Showing Up For A Showdown

Mississippi State marks a SEC milestone the moment the Bulldogs line up Saturday, as a #1-ranked visitor to Bryant-Denny Stadium. Well and good. What matters infinitely more is who exits that field the winner, on the faster—if not last--track to the league’s own Championship Game and a College Football Playoffs berth beyond.

Word all week in Mississippi State has pre-proclaimed this as the biggest game day in Bulldog football history. It doesn’t downplay any and all that have come before to acknowledge fact. This is the first State squad to achieve the top in-season ranking; and the first to completely control its post-season fate so late into a schedule.

A schedule conveniently colliding with another new reality, that of the College Football Playoff. Questions about replacing the well-proven Bowl Championship Series have been apparently answered, if only because November has produced a number of for-all-intents preliminary playoff matchups. This is not to say Saturday’s loser is absolutely eliminated from the CFP quartet; or for that matter that the winner has a ticket punched. Fascinating scenarios are proposed making MSU-Alabama more about semifinals seeding and siting than an elimination game. Some even suggest an eventual rematch.

Such default-discussions will intensity with the final horn. Until then, Coach Dan Mullen’s men intend to show their absolute best on the biggest regular-season stage of 2014. And, against the lone opponent Mullen is yet to count in his SEC West win column over six seasons.

Yes, unbeaten Bulldogs have been in such situations before. A number of these Dogs in fact, from the 2012 trip; 22 current players participated including special teams and five started in the same spots they expect to line-up again. There’s little they wish to recall from that lost evening beyond pure scouting purposes, which might not apply much with Alabama’s increased use of air action.

And most of these Dogs were kicking kiddie footballs around when the 1999 team saw its unblemished record end, hastened by a still-infuriating kicking play flag. Not that such stuff is uncommon at Saturday’s address for visiting teams.

What is not at all common is for Alabama’s guests to bear a higher ranking, least of all the highest of all. But if Mississippi State expects this to add pressure on the home team, forget it. The day is intense enough already because as things stand (stress that) in mid-November they have more to lose. A second defeat doesn’t just foil conference fate but leaves Alabama at a lot of unlikely mercies elsewhere. The Bulldogs, conceivably, can survive a setback and still play for one title and perhaps more. But they won’t be in control any more.

Control which is an unprecedented situation for State football, and which must be factoring into the increasing national opinion that the home team will take this round. Bulldog boosters begging their coach to play the ‘respect card’ can let it go though, based on what carefully-monitored practice week comments have been obtained.

Everybody is saying the right things this week. Not that the particular players available to media were risks to cross the verbal line, with one obvious exception. And by his standards even irrepressible Josh Robinson was reasonably contained with what to say and what not. The Bowling Ball knows he can make better noise on the field and afterwards crank up the volume.

This isn’t to say Bulldogs have been bland though. A fact which isn’t getting enough, shall we say, respect about this team is the raised level of commentary they can make about themselves, their execution, schemes, technical aspects, and on and on. Mullen often mentions the ‘development’ ideal of his program; even underclassmen these days can sound like coaches at times. This is worth noting in how it shows the lessened-need to push emotional buttons on Bulldogs these days, rather that the staff can count on club with the mental preparations to back up their obviously-increased physical abilities due to years of patient recruiting.

How else to explain to a still-skeptical national audience how one of the SEC’s perennial also-rans is setting the pace? At the same time, Mullen has been able to convince even achievers to see themselves as #2 and scrabbling for #1-dom. It’s a neater trick than most understand, and it is working. State won’t show up showing off their ranking…but neither will they consider themselves trespassers upon such status.

Even if most others still think so. There’s allllll that history clouding the modern picture. Besides, the home team knows better than anyone what #1-dom looks like, from the inside. This also contributes to Alabama’s growing favoritism with forecasters, not just regarding rankings but the enormity of this game.

They have been there before; none of these Dogs have. Until now.

It has always fascinated and frustrated, how the SEC’s nearest neighbors have had such a great gulf fixed between them. They play in the same conference but historically operate in different galaxies. At the eastern post on Highway 82 are stacks of championship trophies. About eighty miles to the west, hardware is hard to find. Literally in case of the 1941 Orange Bowl trophy which vanished a few years back. Tips are encouraged.

Funny thing about history, though. Everything already written is put aside simply by turning to a fresh page in the ledger. One which awaits the next, the new, the…historic?

Which is as good as saying the only history State and for that matter Alabama take into the matchup is their own scouted trends and tendencies. College ballplayers bear only their own burdens, not those of generations before. Right now the rest of us call on old contexts for what could happen, then at game’s end shift to what the final score should mean for the next two or, for one of these teams, three weekends.

Biggest game day in Bulldog history? Yeah, it is…until the next one. Because a Mississippi State success just keeps setting a greater stage; while a defeat doesn’t render the rest of the schedule moot. Not at all, thanks to a revised post-season system that practically speaking is already underway. The fun has just begun.

These Bulldogs will show up and take their shot, presumably their best possible, and see if it hits some history. Should this come to pass, it’s nigh-certain we will hear Mississippi State football called in some quarters an ‘overnight success story’ since there were so few outside expectations for 2014.

Right. An overnight success story 115 seasons in the writing. Hmmm, reckon that might make a fine book title? But then this season and this game in particular, which can be rated the biggest for a major-college Mississippi program in over half-a-century, is worth a volume of its own.

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