This Time It's Different

Mississippi State is 9-0 for the first time in school history. The #1 ranked Bulldogs have done just about everything asked of them this fall. For the first time in the Dan Mullen era, the Bulldogs knocked off LSU and Texas A&M and won over Auburn for just the second time in Mullen's six year tenure. With those three wins over SEC West opponents under their belt, the Bulldogs head to Tuscalooosa.

To borrow a phrase, "To be the man, you have to beat the man". I am not sure even William Shakespeare could have bested the "Nature Boy" and his summation of what it takes to reign supreme.

In the annual battle for king of the hill in the SEC, Nick Saban and Alabama have been the last men standing more times than not. Not to get too carried away with cliches, but the road to Atlanta runs through Tuscaloosa, Alabama for all SEC Western division upstarts.

Frankly, Bryant Denny Stadium has been the place that many a Bulldog dream has gone to die. If the Crimson Tide has been the measuring stick, the Bulldogs have come up a little short sometimes in painful fashion.

In 1999, the Bulldogs entered the game 8-0. Mississippi State had won three straight SEC contests by the thinnest of margins. Wins over Auburn, LSU and Kentucky had come by a combined four points.

The Year of the Comeback was built largely on a tremendous defense and the strength of a solid ground game. The Bulldogs were a physical team on both sides of the ball, but the team struggled to score points consistently.

The Bulldogs were locked up in a defensive struggle with the Crimson Tide when a blocked punt led to Alabama's first points of the game. MSU would strike back and take a 7-3 lead, before Shaun Alexander got loose on a wheel route which led to an Alabama score and a 10-7 halftime lead.

The Bulldogs hung in there despite throwing two second half picks including one in the endzone that would have given MSU a 14-13 advantage.

The death blow came when Shamari Buchanan slipped behind the Bulldog defense who bit on a pump fake to the sideline. The Tide worked the bubble earlier in the contest and then faked the same play and found Buchanan all alone for a score to end the contest 19-7.

Alabama's win in 1999 broke Mississippi State's three game winning streak in the series. The trio of consecutive wins against the Tide had only occurred one other time in MSU history and that was way back in 1912, 1913 and 1914.

While State would get a win in 2000 to earn it's fourth victory in five years against Alabama, the loss in 1999 cost State its' second consecutive trip to the SEC Championship game.

In 2012, Mississippi State entered the game with a 7-0 mark to take on the #1 Tide. Fans believed and took to social media to prove it, but the Tide scored on their first three possessions and the Bulldogs looked over matched.

Alabama blocked a Devon Bell field goal on State's first possession and the momentum was clearly on the side of the Crimson Tide.

State went three and out on four of it's five second quarter possessions and found themselves on the business end of a 24-0 half time disadvantage.

A promising State drive in the 3rd quarter ended with a Tyler Russell interception in the endzone and the Bulldogs went to the fourth without much chance of a comeback.

The lone Bulldog touchdown came on a drive engineered by Dak Prescott that covered 63 yards in just over three minutes.

Despite being ranked #1 in the country for five straight weeks, Mississippi State will head to Tuscaloosa this weekend as an underdog. In many ways, that seems like it works to the Bulldogs' advantage.

This group seems to be at its' best when people expect the least from them.

Before the season began, many of us wondered, "If not now, when?"

Many pundits expected the Bulldogs to lose on the road at LSU. Yes, some came around late and picked the Bulldogs, but conventional wisdom suggested Mississippi State should struggle in Death Valley.

The game got a little close for comfort, but by and large State dominated the game and fired a warning shot to the rest of the conference that the guys in Maroon and White were here to fight.

After a bye week to clear their heads, State was expected to see their secondary exploited by Texas A&M and the high powered Aggie offense. The game got away from Kevin Sumlin and Kenny Hill and State pounded another top ten opponent.

A week later, defending SEC champion Auburn came to town in what was billed as the biggest home game in Mississippi State football history. Before Auburn could tune up the band, it was 21-0 Mississippi State.

So many were ready to declare the Bulldog balloon ready to burst, but the team continued to silence its' critics.

Now the talking points suggest that Mississippi State has peaked or that the team has played uninspired football the last three weeks.

Despite not playing up to their full potential, the Bulldogs won all three contests in three different fashions.

State has not played its' best football, but they haven't had to.

Alabama enters the contest with an 8-1 mark, the lone blemish, in case you haven't heard, came at Oxford to Ole Miss.

After losing to the Rebels and then struggling to a one point win over Arkansas, many were ready to declare the Tide as vulnerable. Perhaps Alabama was in a rebuilding year.

A 59-0 cake walk win over Texas A&M changed everyone's tune, which is rather interesting. The Aggies were already reeling after back to back losses to Mississippi State and Ole Miss, but the Tide was able to get a lot of mileage out of that win. The entire national perception of the season changed after that one contest.

Winning football games at this level is about match-ups and timing. We will see how the match-ups come together throughout the week, but the timing for Mississippi State could not be better.

MSU coasted to a 45-16 win over Tennessee-Martin with the back-ups handling most of the heavy lifting in the second half. The Bulldogs were already safely tucked in their beds and resting comfortably when LSU took the Tide to overtime.

The games between the Tigers and Tide are always physical and always tight. Just how much mental and physical energy did the Tide have to exert to stay in the race for Atlanta?

With Mississippi State and Auburn left on the SEC slate, the Tide still has some work to do.

Some very good MSU football teams have gone to Alabama and come home with a loss. The current edition may follow suit, but this group is much different than the previous two Bulldog unbeatens who saw their dreams of playing in Atlanta dashed by the Tide.

For one, this team has balance. Not just offense and defense, but balance offensively. Dak Prescott makes the Bulldogs much tougher to defend. In years past, the Bullies battled with the Tide with essentially a one dimensional offense. The 2014 Bulldogs can score in bunches and in a variety of ways.

The Bulldog defense is veteran group with a lot of depth, especially in the front seven. Last season, Geoff Collins' defense held #1 Alabama to a season low, 20 points and forced A.J. McCarron into two interceptions.

State entered that game with a 4-5 record with a banged up Tyler Russell taking the snaps, a running game looking for a playmaker, and without Dak Prescott.

Despite all of that working against them, the Bulldogs had their chances in the second half, but simply couldn't close. Four of the five final Bulldog drives ended in turnovers rather than points. Perhaps the most painful were an interception at the goal line and fourth down touchdown pass that went off of De'Runnya Wilson's hands to end a solid Bulldog threat.

T.J. Yeldon was the hero last year for Bama rushing for 160 yards. His availability for this weekend's game will be a topic of conversation all week. Yeldon was shaken up late in the game against LSU. His fumble on that play led to LSU kicking the go ahead field goal.

There have been some great games between Alabama and Mississippi State over the years. This one has the potential to be one of the most memorable.

There is one thing Mississippi State folks pretty strongly about when it comes to this year's match-up. In order for the Tide to win, they will have to beat the most complete football team Mississippi State has fielded in the modern era.

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