In the late 90s, up until about 2008, I used to spend a lot of time traveling to the Starkville, MS area on business. I loved the time I spent there and why not? It's a state where mac 'n cheese and hush puppies are considered vegetables on some menus. The land is lush green and the air is sweet, even though it runs about 250% humidity. I do not lie. You can leave your blow dryer and Oil of Olay at home if you visit. Nothing really ever dries there. And best of all? The people. I can say, I've never had a bad time in Mississippi. Most times I had too much fun for my own good. I can attest to why it's called Starkvegas and I'm lucky to have spent enough time there to make friends with some really great people. Polite, helpful, generous, patriotic, work hard, pray hard, play hard people. And boy do they love them some Mississippi State football!
Their love of the 'Dawgs stayed strong through all the years I visited them, although the program was normally just mediocre at best. I, their Yankee Michigan fan friend could still point proudly to the Wolverines' successes and wish them luck as different men tried to rebuild their program. We were "upper" Big Ten. They were "middle" SEC. The likelihood of ever playing them was low. They had me wearing MSU gear on stay-over weekends and would have had me shaking a cowbell one Saturday had a tropical storm not moved over the region, washing us out of any desire to tailgate. I declared them my favorite "MSU" in the world. I've never had that much fun in East Lansing.
And then something changed. In 2008, enter Rich Rodriguez to rebuild a Michigan team that flagged in its final year under Lloyd Carr. A year later, enter Dan Mullen to rebuild a Bulldogs team that was still just "fair to middlin'". A couple years later, both schools became bowl-eligible and suddenly the it-won't-happen did. On January 1, 2011, the Wolverines and the Bulldogs were thrown together in the Gator Bowl.
The big day arrived and I didn't waste any time devising a cute way of getting my point across to my Mississippi friends during the game. I dressed up my beer bottles and let pictures say it all, firing the first friendly salvo pre-game. This was my opening shot:
I sent a few more battle photos in the first quarter all in good fun. Then Michigan stopped scoring. It would be more accurate to say they stopped playing. By halftime, I wasn't having anything closely resembling fun. I called a long timeout on my "Bud Bowl" until the game ended and I was forced by friendly respect to acknowledge our 52-14 defeat with a redo of the photo above showing Michigan in the death spiral position. As always, my Mississippi State friends were gracious. Even they were in shock, fans of a program on the way up, while Michigan (and it's glorious football name) were mired in mud.
Today, Mississippi State under Dan Mullen is undefeated and ranked #1 in both national polls. He led them through a few years of mediocrity, but the school stood by him and it seems they were wise to do so. I'm happy for them. They waited so long to enjoy the view from the top. It's a precarious place to be, that #1 spot, so I hope they enjoy the hell out of it. Being #1 is almost as dangerous as being on the cover of Sports Illustrated. You're the new target and there's only one direction to go. I think the 'Dawgs are willing to live with that risk after all these years.
I sure would be if the tables were turned. Maybe someday. Until then, if I'm forced to choose between two competing MSUs in a playoff this season, I'll be cheering...
Hail State! (and More Cowbell!)