Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen is adamant the Egg Bowl is always the most important game on his team's schedule.

But after years of program building, it's not the only important game.

No. 16 Mississippi State enters the Egg Bowl on Thursday with a clear advantage in the rivalry. The Bulldogs (8-3, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) are a 16-point favorite at home against Ole Miss (5-6, 2-5) and have their sights set on a prominent bowl game and a possible 10-win season.

"We've just changed the program around," Mullen said. "We're a nationally prominent program with the expectation of being a top-15, top-20 team every single year."

The slight shift in Mullen's rhetoric is notable because it signifies how much the program has grown during the coach's nine-year tenure. When he arrived in Starkville following the 2008 season, he took over a struggling program and made the Egg Bowl a huge priority, galvanizing the fan base by winning the rivalry game during his first three seasons.

That's back when wins — and not just in the Egg Bowl — were sometimes scarce.

That's not the case anymore. Even so, Mullen says the Bulldogs haven't lost their edge when it comes to taking on their in-state rival.

"It's not another game," Mullen said. "Rivalry games, they're just not. It's an important game for everybody. I don't even have to bring it up. They know. We treat everything a little differently."

Mississippi State has won five of six games coming into the Egg Bowl, including a 28-21 come-from-behind win over Arkansas on Saturday. The Bulldogs will be playing their third SEC game in 12 days when they host the Rebels.

Ole Miss will also be playing its third game in 12 days, but one of those was a relatively easy non-conference victory over Louisiana-Lafayette.

"It's always a challenge, both physically and mentally," Mullen said. "It's a mental grind to prepare for games against SEC West teams, which are always battles."

Mississippi State continues to rely on quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, especially in the running game. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior has run for at least 100 yards six times this season and all of them have been victories.

When he doesn't hit the century mark, the Bulldogs are 2-3.

The running game appears to be a huge advantage for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs — led by Fitzgerald and running back Aeris Williams — are averaging more than 245 yards per game, which ranks third in the SEC.

Ole Miss has had trouble stopping the run all year, giving up more than 240 yards per game to rank near the bottom of the SEC.

But Mississippi State is wary of being overconfident against the Rebels. Ole Miss has had some recent success in the Egg Bowl, winning three of the past five games.

"If you're having a really good season and you lose the Egg Bowl, some people think the whole season was a loss," Fitzgerald said. "There's animosity and nastiness. It's a big rivalry and big game. But at the end it's an SEC game that we have to win."

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