Mississippi State returns to the gridiron Saturday taking on the Crimson Tide in an SEC duel that may not be the marquee match of seasons past because of the subpar records of both teams, but is still Mississippi State vs. Alabama!
A crowd of some 50,000 is anticipated for the engagement joined by a regional Jefferson Pilot Sports audience. Kickoff is set for 11:30 a.m. on the MSU campus.
There's no championship implications this year but this game carries major significance in both camps. It's long been a measuring stick especially for the Bulldogs as they began to compete for the SEC championship under Sherrill.
Mississippi State defeated Alabama 26-14 on its way to play in the 1998 SEC Championship game in Atlanta, Ga.
Sherrill said he recalls Alabama always dreaded playing Mississippi State because of the physical nature of the rivalry between the two schools with nearby Columbus a place where the players' paths sometimes crossed.
A multi-position standout who played on a couple of National Championship teams under the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant, Sherrill learned from some of the greatest coaches of all-time, in addition to Bryant there was Frank Broyles and Johnny Majors.
The Mississippi State - Alabama series has been played close to the cuff during the dozen years Sherrill has been at the helm in Starkville. The Bulldogs won three straight (1996-1998) but has lost the last two.
"Since I have been here (MSU), there is 21 points difference in the 12 years and we would have had an opportunity the first year (1991) had we not jumped off sides at the goal line (final minutes)," said Sherrill. The Bulldogs lost the '91 game by a count of 13-7 but had the ball first and goal in the final seconds.
Although Alabama (3-6, 1-4 Southeastern Conference) is a clear pick over Mississippi State (2-6, 1-3), the teams stack up pretty close in most statistical categories. The Tide lost to Tennessee 51-43 in five overtimes in its last outing, while the Dogs dropped a 42-17 decision at Kentucky after scoring the first 17 points of the game.
The Bulldogs rank seventh in the SEC in total offense (373.6 ypg), ahead of Alabama in 11th place (359.8 ypg).
However, Alabama is sixth in the league in total defense, giving up 348.1 ypg, while MSU is last giving up an average of 476.4 ypg.
Mississippi State, with senior Kevin Fant at quarterback, is fifth in the conference in pass offense (238.2 ypg) with Alabama ranking 11th (187.6 ypg). Fant is eighth (206.9 ypg) in total offense, while 'Bama sophomore Brodie Croyle, in and out of the lineup with a shoulder injury, ranks 10th with 195.6 ypg.
The Dogs have the SEC' top receiver in senior Justin Jenkins, first in receptions per game with 6.25 and first in receiving yards with 95.1 per game.
Turner is third in all-purpose yards with an average of 134.5 ypg behind Derek Abney of Kentucky (162.7 ypg) and Shaud Williams (148.1 ypg).
Mississippi State turned back the Crimson Tide 29-7 the last time the two teams met in Starkville during the 2000 campaign. The Tide has won the last two in the series, 24-17 (2001) and 28-14 last year, both played at Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Several injured Bulldog players used the time off over the weekend to heal. The status of tight end Aaron Lumpkin will not be known until later in the week.
"It looks like we are getting most of the players back," Sherrill said earlier this week.
"All of them are back except Aaron Lumpkin (tight end). We will find out this week if Aaron can run. That doesn't mean they will be completely healthy to play Saturday. We'll know later in the week."
Mississippi State is expected to get back starting center Blake Jones, out the last two games with injuries, but how much he'll play remains to be seen.
"Blake will play," noted Sherrill of the Athens, Ala., product. "Now, how much he will play, I can't answer that, but it's good to have him back."
The Bulldogs lost highly-touted freshman cornerback Quinton Culberson to an injury in the Kentucky game and the MSU staff will address the void this week.
Sherrill said the off week was very good for the team which will be playing three games over a 19-day period this month.
Mississippi State has two home dates and two road games to close out the regular season - at Tennessee (Nov. 15), at Arkansas (Nov. 22) and Ole Miss (Nov. 27) in Starkville.
"I think the players are very rested. Our problem is being able to space out three games in 19 days. You start cutting back in practice and meeting time."
"Because of the proximity of the two schools, the series has been good for both schools," said Sherrill. "It's one that both teams play very hard. Both team have Mississippi-Alabama players, and both teams have players that both teams recruited."
Two former MSU coordinators return to Starkville for the 'Bama game - Dave Rader (1986) and Sparky Woods, who served four prior years before moving to Tuscaloosa this past spring.
A 1966 graduate of Alabama, Sherrill will face his alma mater for the final time on the gridiron this weekend.
TICKETS: A limited number of tickets remain available for sale for the Mississippi State-Alabama game. Tickets may be purchased through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. To purchase your tickets, call the MSU ticket office at 888-GO-DAWGS or locally at 325-2600, or visit the ticket office in the Bryan Athletic Administration Building on campus.
Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer who is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News, writes a weekly article for Gene's Page. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org