OXFORD, Miss. -- Hugh Freeze said Monday he didn't bring up the Egg Bowl to his team until Sunday afternoon.
Just don't interpret that to mean the game against Mississippi State is just another game to first-year Ole Miss coach.
"We'll talk about it a lot between now and then," Freeze said, referring to the Rebels' 6 p.m. kickoff Saturday against the Bulldogs at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
Ole Miss (5-6 overall, 2-5 in the Southeastern Conference) needs a win over Mississippi State (8-3, 4-3) to earn a bowl invitation (likely to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis). A win would also snap Mississippi State's three-game series win streak. The game also holds all sorts of ramifications for fans of both programs, something Freeze acknowledged Monday during his weekly press conference
"There's no hiding that I'm very excited about this game," said Freeze, an Independence, Miss., native who was born in Oxford and spent much of his childhood attending Rebel games on Saturdays.
There were indications Monday that this week will certainly be different from the previous 11 game weeks this season. Practices have been completely closed to media this week. Normally, the first four periods (about 20 minutes) of practices Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are open to reporters covering the team. Further, players were initially deemed off-limits to media this week, though Freeze relented and will now allow selected players to speak to reporters.
"There's so much little yah-yah that can get started with young kids that say something off the cuff," Freeze said. "That's not what we're about. I just want to protect our kids from being put in a position where something could be said or written that would represent us in a different way heading into this big game that, as we all know, means so much to so many people.
"I actually have family members that are on the other side, and I have great respect for some coaches that are down there also. I won't get into the name-calling. We have great respect for them. We want to beat them as bad as they want to beat us. I understand the impact it has on our program and their program and the people of this state. But we're going to go about it the right way in trying to beat them on Saturday."
Freeze didn't take the bait on Monday when he was asked about some of Dan Mullen's barbs at Ole Miss over the past three years. Mullen, who is 3-0 against the Rebels, has said he'll never lose to Ole Miss as long as he's the Bulldogs' coach.
"Did he say that really?" Freeze said with a smile. "We will remind our kids every day this week of the importance of this game, and if that happens to be part of that motivation, then I'll tell our video guys they did a good job."
More than anything, Freeze knows Saturday represents this group's final chance to reach the postseason.
"I think they're a team that deserves to do that, in my eyes," Freeze said. "I know I'm biased as can be, but they've been through their share of hardship and certainly with a break here or there this year, they could easily be in a pretty good bowl game."
INJURY UPDATE: Freeze said he's "hopeful" cornerbacks Charles Sawyer (shoulder) and Wesley Pendleton (ankle) and tight end Jamal Mosley (knee) will be able to play Saturday against Mississippi State. Defensive end C.J. Johnson (back) and quarterback Bo Wallace (shoulder) will play.
TIME TO REFLECT: Freeze said Monday that win or lose Saturday, he'll reflect on this season positively. He said he will always remember the effort, attitude and passion of this team once he gets over the disappointment of the bitterly closes losses to Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and LSU.
"That will take some time for me," Freeze said. "We'll use that certainly in recruiting because we think that with a good recruiting class, some of those close losses will become wins. Certainly the thing that will overshadow all of that is being able to coach my first group here at the University of Mississippi. I was really taken back by the effort and passion that they gave amid some really disappointing things.
QUOTEWORTHY: "The most pleasant surprise and the most difficult is we're sitting here with five wins and haven't gotten that sixth one. I'm definitely surprised that that's the case we're in and also disappointed that we didn't find a way to win one of those close ones. It's both disappointing and very rewarding, if that makes any sense." - Freeze, answering a question regarding his biggest surprise and biggest disappointment in his first year on the job.
REBEL RUMBLINGS: Freeze said Odell Beckham Jr.'s 89-yard fourth-quarter punt return came after Jim Broadway's best punt of the season. Three different Ole Miss players missed Beckham on the play, which tied the game at 35-35. Freeze said Ole Miss will address some personnel on its punt coverage team and look at "a couple different options" at the punt return spot after Korvic Neat's struggles in Baton Rouge. …Freeze said freshman defensive end Channing Ward had his best game of his career at LSU. "He matched up with their scheme probably better than some," Freeze said. "When a kid feels good, he can play a little faster."