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The Egg Bowl should tilt toward Starkville, but …

If you are from Mississippi, you probably have strong feelings about the Egg Bowl. It’s hard not to.

I was raised in a home that was mostly ambivalent about State and Ole Miss and their rivalry. I don’t remember seeing the game on our TV or hearing anyone even mention it when I was young.

We watched plenty of football, but it was almost always NFL. I was a Cincinnati Bengals fan and proudly sported a Boomer Esiason jersey every chance I got.

I had a friend down the street whose family bled maroon and white. I joined them for several MSU baseball games when I was young, and I can still hear his mother screaming at the TV when State played. Those are my earliest memories of MSU.

Our family’s lack of concern for the Egg Bowl changed when my older sister enrolled at Mississippi State University. All of a sudden we were diehard Bulldog fans, which meant we had to hate Ole Miss.  The Rebels and their ilk were everything we were not — or so I was told.

My first MSU football game was spent on the metal bleachers in the student section covered in sleet. It was freezing cold, I think State lost and I was miserable. But I was not alone on that cold aluminum. The student section was not full, but it was darn close.  And we cheered on our Bulldogs despite the horrible conditions.

I caught a ride back to my sister’s apartment in the back of a stranger’s pickup truck and from that night on, knew that State was the place for me. These were my kind of people.

After high school I spent two years at community college where I further cemented by disdain for Oxford. It didn’t help that I got a parking ticket on my official school visit to Ole Miss’ leafy campus.

After the 2001 Egg Bowl, we spray-painted the score on a large bedsheet and hung it in front of a friend’s house so his family would see it when they returned from Starkville the next day. They were Ole Miss fans. State won 36-28.

I enrolled at State in 2002 but found that I didn’t have the time and energy to care much about the rivalry. I felt bad about it, but just couldn’t hate the Rebels like I was supposed to. I felt like I was betraying my people. My wife (we married in college) even considered going to law school in Oxford.

It didn’t help that State football was just horrible during my college career — I mean really bad.

From 2002-2005, State didn’t win more than three games in a season — 3-9, 2-10, 3-8, 3-8. Those were painful years for Bulldog fans. What made it worse was there were people on campus who remembered the glory of the ’99 season. State finished 10-2 and beat Clemson in the Peach Bowl that year.

But there were no bowl games when I was in Starkville. There was only pain. It didn’t help that we lost the Egg Bowl in ’02, ’03 and ’04. I learned to pretend not to care about wins and losses. If I cared too much, loved the team too much, had too much pride, crushing disappointment would soon follow.

During that same stretch the Rebels had a couple decent seasons. They went 10-3 in 2003 and beat Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl.

More than a decade after graduating from MSU, I certainly have no ill will toward Ole Miss. I can even root for the Rebels when they play anyone but State. Generally speaking, I can pull for good things to happen at any school in Mississippi, because it’s good for the entire state.

I still get a swelling sense of pride when State has a good season. However, I have learned through years of heartache and torture not to get too invested in Bulldog wins and losses. Just when you think things are going well for State, we can find a way to lose.

Their recent success feels so different than what I knew State to be as a college student. The highs of 2014 when MSU was ranked No. 1 felt alien to me, like I was watching a different college than the one I attended.

Those of us who have seen darker days at State are cautious when things go well, and this season is no different.  There have been some big wins but also some struggles that remind me of those early 2000s seasons.

And that’s what makes me nervous about the Egg Bowl. State is favored, and by all measurable statistics, they should win the game. But the better team doesn’t always win. I will watch the game this year but I will try not to get too involved. I will try not to care too much. I will try not to love this team too much. It’s the only way to cope in case the unthinkable happens. And those of us who have lived the lows of MSU football know the unthinkable can always happen.

Publisher Luke Horton can be reached at luke.horton@dailyleader.com.