Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Mississippi State no longer just an SEC punching bag

In the world of college football, some names are synonymous with the idea of traditional powerhouse programs: Oklahoma, Notre Dame, USC and Alabama, to name a few.

Mississippi State, however, is not one of those teams.

The Bulldogs haven’t exactly struck fear into the hearts of their opponents in recent years. The team has only won four bowl games in the 21st century, hasn’t made it to the SEC championship game since 1998, and hasn’t been atop the SEC since 1941.

Even the 2009 arrival of head coach Dan Mullen, the former offensive coordinator of the mighty Florida Gators, didn’t have much positive influence on the team – the Bulldogs went 5-7 in his inaugural season. Things started to look up in 2010 when the Bulldogs managed to finish the season with a respectable 9-4 record, a top-15 finish in the AP Poll and a win over Michigan in the Gator Bowl.

The Bulldogs regressed again in 2011, however, finishing with a 7-6 record and leaving many fans wondering if the Bulldogs’ success in 2010 was merely a fluke. But, this year ,Mullen and company seem intent on sending the message that it wasn’t. So far, the Bulldogs, ranked 13th in the nation, have an opportunity to have one of the most successful seasons in recent memory. Mississippi State, which has only its second 7-0 record ever in school history, is in complete control of its destiny and has as good a chance as any team to make the SEC championship game.

For Alabama head coach Nick Saban, Mullen’s 2012 squad has proved itself his best in Starkville.

“I think it is his best team, but I think each year they’ve gotten better, better, better,” Saban said. “It’s an indication of the great job he’s done there program-wise, in terms of establishing the intangibles you need to have everybody in the organization to improve.”

Even so, the Bulldogs haven’t had a true test against a nationally ranked opponent this season. One win over a nationally recognized opponent, however, would thrust them into the spotlight.

The Bulldogs have that chance as they travel to Tuscaloosa to take on the No. 1 team in the nation. For Mullen, this is the type of game that can potentially change the entire outcome of his football program.

“This week is huge for our program,” Mullen said. “This is right where we want to be. When I took the job here, these are the types of games that we wanted to play in. Our guys are going to be excited for the opportunity to be able to go play the No. 1 team in the country.”

Despite Mississippi State’s unprecedented success this year, the Alabama football players said they don’t expect the Bulldogs to come in and play like they’ve never been in a big-time game before – rather, they expect them to play even harder because of it.

“Mississippi State, they’re a great team,” junior running back Eddie Lacy said. “They’re undefeated. … They come out, they play hard, just the same as we do. So, it’s going to be a good game this weekend.”

The fact that both teams will enter the matchup undefeated for the first time since 1942  has added a lot of excitement to the game for junior guard Anthony Steen.

“It does [add a lot of excitement to the game],” Steen said. “Right now, we’re in our heads, thinking it’s going to be more physical – the most physical game of the year. And we’re just trying to get ready for it.”

Steen said he believes the key to victory for both teams will come down to their physical play.

“It’s going to be a physical game,” Steen said. “And whoever plays the smartest and more physical will win.”

Steen and the rest of the Crimson Tide will see plenty of that physicality when the Bulldogs visit. Aggressive play has been the cornerstone of the Bulldogs’ success thus far this season, starting on the defensive side of the ball.

Defensively, the Bulldogs rank third in the SEC in points allowed per game, giving up a paltry 14.4 points. All season, the defense has been characterized by swarming defenders, with the Bulldogs’ top three tacklers accumulating over 40 tackles. Linebackers Benardick McKinney and Cameron Lawrence and defensive back Nickoe Whitley have 55, 49 and 45 tackles, respectively.

The Bulldogs’ secondary has been just as effective as their front-seven counterparts, ranking second in the SEC with 12 interceptions on the year. Six Bulldog defenders have at least with one interception, with Darius Slay and Johnthan Banks leading the team with four a piece.

On the other side of the ball, the Mississippi State offense has been just as aggressive. For Mississippi State, the offense begins and ends with junior quarterback Tyler Russell. Russell hasn’t been the eye-popping playmaker that some teams feature, but he has been consistent in making plays and minimizing mistakes for his team.

This season, Russell has completed 60 percent of his passes for 1,575 yards and 15 touchdowns to only one interception. Conversely, Russell’s predecessor, Chris Relf, only completed 59 percent of his passes for 952 yards and five touchdowns to six interceptions through his first seven games.

Saban said Russell’s performance this year has made him one of the Bulldogs’ biggest offensive threats.

“Nothing he’s done has been a surprise to me,” Saban said. “We thought he was a really talented guy, had a really good arm, good athlete, smart guy. And he certainly has demonstrated all those things in terms of the way he’s played.”

Russell’s proficiency in the passing game hasn’t slowed down the Bulldogs’ running game this season, either. Rather, it’s been equally effective for the Bulldogs. Mississippi State is keeping right in line with its output on the ground from last season, when the Bulldogs’ Vick Ballard finished fourth in the SEC with 1,189 rushing yards. Junior running back LaDarius Perkins has been just as effective, if not more so, leading the conference with 724 yards off 5.8 yards a carry.

Regardless of Perkins’ success running the ball this year, senior Tide defensive lineman Jesse Williams said he liked the idea of one of the SEC’s premier rushers visiting to take on the staunch Tide rush defense.

“It should be good, much like Tennessee,” Williams said. “Real big guys that like to come off the ball, especially running the ball. It’s good. We like playing physical football too, and we’ve shown that we can handle a lot of physical teams that come through.”

Even with the Tide’s confidence heading into the game, Saban said he’s not allowing his team to look past what is a dangerous team in the Bulldogs.

Indeed, Saban said Mullen’s Bulldogs have one distinction over every other team Alabama has faced this season.

“…I think this is the best team we’ve played to this point,” Saban said. “Obviously, their record indicates that. They have great balance on offense and a very good quarterback. Their defense has played as one of the best in our league and does a great job with turnovers. It’s a real challenging game for us.”

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