Mississippi becomes epicenter of college football

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OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — Former Mississippi State quarterback Matt Wyatt and his wife sometimes find time to talk a little football over breakfast while hustling around their house in Tupelo, Mississippi, getting the family ready for another day.

His wife, Annabeth, is an Ole Miss graduate, so by this point in the season one of them is usually complaining.

This week, he said, it's been all smiles.

There's talk of victories and huge crowds. Of national rankings and national exposure. Even crazy things were popping out of their mouths — like Southeastern Conference championships.

The Magnolia State's getting a little giddy with a special weekend on the horizon.

No. 12 Mississippi State (4-0, 1-0 SEC) hosts No. 6 Texas A&M (5-0, 2-0) in the first game of a memorable doubleheader. The showdown will be followed with No. 11 Mississippi (4-0, 1-0) entertaining No. 3 Alabama (4-0, 1-0), giving the state an all-day showcase to prove its teams are capable of hanging with the nation's best.

"This just doesn't happen every day in Mississippi," Wyatt said, later adding. "It's cool and it's a huge deal — a great moment for the state."

It's the first time since 1958 the two Mississippi schools have been ranked this high at the same time. Ole Miss hadn't started the season with a 4-0 record since 1970.

Yes, think about it: Mississippi will be the epicenter of college football this Saturday.

And the rest of the country will be paying attention.

ESPN's College Gameday show is coming to Mississippi for the first time — setting up shop in Oxford's famed tailgating area called the Grove — and Mississippi State's early game will have plenty of national exposure as well.

Ole Miss-Alabama tickets are in particularly high demand, with the cheapest going for $215 on StubHub as of Thursday morning. Tailgating space will also be a premium in Oxford because the College Gameday stage will take up some prime real estate in the middle of campus.

In Starkville, there were already tents set up on Tuesday afternoon in the Junction, which is the main tailgating area on Mississippi State's campus.

"It's going to be wild," Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche said. "Ole Miss has a great fan base. That's one reason I came here. Rebel Nation is going to be rocking and we're going to be locked in ready to go. I can't wait."

Mississippi's SEC football programs have taken a similar path to Saturday's showdowns. Mississippi State hired Dan Mullen in 2008 and Ole Miss countered with Hugh Freeze in 2011, giving both schools young, confident coaches who have improved recruiting and most importantly — results.

In the process, they've created a phenomenon in Mississippi: Two good programs at the same time.

It's not uncommon for one of the teams to be ranked. But the last time both were in the Top 25 was the final poll of 1999, when Mississippi State was 13th and Ole Miss was 22nd.

And the last time they were both ranked this high was Sept. 29, 1958 — that's when Ole Miss was No. 6 and Mississippi State was No. 11, according to STATS.

Even 66-year-old former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has a hard time remembering back that far. Barbour was Mississippi's governor from 2004 to 2012 and earned his law degree from Ole Miss in 1973. He's also had a "soft spot" in his heart for Mississippi State since the school has a scholarship named for him.

He said he'll be watching Saturday from his home in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and rooting for Mississippi State in the morning and Ole Miss in the afternoon.

"This has to be the biggest weekend of football for both schools I can remember," Barbour said. "If I could find a helicopter to get me to both games, I might do it, but even a former governor can't pull that one off."

Like most state rivalries, the Ole Miss-Mississippi State version — the Egg Bowl — can get intense. But even many die-hards from both sides will say the statewide success is fun.

Former Ole Miss running back Deuce McAllister, a Morton, Mississippi, native who also played eight seasons in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints, will be making the trip from New Orleans to Oxford this weekend.

"It puts us on the map," McAllister said. "From the pregame shows to the big matchups, it makes you be proud to be a part of the state. It helps everyone."

Beyond all the excitement are the games, and both Mississippi State and Ole Miss will be underdogs in their respective matchups.

So in addition to getting their teams ready, Mullen and Freeze have spent the week pumping up their respective fan bases.

"For our fans and our student body, we want to give them a team that has an opportunity to compete for a championship," Mullen said. "We are in that position and we certainly need their help. You're not gonna get it done with just the guys on the field."


Associated Press writer Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Mississippi, contributed to this story.


Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP

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