One of the great things about college football are the rivalries. There’s just something to be said about two schools and two teams that have hated each other for generations going at it on the field. Every rivalry has its story.
The household names of college football (read: Power 5) have mostly been in the same conference with the same teams for longer than most people have been alive. That’s the story with the best known rivalries such as Alabama-Auburn, Michigan-Ohio State, Cal-Stanford, you name it. Others have survived as annual non-conference match-ups, such as Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech, USC-Notre Dame. But again, these are schools that haven’t changed their conference affiliations in decades.
For the mid-majors, conference realignment has been their story. Just look at C-USA. Much of the conference consists of relatively new programs (UTSA, FAU, FIU, ODU, and Charlotte). The rest are fairly established, but most had to work their way up through various levels of the NCAA. WKU and Marshall both have I-AA national championships while Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss have Division II/College Division national titles. North Texas and Middle Tennessee both made appearances in the I-AA playoffs at some point.
Constantly moving around like this can make for interesting stories. For example, did you know that in 1973, the first ever Division II National Championship Game featured La Tech and WKU? Did you know that Marshall defeated North Texas 7-0 in the 1988 Division I-AA playoffs? All of a sudden these teams are all in the FBS and all in the same conference.
But another side effect is that longtime rivals can be separated and these rivalries can die out. Thus was the case in a lesser-known southern rivalry, the Rivalry in Dixie.
Southern Miss holds a dominant lead in the series with a 32-15 record against Louisiana Tech. Since 2010 USM leads 3-2, with Tech holding a 2-1 lead since it became a C-USA match-up. Of the 47 games between the two, only 11 meetings have been as conference opponents, with USM leading 6-5 in that series.
Although there have been only 47 games between the two schools their history dates back to the 1930s. On November 28, 1935, the Mississippi State Teachers College Yellow Jackets and Louisiana Polytechnic Institute Bulldogs met on the gridiron for the first time, with the Bulldogs winning 27-0.
They were conference mates in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association and played as such from 1935-7 and 1941, with all 4 games in Ruston, LA. The SIAA disbanded in 1942 and the two would next play in Hattiesburg on September 24, 1946. They played the following year in Ruston, and then in 1948 the two schools were among the founders of the Gulf States Conference.
The Mississippi Southern College Southerners left to become a College Division independent in 1952. They spent the 1960 season in the University Division, then reverted to the College Division for the 61-62 seasons before moving back to the University Division/Division I for good in 1963. When Division I split into I-A and I-AA, they (now known as the Southern Miss Golden Eagles) went with the I-A bunch. They remained independent until helping to found C-USA which began football competition in 1996.
Meanwhile, Louisiana Polytechnic Institute (which became Louisiana Tech University in the early 1970s) remained in the Gulf States Conference until it disbanded in 1971. They then joined the Southland Conference, which was a College Division/Division II conference until it joined Division I in 1975. When the I-A/I-AA split happened in 1978, the Southland initially joined I-A before reverting to I-AA in 1982 (it’s an FCS conference to this day). Tech would become a I-AA independent for the 1987-8 seasons before rejoining I-A in 1989. Other than a 3 year football-only stint in the Big West Conference from 93-95, Tech remained independent in football until joining the WAC for all sports in 2001. When the WAC shut down its football competition, the Bulldogs joined C-USA in 2013.
All these changes and moving around didn’t prevent the two from playing but it did stunt what would have been a natural rival for the two schools, as they met every year from 1946-1972. They were conference mates for only 4 of those 27 meetings. They would then meet off and on until 1992.
The two schools are connected by Maxie Lambright. Lambright played for the Mississippi Southern Southerners from 1946-1948 (he went 3-0 against the Bulldogs). After two short stints at coaching high school football, he became an assistant coach at his alma mater from 1959-1966. In 1967, he became the head coach at Louisiana Tech. He added the duties of Athletic Director in 1970 and served in both roles until 1978.
As a head coach, he amassed an all-time record of 95-36-2, to include a bowl record of 6-3 (1-1 in I-A bowls, both the Independence Bowl). He went 5-4 against his alma mater. With La Tech, he won 2 national titles and 7 conference titles. Lambright has been inducted into the Southern Miss Sports Hall of Fame, Louisiana Tech Athletic Hall of Fame, and the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
After his Bulldogs beat Southern Miss 23-22 in 1976, Lambright declared that Louisiana Tech vs Southern Miss was “the finest rivalry in Dixie.” The name “Rivalry in Dixie” stuck and has been used ever since.
After the 1992 match-up, which Southern Miss won 16-13, the two stopped playing. To put this in perspective, the current students at these universities weren’t born yet.
In the late 2000s, the athletic departments got together in an attempt to renew this old rivalry. The result was a non-conference home and home series with a 2010 game in Ruston and a 2011 game in Hattiesburg. Although Southern Miss won both games, they were very close, with USM winning those two games by a combined 3 points.
They didn’t play in 2012, but in 2013, conference realignment shook up the mid-major landscape and Louisiana Tech found itself in C-USA alongside its old rival and the two have played every year since.
Because of the long gap without playing each other, any heat the rivalry may have had was long gone. The 2010-11 series was a nice start, but both teams had bigger rivals to focus on. When they met as conference foes in 2013, both teams were in the midst of losing seasons. The luster of the Rivalry in Dixie was lost.
But the 2014 game had a little more intrigue. Southern Miss made the game a black out, and Louisiana Tech responded by wearing all white, to include the debut of white helmets for the first time in history.
Although La Tech would go on to win the West in 2014, Southern Miss was still rebuilding, so the mid-season match-up didn’t have much meaning otherwise.
2015 was different. For the first time since the renewal of the rivalry, the two met in “rivalry week” (week 13) to end their respective regular seasons. This time around, the game had plenty of meaning as the winner of that Saturday showdown in Ruston would win the West and face WKU in the C-USA Championship Game.
La Tech had been picked in the preseason to repeat as west division champs. Southern Miss hadn’t had a winning season since their last conference title in 2011, so how much did Tech really have to worry?
It was cold. It was raining. And it was ugly.
The game might as well have been a neutral site. The weather kept many Bulldog fans indoors and most of the students were at home on Thanksgiving break. The Southern Miss faithful, excited about finally winning games again, showed up in force.
Seven turnovers highlighted the home team’s embarrassment at the hands of Southern Miss, who clobbered Louisiana Tech 58-24.
As the 2016 season was getting ready to kick off, the roles were reversed as this time Southern Miss found itself as the preseason favorite in the west, followed by La Tech. Many thought the Rivalry in Dixie, which was again scheduled during rivalry week, would once again decide the West.
Thus, the excitement for that game began to build up. The point where the importance of that game was at its highest may have been following La Tech’s victory over WKU on a Thursday night. That victory showed Tech should be in for another solid season. At that point, Southern Miss was 4-1, with a victory over Kentucky and two blow out wins in its first two conference games.
But two days later, Southern Miss was upset by UTSA. The Golden Eagles predictably lost to LSU a week later. They then got a bye week to regroup and would go on to beat Marshall, but with how much Marshall had been struggling, many were questioning why USM only won by 10. Since then, USM has lost 3 straight and Tech has already clinched the division. ESPN’s FPI gives La Tech a 76.7% chance to win, most of the excitement for this game has faded.
However, both teams still have something to play for. Louisiana Tech may have clinched the division and a berth to the C-USA Championship Game, but they have not clinched home field advantage. A win over Southern Miss would allow the Bulldogs to not only play for the title in the friendly confines of Louisiana but to avenge last year’s missed opportunity (due to renovations to Joe Aillet Stadium, the game will be in Shreveport).
Southern Miss, meanwhile, has to win this game to reach bowl eligibility. In what’s been a disappointing season nothing would satisfy the Southern Miss faithful more than to upset Tech yet again en route to a bowl game.
This game has slowly started to regain traction again. For the second straight year bragging rights are not the only thing on the line. Bowl games, division titles, and championships are at stake too.
With the game being apart of rivalry week for the second straight year it’s clear C-USA wants this rivalry to be relevant again.
With all the history and traditions these schools have hopefully this series will continue to allow mutual feelings towards each other to develop over the coming years and make this the biggest rivalry in not just C-USA West but in all of C-USA.
So, here’s to hatred. And here’s to the finest Rivalry in Dixie.