While the Crimson Tide is too professionally (I imply nothing ill) operated to take a game for granted, it's stretching to suggest they circled this date the same way Bulldogs did. Next week may be a whole ‘nother matter but that is Alabama's problem. For Mississippi State? This week is something of a culmination of many months' work, worry, and waiting.
Or as Dan Mullen said today regarding varied views from opposite sides of the state line, "I can't speak for the Alabama side of things. But for our guys, they wanted to be in this position. And coming into this season this is where they expected to be. A lot of guys have been in the program for a while and wanted an opportunity to go compete for a SEC championship. To do that, they had to get to this game."
And here they are, unscathed at 7-0 and ranked a couple slots higher than yesterday. By the way, best I can tell 2012 has just two other remaining battle of unbeatens for the regular season; that's assuming Rutgers and Louisville get to the end of November with unsoiled slates. Oregon-Oregon State ranks a bit higher. But of course that can't compare in potential national impact to a brawl—and that's exactly what one should anticipate—for the SEC West advantage. Makes one wonder if TV types oughtn't second guess themselves about this week's slottings. (And say, what network gnome decided 7:30? Bet he's never run the Reform-Gordo gauntlet at 2:00am dodging deer, pupwood trucks and Revenue Patrol alike.)
It's interesting and maybe instructive how already, today, the second-guessing of Mississippi State is underway. Not that I've any personal objection, mind. This afternoon, purely for informational purposes, I posted the utterly different sort of defense the Bulldogs are about to face opposed to the first seven foes. About all I can find in common is Alabama also puts eleven defenders on the field. Otherwise, the gap is little short of startling. In scoring defense where the Tide ranks first, State's five listed D-1 victims (South Alabama isn't ranked this year) are Auburn 55th, Troy 62nd, Middle Tennessee 81st, Kentucky 93rd, and Tennessee 96th.
Yardage defense? Troy 67th, Auburn 75th, Kentucky 83rd, Middle Tennessee 93rd, and Tennessee 95th. Oh, for those that wonder, the Bulldog defense ain't shabby at 9th in scoring and 25th in yardage. The fact remains, State has not tried to move the ball on anything like the unit they've started scheming for. Of course neither has anyone else, which is kind of the point. Nor has State even played a ranked opponent in 2012, much less the team on top.
Know what? I get the impression that rather than feeling intimidated there's a bunch of Bulldogs ready to take their own measure of the purported best there is. At some point after all, a competitive team really wants to know where they truly stand.
"We've been tested a bunch," Mullen did state today. "We've had some close games this season. But also this will be the best team so far, but I guess anybody who plays them will say that!" Meaning the coach is not sitting in his office right now fretting, nor is his club shivering unless it's in anticipation. Yeah, some of y'all know why in light of looming Halloween that line had to be inserted. Not that I want any flat tire in a Saturday night rain, least of all between here and Tuscaloosa where there is no lack of residents who appear related to Riff Raff. Look it up, kids.
Where was I? Right, whether Mississippi State has been sufficiently tested for this matchup. Mullen believes so. "They've faced some adversity of success," he said, reprising a 2012 them that increasingly makes MSU sense. "Some adversity on the field of being put in situations where they had to step up and make plays. And we have some good leadership on this team. So I feel they'll be ready for the environment Saturday night."
An environment unlike anything current Bulldogs have experienced. No, this is not referring directly to the venue itself, as impressive as that is to anyone outside the SEC. For any competitor of more than a year or two working through the conference, it's just the next football field and that more than anything signifies why life in this league is a level-above. What I mean is, this game represents a next-step in Mississippi State's progression under Mullen. Another benchmark for the coach and program if you will.
Much as, say, winning that first Egg Bowl in the first year was a first such step. Then knocking off Georgia and Florida in year-two made another statement, as did affirming in-state superiority. And Mullen's idea of ‘adversity of success' can be best understood in how the '11 team, of which much was expected and less delivered, still avoided a real fall-off. Now this year it has involved beating, finally, another West opponent as well as handling Tennessee's challenge. All the while, building a win streak against any and all non-conference competitors.
From this bigger-picture vantage point then, Bulldog football is arrived at the next benchmark. They are playing to lead the Western Division going into November, a situation not seen around here since (wait for it) 1999. Man, we've written and spoken those numbers so often in recent weeks it's a wonder Prince hasn't sued for copyright infractions. Of course those who were around that year recall where and how the partying ended. Yeah. But did you remember how 8-0 State was actually ranked higher than the home team, #8 to #11? Few will figure the Dogs favorites in a match of #13 at #1 this edition.
Related to the topic, as one of the remaining Elder Dawgs who not only attended but was working the 1980 season I'm already being queried to compare. Sorry, there really isn't all that much mutuality (hey, spell-check accepted it!) from State's perspective. Great as that '80 club proved to be for the season's second-half they did have a pair of losses and were unranked, had been for three years in fact. So what Emory Bellard's bunch did, in Jackson, that November afternoon still rates as one of the monumental ‘upsets' however that is defined in modern college memory.
By contrast, while it would still rate as an upset for those who invest more than emotion in such things, a Bulldog win this time around wouldn't shake football's foundations. Surprise most, shock some, sure. Yet objectively I would not walk away--cautiously if things turned out so--from the stadium stunned if Mississippi State came out on top. However one evaluates the seven successes so far, winning does encourage the sort of confidence that leads to more winning.
Especially the way Mullen is managing Mississippi State. He may…no, make that he definitely does…rub some rivals the wrong way, and boy has he ever gotten under certain ursine skins up the road. Whether or not one care for such a bold verging on brash bearing it has assuredly rubbed-off on his teams the right way. Which is also why, and pardon my seeming caution, if State returns with a marred record this weekend I don't foresee a big Dog deflation for November. Maybe just the opposite effect, even, in a more motivated team to keep working towards that championship-contending step.
Well and good. Still I do hope Bulldog players are being prepped, not to the point of obsession or anything, for days of repeated questioning on just how do they think they can take on a team regarded as unstoppable? Please fans, don't vent vitriol on my peers for raising the subject, it's natural. Fortunately it sounds per Mullen as if the players already have responded, in the right way.
"I think our kids will want to play. They're excited. That's why most of these guys came to Mississippi State, to represent their state university and play in big-time games like this. They'll be ready to put on a good performance."
And if the performance is good enough to keep State streaking? Well, then it really will be time to party like it is 1999 all over again. Just don't ask me to do the Time Warp, the knees are shot.