November 24, 2010 4:50:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- Egg Bowl week gets bigger each year.
That''s exactly the way Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen wants it.
He ramps up practice intensity and coaches and players go to work with a different swagger.
Mullen''s preferred "The School up North" tag -- his first jab in the fight -- continues to stir the pot of trash talk between fans and alumni of both schools.
Embracing a school''s rivalry game was already in his detail as a part of the annual "Holy War" between Utah and BYU. Mullen was an assistant coach for the Utes from 2003-04 -- when Utah''s program and fanbase "never mentioned or uttered the words ''BYU''" Mullen said.
"They were actually located south of us, so we called them, ''The School Down South,''" he said. "You look at rivalries and I kind of respected how that worked."
While at Florida from 2005-08, Mullen was involved in rivalry games with Florida State, Tennessee and Georgia. The Gators also faced Miami.
But what makes the Egg Bowl rivalry special for the Bulldogs is it''s the only official rivalry match, Mullen said.
"After winning last year and seeing the reaction of our fans, and how it catapulted us into the offseason, I understand how big a game it is," Mullen said. "I knew it was a really big game, but now I know the enormity of it for everybody. Not just our football program, our university, or our fan base, but for the entire state of Mississippi."
MSU''s 41-27 win over Cotton Bowl-bound Ole Miss in the ''09 edition helped erase memories of the Bulldogs'' last trip to Oxford -- a 45-0 loss. The score was the most lopsided decision in the series in 37 years.
Mullen''s first year was filled with excitement over the Bulldogs'' ability to finally score points and have offensive success. But the first year came with growing pains, including tough losses to LSU and Houston that could have easily made the Bulldogs bowl eligible if they''d won.
Fans didn''t need much more to get on board the direction the program was heading, helping MSU set season attendance records in each of Mullen''s first two years.
MSU''s fanbase was in dire need of a spark, an injection of progressive energy to help pull the team from a decade of futility.
Coming off the dreadful Egg Bowl loss, channeling greater energy into the rivalry was a natural sticking point upon Mullen''s hire at the end of ''08.
Not all coaches embrace rivalries like Mullen, MSU athletic director Scott Stricklin said.
"You hear coaches when they get to a rivalry game say it''s just another game," Stricklin said. "That''s silly. It''s obviously not just another game. It''s a very important game that, if it doesn''t make or break your season, it certainly impacts your season more than most games do. So I think it''s good. It''s become a rallying cry for our people."
Before fans even had a chance to see the "Spread the Fun" campaign go to work, they were believers. Efforts from Stricklin''s predecessor Greg Byrne were aimed directly at enhancing game-day atmosphere and marketing the brand. Change, a popular theme in ''08, was all fans needed to believe.
"What''s really cool about what''s going on is a lot of fanbases of programs that are inconsistent will wait to see what the product on the field is like until they decide their level of buy-in," Stricklin said. "And our fans -- from the minute Dan got here -- decided to buy tickets, show up, be loud and be part of the atmosphere. And they''ve been rewarded with the play, but they were there before the play on the field starting showing up."
Under Mullen''s watch, the Bulldogs led the SEC in rushing yards per game last season and are ranked for the sixth straight week entering Saturday. Before this season, the Bulldogs hadn''t been nationally ranked since 2001.
"Dan''s just a great marketer," Stricklin said. "He understands that part of what we''re trying to create in this experience has to be entertaining. People have to enjoy what they''re a part of. You''ve got to elevate the stature, whether it''s your team or your game-day atmosphere or your chief rival.
"We''ve been playing these guys for a hundred years. It''s been important for a hundred years."