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Ole Miss downplays Mississippi State’s involvement in NCAA probe as motivation for Egg Bowl

Being a native of Hawaii, Jordan Ta’amu was foreign to the emotions that come with being on opposite sides of Mississippi’s most contentious rivalry. It didn’t take Ole Miss’ quarterback long to learn.

“When I first got here, every time I would walk past (people), it was, ‘Beat State. Beat State,’” Ta’amu said.

Those emotions have only intensified with what’s transpired between Ole Miss and Mississippi State off the field recently as the teams prepare to renew their rivalry on it Thursday at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville (6:30 p.m., ESPN).

The animosity has turned toxic amid the NCAA’s investigation into Ole Miss that’s charged the Rebels with 21 rules violations with 15 of them being Level-I allegations, or the most serious. Ole Miss is awaiting a final ruling from the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in the long-running probe, which involves Mississippi State players Kobe Jones and Leo Lewis.

Jones and Lewis are co-defendants in a lawsuit filed by Rebel Rags back in June in response to an allegation that the Oxford-based retailing clothing store supplied thousands of dollars worth of free merchandise to Jones and Lewis on recruiting visits. Rebel Rags is suing for defamation, commercial disparagement and civil conspiracy for what it believes were intentionally false statements made by the players during interviews with the NCAA’s enforcement staff.

“I haven’t really heard much about it or tried to hear much about it,” Ole Miss defensive tackle Breeland Speaks said.

One of the more polarizing figures in the case, Lewis also claimed to have received as much as $15,600 in cash payments from Ole Miss boosters. Lewis, who’s identified in multiple allegations, offered up much of that information after being granted limited immunity from sanctions at MSU in exchange for a truthful account of his recruitment by Ole Miss.

Lewis, now Mississippi State’s starting middle linebacker, also testified at Ole Miss’ COI hearing in September. So does having Mississippi State players involved in determining the future outlook of Ole Miss’ program serve as added motivation for the players lining up across from them?

“Nah man, we’re in the SEC,” guard Javon Patterson said. “We’re trying to play an SEC game this weekend. That’s what’s at stake.”

The highly publicized case has escalated tensions, making for vitriolic attacks among fans on sports talk radio, messages boards and social media. CBS Sports even named the Egg Bowl the sport’s most hate-filled rivalry this yearIt all prompted Ole Miss’ Ross Bjork and Mississippi State’s John Cohen, the schools’ athletic directors, to release a joint statement Monday afternoon asking fans to honor the rivalry with “civility and respect” toward one another ahead of this year’s Thanksgiving matchup.

It will be Ole Miss’ last game regardless of the outcome with a bowl ban in place as part of the school’s self-imposed penalties. The Rebels will be trying to avenge last year’s 55-20 loss to the Bulldogs and reclaim bragging rights for the next year.

Ole Miss interim coach Matt Luke said that’s all the motivation his team needs.

“I think what the players are focused on is winning a football game, and that’s what you have to focus on,” Luke said. “The allegations and all that stuff, nothing affects what happens on Thursday night. Our 100-percent focus is going to be on the game on Thursday night and trying to go get a win.”