You could not write a more fitting end to the 2020 Mississippi sports year, one that began with such high expectations but was hijacked and then ravaged by a pandemic.

I am talking about the New Year’s Eve ending of the Armed Forces Bowl, of course. There was Mississippi State, 3-7 on the season, playing Tulsa in Fort Worth in weather only ducks could love — miserably freezing and wet. A just reward for a great season? I’ll leave that for the cynics who live among us. They do, you know.

State won 28-26 in a hard-fought, if not particularly well-played game that was never aesthetically pleasing but turned brutally ugly after the final horn. That’s when a full-scale brawl erupted with punching, kicking, sucker-punching, wrestling, stomping — well, you name it. This went far beyond “boys will be boys.” This was the kind of brawl that more often occurs in a bar near closing time. Police, had they been on the field, could have made several arrests.

State coach Mike Leach provided some perhaps unintended levity to the situation when interviewed by ESPN postgame. What would Leach tell his players, concerning the postgame brawl?

“Don’t do it any more,” Leach deadpanned. “I mean, yeah, well, it’s dumb you know.”

Leach said more later. He said that his team had experienced no such problems in 10 previous games — thus inferring Tulsa was to blame — while also saying he hadn’t seen enough “to let us off the hook by any stretch.”

My prediction: When he does see the film, there are sequences that definitely will not make him proud.

“The root of it is dumb no matter what the root of it was,” Leach said. “The continuation of it was dumb. I would have it solidly in the category of dumb. Where the dumb started I am not entirely sure.”

It was beyond dumb — on both sides. And here I am 440 miles away from it, trying to write about it, which is difficult — if not dumb — because I can only write what TV cameras showed, which surely isn’t all that happened.

And I am not alone in that regard. The crackerjack Mississippi State radio team of Neil Price and former Bulldog quarterback Matt Wyatt did their broadcast remotely from Starkville, watching the same ESPN broadcast as you and me. (COVID-19 has changed almost everything about sports this year.)

“It was interesting, to say the least,” Wyatt said later Saturday. “I think it was harder for Neil because he has to describe the action and he can’t see all of what is happening. I just had to comment on what I can see.”

The brawl?

“We were doing our postgame wrap-up while TV was on a commercial break,” Wyatt said. “We were right in the middle of doing that, and then they come back on and there’s fighting going on all over the field.”

All hell, as they say, had broken loose.

“Now, I will say this,” Wyatt continued. “It started in the pregame with a lot of chirping and jawing and stuff like that and it continued into the game. I commented early in the game that there was too much of that going on and they needed to get a handle on it. We saw what happens when you let stuff like that go on and on.”

We surely did.

The game was chippy throughout, with players playing through the whistle and sometimes beyond.

There were 18 penalties, not including those that were declined. Those penalties went for 162 yards, which was for more than either team rushed.

Statistically, Tulsa would appear the winner: with 484 yards and 27 first downs to 271 yards and 16 first downs for State. But one thing about 2020 COVID-19 didn’t change: turnovers are most often the difference. Tulsa turned it over twice, State not once.

State’s bowl victory on the last day of 2020 also provided something I had never seen before: a punt during which the State punter apparently injured himself while hitting the ground first, instead of the ball. In golf, we’d say he hit it fat or chili-dipped it. It went for zero yards, precisely. I felt his pain.

It was that kind of day. It has been that kind of year. If 2020 were to be described as a punt, that would be the punt. If 2020 were a game, this might have been the game.

Much was made pregame about State playing in a bowl game with a 3-7 record, just as there will be about Ole Miss playing in a bowl game with a 4-5 record. Well, here’s the deal: Both played all Southeastern Conference games. There were no gimmes. Well, there was Vanderbilt, but you get the idea. In a normal season (playing eight league games and four easier ones), State probably would have finished 6-6 and gone to a bowl. Ole Miss probably would have finished 7-5 — and gone to a bowl.

So both have gotten a few extra days of practice. And State has achieved a victory over a Tulsa team that was ranked No. 24 in the nation beforehand. Now, Ole Miss will try its hand with seventh-ranked and 6-1 Indiana in the Outback Bowl in Tampa on Saturday.

The weather should be far, far better. Hopefully, that also will be true of the postgame decorum.

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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.