ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Is Mississippi State’s football program the Iowa Hawkeyes of the Deep South?
This isn’t a Florida or an LSU the Hawkeyes are playing unlike in five of their previous Florida bowls under Kirk Ferentz, name-brand football entities.
Mississippi State is consistent. Mississippi State is someone we in Iowa don’t notice because of the all the blinding bright lights in Southeastern Conference football. Mississippi State is an 8-4 program.
What I knew about the Bulldogs of Starkville was about the same amount I know about the best spots to catch hogfish in Tampa Bay, so I attended “Dawg Talk” Sunday night at 3 Daughters Brewing in St. Petersburg.
There, the Mississippi State radio network combo of Neil Price and Matt Wyatt did their show in front of a gathering of Bulldog backers. After listening to them and an MSU superfan, I heard a lot of things similar to what’s been said over the years in Iowa about the Hawkeyes.
“The term that’s used with us a lot is ‘blue-collar.’ We’re very blue-collar, very physical,” said Wyatt, a Bulldogs quarterback in the 1990s. “We’re super-duper physical.”
Does that ring a cowbell, Iowa fans? They’re built on blue-collar physicality, your team is built on blue-collar physicality.
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The Outback is the Bulldogs’ ninth bowl in the last nine years. But they’re always pushing the piano up a staircase in the Southeastern Conference when it comes to grabbing attention and blue-chip recruits.
Iowa isn’t exactly living in college football poverty, but Ohio State and Michigan and Penn State have always been and will always be Ohio State and Michigan and Penn State.
“We’re still working on building a household name,” Wyatt said. “We’re in a conference with Alabama and Georgia and LSU … and Florida and Auburn.
“Every year we’re the underdog looking for some respect. Every year we’re trying to throw that punch to knock off the big guy.”
Yet, Bulldog fans save most of their venom not for Alabama’s juggernaut, but for their in-state rival.
“It’s weird,” said Becca Riley, a physical therapist assistant from Tupelo, Miss., who was born in Starkville and grew up in a small own called Quitman. “In Mississippi, we have a very small population. Yet, we have two SEC schools 90 miles apart.”
Iowa and Iowa State also are two major-college programs that share a lightly populated state. But as much shade as the fans of those two throw at each other, it’s playful ribbing compared to the Mississippi State-Ole Miss rivalry.
“We hate Ole Miss,” Riley said. “I have some family who are Ole Miss folks. We don’t discuss that at meals or holidays.
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“I had to go to a graduation up there. Literally, my blood pressure shot up. I got lightheaded and nauseous. I try not to go to Oxford, ever.
“Is it rational? No. Is it real? Yes.”
Riley said she thinks fans from her state and Iowa share a lot. Both are big with the corn and cattle and soybeans. Both, she thinks, feel victimized by others’ preconceived notions.
“We don’t get any credit,” she said. “We have Nissan and Toyota making cars in our state. There’s this total stereotype that we’re still ‘Mississippi Burning.’ That was 50, 60 years ago.”
Football-wise, she thinks the two teams that meet in Raymond James Stadium Tuesday will be twin sons from different conferences.
“I’m not convinced Iowa’s offense can score against our defense,” Riley said. “At the same time, I’m not convinced our offense can score against Iowa’s defense.”
Oh, here’s one more resemblance among the two teams’ fans:
“Most of us expected we’d be 10-2,” she said, “not 8-4. I don’t want to say it’s a disappointment, but it’s not what we anticipated it being. 8-4 is like a letdown.”
But one great difference between the two fan bases will be seen and heard Tuesday. Mississippi State’s people will be the ones clanging cowbells. Please, don’t ever cotton to that, Hawkeye fans.
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