August 26, 2014 3:29:39 PM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State wide receiver Jameon Lewis said it best.
One by one on Monday afternoon, MSU players and coaches summed up their feelings on finally being within range of Saturday night's season-opening football game against Southern Mississippi. First, MSU coach Dan Mullen conveyed his excitement during his weekly press conference. Several players followed the sixth-year coach, and each one shared his enthusiasm five days before the season begins.
But no Bulldog put it as succinctly as Lewis.
"It has been a long, hot summer," said Lewis, a senior wide receiver from Tylertown. "It seemed like this summer would never end. Now we're right here in game week. It feels so good."
Saturday's game will be the first between the in-state rivals since September 1990. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. on Saturday on the SEC Network.
Rekindling a rivalry that dates back to 1935, MSU and USM announced the two-game series in September 2009, three weeks after Mullen arrived in Starkville. The series will conclude next year in Hattiesburg.
Monday's press conference signified the shift from preseason camp to game week for the Bulldogs, who are 4-1 in season openers under Mullen.
"We're excited to get this season kicked off and get back out on the field and go play," Mullen said. "Kicking the season off in our expanded stadium, we're going to have a record crowd Saturday, which is going to be pretty special for us; celebrating 100 years on Scott Field. There are a lot of neat things going on. To do that with a great rivalry game, against a team the first time we've played them since 1990 in playing Southern Miss, I know it means a lot to the people of the state. I know how a big a game it is for everybody. It was one of the first things when I was hired that was brought up, would I be interested in resuming this rivalry between the two schools. I'm really excited to do it."
The season also feature the unveiling of MSU's $75 million renovations to Davis Wade Stadium, which features more than 6,000 new seats and a bowled-in north end zone. MSU likely will set a new school attendance record Saturday, breaking a mark set in 2009 against Alabama.
"It feels great to be part of the program while that was built," MSU senior cornerback Jamerson Love said. "It feels like we've been part of something special since the day we got here."
USM owns a 14-12-1 series lead, but the Bulldogs and Eagles enter the season heading in opposite directions. MSU has been to four-straight bowl games for the first time in school history. It enters the season with 18 starters returning from last year's 7-6 team. Southern Miss endured the worst two-year stretch in program history. The Golden Eagles were 0-12 in 2012 under coach Ellis Johnson and 1-11 in current coach Todd Monken's first year. But 16 starters, eight on each side of the ball, return for Monken's second year, and a 62-27 season-ending victory against Alabama-Birmingham in 2013 has sparked hope.
Still, Monken and his staff are rebuilding a program that most recently won Conference USA in 2011 and playing a pair of road games in Southeastern Conference country -- at MSU in Week 1, at Alabama in Week 3 -- that could prove treacherous.
"We are going to find out where we are," Monken said Monday at his weekly press conference. "We are going to find out how much we have improved over the course of last year and the offseason. It is always an indicator of where you are at when you get to play a quality opponent like Mississippi State. ... That will be a hard place to play on the road. Our players know that. We are going to find out where we are, how far we have come, and where we have to go."
Lewis, who grew up 50 miles from USM's Hattiesburg campus, drew recruiting interest from the Bulldogs and Golden Eagles. He chose MSU, which not only offered the high school quarterback first, but Lewis said the Bulldogs also "gave me the chance to play in the SEC, which was my dream."
Entering his fourth and final season with the Bulldogs, Lewis said he has several friends on the USM roster, demonstrating the kind of local ties Mullen believes provides the heart of any in-state rivalry.
"I know our guys are fired up about the opportunity to play against guys they played against in high school or played with in high school," Mullen said. "We know a lot of the guys on their team from recruiting. We know most of the guys as in-state players. It's going to be really exciting to get this going and play such a fun opponent in such a great rivalry game. It's something special to start a season with a rivalry game like this."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat