JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi State has reached so many milestones this season - six wins, bowl eligibility, upsets of ranked teams.
Yet none of it will matter to coach Sylvester Croom or anybody else in Starkville if the Bulldogs lose Friday to Mississippi in the Egg Bowl.
``If we beat Ole Miss it's a great year,'' Croom said. ``If we don't beat Ole Miss it's not a good year in my mind. It's that simple.''
The 104th game in the rivalry means something more than bragging rights for the first time since 2003, when Ole Miss won a share of the Southeastern Conference Western Division title with a 31-0 win.
For Mississippi State (6-5, 3-4), a win strengthens the resume of a team that hasn't been to a bowl since 2000 - even though seven wins won't guarantee a postseason trip in a crowded conference bowl picture.
Ole Miss (3-8, 0-7) needs a victory to avoid its first winless conference season since 1982.
Mississippi State players are keenly aware of the stakes and the attitude Ole Miss is likely to bring to Starkville. The Rebels are coming off their best performance of the season in a 41-24 loss to top-ranked LSU last week. And the Bulldogs are in their must-win situation after a disappointing 45-31 loss at Arkansas.
``We just know they ain't got nothing to lose, so they're really just trying to mess up our season,'' Bulldogs wide receiver Jamayel Smith said. ``After watching them play hard (against LSU), we've just got to bring it.''
The Bulldogs have done just that in games against Auburn, Kentucky and Alabama this year. After three years of rebuilding, Croom has the team headed in the right direction, reaching milestones every week as the season progressed.
The Rebels have been on the opposite track, though they have shown improvement despite losing four of their last five. Yet the momentum is slipping away against their rival, who they compete against not only on the field, but also in recruiting and fundraising.
A win against Mississippi State might give Ole Miss the nudge it needs in the offseason for coach Ed Orgeron's rebuilding effort.
``It would make a good ride home, I'll tell you that,'' Orgeron said. ``We are looking forward to something like that, but just first of all the team deserves a win. They have worked hard, and they deserve it more than anybody you can talk about.''
The story lines for both teams are similar.
Mississippi State finally looks settled at quarterback, where Wes Carroll threw for 421 yards and a record-tying four touchdowns against Arkansas. The Bulldogs also feature power runner Anthony Dixon, who is 46 yards shy of his first 1,000-yard season and fourth in the nation with 14 touchdowns.
Quarterback Brent Schaeffer likely will start for Ole Miss after slashing LSU for 302 total yards. The Rebels also feature a physical running back in BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who clinched his second straight 1,000-yard season last week.
M in the 2000 Independence Bowl, providing a significant mile marker on the road back to success.
Bulldogs defensive end Titus Brown said a loss would be devastating.
``It's like you worked so hard to achieve something that's so great and at the end and you just throw it all away,'' he said.
``So this week is very important. It's a big game for us. It's a big game for this program. It's critical we go out and play our best game so we can get Mississippi State back on track.''

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