Here #13-ranked Mississippi State is indeed, heading to #1 Alabama with the Division lead at stake. The winner is not assured of representing the West of course. The Crimson Tide has three conference contests left after Saturday and the Bulldogs four, all these being Division games. Still somebody goes into November on the fast track, an opportunity Mullen has sought since taking over State in December 2008.
Over the four ensuing seasons his Atlanta ambition has assumed Sherman-like intensity. This Bulldog path, literally and metaphorically, runs through Tuscaloosa.
"It's a great opportunity for our guys, and we look at this as a championship-caliber game for us," Mullen said. "As we get ready to play we've talked to our guys how when you get into championship games you have to be ready for four quarters, for lots of potential momentum swings, ready to deal with the crowd."
Actually the Bulldogs have to deal with emotions closer to home. For months fans and media have projected the possibility of arriving at Alabama unbeaten, and State has done it. The campus build-up has matched each victory, though Mullen promises he and staff have stuck to the same game-week script.
"I think it's going pretty good. We haven't changed anything we do, we've kept on our regular schedule. But I think you see their intensity is a little more. They're watching extra film, their intensity in preparation is picking up this week. Our guys understand this is a big game."
All the bigger should Mississippi State score what all acknowledge would be a serious upset. Not, Mullen said today, that the three-touchdown-plus betting line is any of his concern. "I don't know what to say because I've never set any odds for any teams! And it has no effect on me on the course of the game." The only course this coach cares about is keeping this team on a track Mullen envisioned four years ago, when he heard State was interesting and researched this program's potential.
"The thought I had was if we could start at home and get the best player in Mississippi to come play for us we had a chance to be successful. They've done that, they've wanted to come here and represent their home state and compete for championships. The other thing was creating an exciting gameday environment, getting large crowds to come, the vision of building facilities. Everybody had the same vision, and you don't always have that from top to bottom. That's what made it such an attractive place for me them, and we've been able to follow that plan.
"And here we are three-and-a-half years later getting to play in a big game. But if we're in first place at the half-way point we're going to feel pretty good. And be ready for a bunch more challenging games down the stretch."
FIVE AGAISNT THE WORLD: No, Blaine Clausell was not recruited by his home state school. Nor does it annoy the Mobile native a bit. "It's no hard feelings," he shrugs. "I didn't have any feelings to college sports growing up." So much for seeking any animosity-incentive from Mississippi State's offensive tackle during the build-up of Alabama week.
Instead the third-year sophomore, and second-season starter at left tackle, is doing what his unit usually does to any opponent: taking it as just blocking business. Yes, even against the top-ranked team in the country and the top-rated college defense in most every category which counts.
"Watching film, getting ready like any regular game. Just learning everything we can to give us an advantage so we feel we're ready."
Whether any offensive front can adequately prepare for an Alabama in four days remains to be judged. Still the Bulldog line has held up well so far, if measured by such statistics as sacks allowed (six, second-best in the SEC for the season). Or more importantly how teammates who carry, throw, and catch the football have produced in both league and non-conference games alike.
It is not merely the top-half rankings #13 State has earned in rushing, passing, scoring, and overall SEC offense. The number of plays which have produced gains of ten or more yards is far, far ahead of recent seasons, and has kept this offense on the literal move. Even, Clausell kids, he and other linemen whose job is done once the ball gets beyond them.
"Every time you see somebody make a big play running down the field, we're running behind them all hyped-up! You come back to the sideline and it's like, you have to do it again. It's a great feeling."
Still, big plays will be at a Saturday night premium this week. To take just one example, Alabama hasn't allowed any one rusher to reach much less surpass 100 yards this season. Here comes a Bulldog ground game led by LaDarius Perkins with his SEC-leading 103-yard game average. Someone is going to walk off the field frustrated in this regard.
"All I can say is we're going to do everything we can to get our job done," said Clausell. "They have a great defense, you can't take any credit from them. We have a job to do and that's open lanes for LaDarius. He's a great running back and he helps us out sometimes!"
So does Russell when he finds a first good target and fires without hanging on to the pass too long. State has relied heavily on multiple-receiver sets which include backs and tight ends. Meaning it's often up to the five down-linemen to do all the blocking, without extra aid.
Clausell isn't bothered. "Yeah, that's the trenches right there! You just have to be ready to go. Every play is a challenge to your pride, you want to beat the man in front of you and every play is a fight."
ADJUSTING WITH AGE: Talk about efficient, Robert Johnson could not have hoped for much more from his two receptions last week. The first converted a tough 3rd-and-9 with a 13-yard connection from Tyler Russell. The other? Oh, just another throw from Russell, this time going for 23 yards and Johnson's first college touchdown catch.
As if that weren't big enough, Johnson even made the scoring strike a little more dramatic than maybe necessary. Mississippi State had just recovered a Middle Tennessee fumble and wanted to strike immediately, so the call was to send split end Johnson and slot-receiver Jameon Lewis both streaking down the left side.
"The formation was there, and Jameon was like he's going to throw it to either one of us," Johnson related. "I ran the regular vertical route, and I saw the DB got lost and tried to over Jameon. So I was wide open." That was the easy part; it got harder once Johnson was left alone in the end zone as he stumbled to his knees.
"When he threw it I was adjusting to it and I slipped! But I kept my eye on the ball, I had to catch it!" And did. For that matter, Johnson said he also needed to make some in-course adjustments on Russell's previous hook-route pass to get that first down. "I just wanted to move the chains, and made a great catch."
Johnson isn't boasting, just stating facts. Besides, fans who watched his work in both the true and redshirt freshman springs have seen the talents waiting to be tapped in a real game. This might have been the long-sought breakthrough, as long as Johnson builds on it he agrees.
"That's really the thing I've got to work on. Like you said, I'm coming out there 100% and I just have to be more consistent." His method? Watching every game and practice review with a more seasoned eye; because having done it for-real Johnson can now see the flaws and fix them. "Yeah. Coach Mullen always says be your own critic, and I'm real hard on myself."
The real 2012 challenge for Johnson, as well as Lewis, Joe Morrow, and others is accepting their rotation roles. Well, maybe it isn't so difficult since they are behind three seniors who have earned starting status by more than just age. Still State is getting the youngers into the mix when possible and they are producing.
"It's just making the play when my number is called. We've got seniors in front that we've been watching for a long time, and that's the process we have now. Making our play when our number is called."