we came here to build a championship program.
"I don't see you all laughing about that anymore the way you did the last couple years, but that was our goal, to build a championship program, and we're going to continue to fight until we win a championship," he continued.
Mullen's work in Starkville has been almost unfathomable. No less impressive has been Hugh Freeze's effort to build the Rebel program. For five weeks Mississippi State rose to the top of the national polls. Ole Miss sat right on its heels and even after the Rebels' dream was derailed by devastating losses and injury, here they were staring at the maroon in their house and rising up with pride.
"Our word for the week was 'resolve,' " Freeze said. "We played with great resolve."
An offense seemingly crippled by the loss of its best skill players to injury wound up torching Mississippi State for 532 yards, including plays of 91, 83, 46, 41, 31 and 30 yards, a repetitive Mississippi burning of the Bulldog defense.
"As many big plays as we gave up on the day, you know, I think we were giving up 20 yards or something per play," Mullen lamented. "That's absolutely pathetic. That's a terrible job by our defensive coaching staff."
He just shook his head and glared at the stat sheet. There's no reason for Mullen or Freeze, especially if they stay put, to not believe they can continue to maintain these programs at the elite level, but both know you only get so many true knocks at the door, that it takes a lot of magic even at Alabama or Oregon or Florida State or Texas or wherever.
Ole Miss' dream fell apart at the start of the month in a crushing last-second injury/loss to Auburn. Today was Mississippi State's day. It's that thin of a margin. It's that tight a rope to walk. It's college football and, while everyone arrived here intent on local victory, there was significance in the national significance of the stakes.
"The world of college football is flatter now than it's ever been," said Scott Stricklin, Mississippi State's athletic director. "There's much more parity. There's more opportunity if you have great leadership and a university that is going to support you. The brands that people are used to seeing, the helmets people are used to seeing competing for a national championship, are going to have some competition."
This is what Mullen and Freeze expect this game to be, every year if possible. Just as big as the Iron Bowl or Ohio State-Michigan or Florida-Florida State. It can happen here, in this state. It's happening here, in this state.
"It's one of the main reasons why you come here," Freeze said.
Mullen eventually cooled off a bit, the emotion of the loss settling down. After his formal press conference, he stood on a ramp behind the stadium, leaned up against a railing and tried to make sense of it all.
The sounds of joyous Ole Miss fans flooding back to the Grove or City Grocery played out behind him. His players walked with heads down to a table of Chick-fil-A catering – "Open Up and Say Chikin!" – grabbed a box and pushed on to the waiting buses idling for a long, hard ride home.
This sucked. This hurt. This was a dream season ending with a nightmare of an afternoon, melting into a lifetime to dwell on what fluttered away, both near and afar for Mullen's long-shot, upstart Bulldogs. The coach could only try to find perspective and offer up a smile at the pain that comes from the pursuit.
"I love college football," Dan Mullen said.
Even here. Even now.
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