Ole Miss and Mississippi State are not where they wanted to be on Thanksgiving weekend, and it remains to be seen whether Lane Kiffin is coming to the party known in Mississippi as the Egg Bowl.
The Rebels (8-3, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) were ranked in the AP Top 10 after winning their first seven games, but they've lost three of their past four, and the defeats have come by an average of two touchdowns.
The Bulldogs (7-4, 3-4) were ranked No. 16 after starting the season 5-1, but they have lost three of their past five overall and three of their past four SEC games.
To add a dash of drama, reports Kiffin was on the verge of bowing out of his job at Ole Miss to accept an offer at Auburn surfaced Monday night. Kiffin himself replied to the report with a matter of fact "news to me," to lead off a string of social media posts denying he'd be anywhere except the annual Battle for the Golden Egg on Thursday night in Oxford, Miss.
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The winner's season will look a whole lot better before the teams head off to their respective bowl games.
"It seems like there's not a lot of love in the relationship, I guess is the positive, nice way of putting it," Kiffin said of the rivalry. "It means a lot to a lot of people. We've been fortunate to turn it back our direction the last couple of years and trying to keep it that way."
Kiffin and Mississippi State coach Mike Leach are both in their third seasons. The Rebels won 31-24 two years ago and 31-21 last season.
"I think we've come a long ways with the program," Kiffin said. "I think we've turned over the roster, improved the roster. Obviously improved on-field production and made the program a lot more visible nationally to recruit to than where it was when we got here."
Ole Miss took a 42-27 loss at Arkansas last Saturday. Many of the Bulldogs, including record-setting junior quarterback Will Rogers, have yet to experience a victory in the rivalry game.
"It would mean everything," Rogers said of winning Thursday. "That's all I'm really worried about right now. Coach Kiffin has done a great job of getting their guys ready to play and getting them excited, so I know they will be ready to play. "We have to answer the call and we have to be ready to go Thursday night."
Leach has emphasized to his players the importance of avoiding getting caught up in the rivalry.
"The biggest thing is focusing on doing the best you can and being the best team that you can be and leave it at that," Leach said. "Otherwise, if you distract yourself with a bunch of other stuff, you're not going to help your approach or help what you're trying to do. "You just go out there, lock in, try to improve and try to get better this week to be the best team that you can be."
But the players from Mississippi on both teams understand the importance of the game.
"This is the game that everybody thinks about every year," said Rogers, who is from Brandon, Miss. "It doesn't matter where we play it or who is ranked higher or what the records are. It's the biggest game of the year, every year." --Field Level Media