Everyone seems to still be waiting for Mississippi State to do what it normally does when it runs up a gaudy record -- remember that it's Mississippi State, slip up in a game against one of the upper-tier teams in the SEC West, and then return to its familiar spot fighting for as nice a bowl invitation as it can get. It hasn't happened yet. But this weekend provides the clearest chance yet for the Bulldogs to return to that pattern.
For sure, this is probably the stiffest test yet for Mississippi State. Alabama appears to be on the rebound after its loss to Ole Miss, winning four straight games by varying degrees of impressiveness. The Tide almost slept its way to a loss at Arkansas, then crushed Texas A&M and rolled past Tennessee before the near-death experience at LSU. Even with the close calls, the Alabama that's playing now looks a lot more like the Alabama we're used to seeing than the one that lost to the Rebels and nearly lost to the Hogs.
And Mississippi State is starting to look a little more like the Mississippi State we're used to seeing. The Bulldogs came closer to losing the game at Kentucky than the score might lead you to believe. A turnover-plagued offense almost against Arkansas almost ended the undefeated dream season. Blasting Tennessee-Martin, meanwhile, doesn't exactly instill confidence at a team that has made a habit under Dan Mullen of destroying midmajors and then coming up short against the SEC's best.
But that big risk also comes with a big reward. Win this game, and Mississippi State has almost certainly punched its ticket to the second SEC Championship Game in team history -- and might be able to make the inaugural college football playoff even if it loses to archrival Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. The flip side of that is that a loss comes perilously close to eliminating the Bulldogs from the SEC West race -- likely a death blow to any playoff hopes.
1We don't get no respect! I'm having a hard time remembering when a No. 1 team was this big of an underdog in a regular-season game this late in the season. It's not just that Mississippi State is getting 10 points in some books. Look at the bowl projections: Virtually all of them are based on the assumption that Alabama will win this weekend. It's not unheard of for No. 1 teams to lose, or even for some people to think that the No. 1 team will lose -- it happens practically every week. But for nearly everyone in the college football intelligentsia to almost take it as a given that the No. 1 team will lose is a bit odd -- and strikes me as based more on the names on the front of the jerseys than anything else. (Note: I'm not saying that everyone picking the Tide is doing so on that basis, just that I don't think there would be as much of a consensus if it were, say, a No. 1 LSU playing in Tuscaloosa.)
2The SEC West Championship Game. Even if Mississippi State wasn't ranked No. 1, this would still be a huge game in the division race. According to Bill C.'s latest projections, a Mississippi State win essentially locks up the SEC West. (You can really get to this without fancy stats: Everyone else would have at least two losses, and one of the Bulldogs' remaining two SEC games is against Vanderbilt at home.) An Alabama win is more dicey, but the Tide still win more than two out of every three times. The team that emerges from this game will be the prohibitive favorite to win the division; the only difference is how prohibitive a favorite it will be.
3Lopsided series. One of the reasons that it might be easy to dismiss the possibility of Mississippi State beating Alabama is that it hasn't happened all that often; the Tide hold a 76-18-3 all-time record in the series, and have lost just nine of 51 games in Tuscaloosa. The Bulldogs have beaten Alabama twice in the state of Alabama since 1957, most recently in 2006. And Alabama is 12-3 in the last 15 meetings, with two of the three Mississippi State wins belonging to Sylvester Croom. Nick Saban has lost to the Bulldogs just once -- in 2007, his first year at Alabama. And State hasn't come within a single score of the Tide since. If the Bulldogs do manage to win Saturday, it will be the exception rather than the rule.
4March of the Heisman Candidates. There are three should-be Heisman candidates who will be taking the field Saturday, though only one of them probably has a real shot at winning the award. The one that almost anyone in America could name is Dak Prescott. Not many would have trouble coming up with Alabama's Amari Cooper. A few more might lose track of Josh Robinson, the Mississippi State running back. In reality, if all three of them stay healthy, Prescott is the only one with a shot. A dual-threat quarterback is generally going to beat out the running back on his own team for the award, which knocks Robinson out. And wide receivers almost never win the Heisman, because reasons, which means that Cooper is likely out of luck as well. A win in this game would boost the player or players on the victorious team, though it likely only matters to Prescott in any real sense.
5Air It Out. Despite the fact that Mississippi State has a powerful running game and Alabama has been widely associated with great running backs in recent years, which team does better in the passing game might decide the winner. Both Alabama and the Bulldogs defend the run well, with the Tide giving up an SEC-leading 2.8 yards a rush and Mississippi State not far behind, allowing 3.6 yards a carry (fifth in the conference). Meanwhile, Mississippi State and Alabama are No. 2 and No. 4, respectively, in the SEC in passing efficiency offense and not as good at passing efficiency defense -- though with the Tide at third in the SEC and Mississippi State at sixth, they're still pretty good. It's not going to be easy for either team to move the ball either way, but doing so through the air might be easier.
THREE TO WATCH
Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: There are two things you want in a wide receiver: The ability to be explosive, and consistency. Very rarely do you get a player that combines both to the degree that Cooper does. With the exception of the Arkansas game, the Alabama wide receiver has at least eight catches and at least 83 receiving yards in every game. He's topped the 100-yard mark in six games and the 200-yard mark twice. And he's averaging 15.4 yards a catch while scoring 10 touchdowns. In a world where wideouts were seriously considered for the Heisman, Cooper would be a front-runner.
Xzavier Dickson, LB, Alabama: The Tide is probably not going to get to Dak Prescott much this weekend -- State's opponents have only 16 sacks so far this year -- but if Alabama does manage to bring Prescott down once or twice, there's a pretty good chance that Dickson will be involved. He leads Alabama with seven sacks -- twice as many as the next-highest player -- including five in the last five games, all against SEC competition. Dickson has also hurried the quarterback three more times this season.
Josh Robinson, RB, Mississippi State: Regardless of how important the passing game is for Mississippi State in this game, there's no way that Robinson isn't going to get his carries. Robinson is the second-leading rushing in the SEC this year, averaging 109.3 yards a game, and has almost rushed for 200 yards twice this year (197 yards at LSU, 198 at Kentucky). The one time that Robinson was relatively ineffective in the running game -- he gained just 64 yards on 19 carries against Arkansas -- he made up for it with 110 receiving yards.
As you might be able to infer from my skepticism about the edge for Alabama in this game, I'm not ready to jump on the Tide's bandwagon. I'm certainly not ready to take Alabama winning by 10 points, or anything more than a single touchdown. I've been high on Mississippi State from the beginning -- though not nearly high enough, given that I saw 10-2 as the ceiling for this team, and it's now all but certainly the floor. Sure, the Bulldogs will be playing in a tough environment on the road, but they beat LSU in Death Valley. Likewise, I think that Prescott, Robinson and Co. find a way to escape Tuscaloosa with a narrow win. Mississippi State 24, Alabama 21