This Sports Illustrated cover in October, 2014, told the story well.

Ole Miss goes into Saturday’s homecoming game with Vanderbilt with a 2-3 record, 1-1 in the SEC. The Rebels are giving up nearly 30 points per game. At this point, it is difficult to imagine a route to six victories and a bowl game, much less a national ranking.

Mississippi State, which has an open date, is 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the SEC. The Bulldogs are coming off a 33-point loss to Auburn, a team they defeated by 14 points the season before.

This clearly has not been a dream season for the Magnolia State’s two SEC teams.

Hard to believe that it was at this time five years ago, when the Bulldogs and Rebels were the toast of college football. Remember?

How could you forget?

When the Associated Press poll came on Oct. 12, 2014, Mississippi State, coached by Dan Mullen and led by quarterback Dak Prescott, ranked No. 1 in the land for the first time in school history. The Bulldogs, having just defeated Auburn, were 6-0. In that same poll, 6-0 Ole Miss, coached by Hugh Freeze, was ranked No. 3 with undefeated Florida State squeezed in between the two Mississippi teams.

The ‘Dogs and Rebels were riding high, on the cover of Sports Illustrated, in banner headlines across America. Here’s how crazy it was: Sports writers and talk show hosts from other parts of the country were calling to interview Mississippi sports writers.

Rick Cleveland

“Mississippi Mayhem,” Sports Illustrated called it. And it was crazy. The Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, wanting badly to document the historic nature of it, hurriedly put together an exhibit. I know because I did it. We got the shoes and jersey Prescott wore against Auburn. We got a chunk of the goal posts Ole Miss fans tore down after the monumental victory over Alabama. We blew up the cover of Sports Illustrated. We got game balls and had them signed. We put them all together for an exhibit.

And the madness lasted for a while, especially where the Bulldogs were concerned. State was open the next week. Meanwhile, Ole Miss clobbered Tennessee 34-3. The Oct. 18 poll still had State No. 1 and Ole Miss No. 3.

On Oct. 25, State went to Lexington and clocked Kentucky 45-31 to remain at No. 1. Meanwhile, the Ole Miss bubble burst with a 10-7 defeat at LSU, then coached by Les Miles. Remember? Ole Miss could have tried a game-tying field goal with nine seconds left. They called one more play instead. The Tigers, ranked No. 23 at the time, intercepted Bo Wallace’s pass.

That dropped the Rebels to No. 7 in the next week’s poll. State was still No. 1, and the Bulldogs stayed that way, trouncing Tennessee-Martin 45-16 in what was little more than a warm-up for the coming showdown with Alabama.

The Bulldogs, 9-0, had been No. 1 in the country for five weeks when they went to Tuscaloosa and Bryant-Denny Stadium to face No. 4 Alabama. And you know what happened…

The Bulldogs fell behind 19-3 at halftime but then mounted a furious second half comeback. They were down by six points early in the fourth quarter when Alabama would make what Nick Saban would call, “one of the greatest drives in Alabama history.” Alabama, despite being out-gained by almost 100 yards on their home turf before nearly 102,000 fans, won the game 25-19. Turnovers were the difference. Alabama had none. Prescott threw three interceptions.

“We should feel awful,” Dan Mullen said after Alabama knocked State from NO. 1.

“We should feel awful,” Mullen said. “You should feel sickness in your stomach…”

It was downhill from there.

State dropped to No. 4 in the polls after the Alabama loss and all the way to No. 11 after losing to Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl and Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Ole Miss dropped all the way to No. 18 after losing to Auburn and Arkansas, but rallied to No. 9 after whipping State 31-17 in the Egg Bowl. Then, a 42-3 drubbing administered by TCU in the Peach Bowl dropped the Rebels all the way to No. 17 in the final AP poll.

When contrasted with the present, No. 11 and No. 17 in the nation doesn’t sound at all bad. Does it?

Keep in mind, these things tend to go in cycles, especially where Mississippi teams are concerned. At some point, some year, State and Ole Miss will return to the Top 25, even the Top 10.

But will Mississippi ever have two of the top three teams in the nation again as they did in October five years ago?

Hard to imagine.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.