Column: Top-ranked Mississippi State prepares for its national close-up

Dak Prescott, Dan Mullen
Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott talks to Coach Dan Mullen during a break in play against Kentucky last month.
(Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

Alabama has had so many big-program moments it’s hard for the Crimson Tide to keep track.

However, for Mississippi State this is it. Saturday is the most important day in the school’s 115-year football history.

It took years of planning, and crafty nonconference scheduling, for Mississippi State to get into the position of being 9-0 and top ranked.

Mississippi State has never been 9-0, never been No. 1, and never had this kind of pressure before kickoff.


Not only are the Bulldogs trying to win at Louisiana State (already done) and Alabama for the first time since 1957, they are trying to connect the dots on what may be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to win a national title.

“They probably have more five stars [recruits] sitting on the bench than we have on our entire team,” Bulldogs Coach Dan Mullen said of Alabama this week.

Mississippi State had to wait for one talented recruiting class to grow up and become seniors.

The Bulldogs enter their national close-up with some advantages. They got to warm up last week with an easy game against Tennessee Martin, part of the team’s cupcake nonconference package, while Alabama is coming off a tough overtime win at LSU.


In 2012, Alabama won a similarly emotional game in Baton Rouge, La., and lost the next week at home to quarterback Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M.

Dak Prescott is Mississippi State’s bulkier, dual-threat version of Manziel. Alabama Coach Nick Saban likens Prescott more to Tim Tebow, who led Florida to the 2008 Bowl Championship Series title after beating Alabama in the Southeastern Conference title game.

Alabama is favored by a touchdown, but the Crimson Tide is limping a bit with star tailback T.J. Yeldon nursing the ankle sprain he aggravated last week at LSU.

The site being Tuscaloosa is an advantage for Alabama, which eked out wins at Arkansas and LSU but has dominated home opponents by the combined score of 194-33.

Alabama is a big-moment program, with a 6-4 all-time record against top-ranked schools. While Mississippi State’s Mullen is only now starting to reverse field on his woeful record against ranked opponents, Alabama’s Saban has long been a huge-game master and commander.

Saturday’s game between No. 1 and No. 5 is guaranteed to be a game-changer in the College Football Playoff ranking. The game will be carefully scrutinized by an increasingly anxious selection committee.

The 12-person panel made a tactical error this week when it needlessly installed Texas Christian at No. 4 in the rankings. The committee has only three weeks left to resolve a critical issue involving Big 12 schools TCU and Baylor. Baylor won the head-to-head meeting, a wild 61-58 game in Waco, Texas, and will claim the conference title if both schools win out.

The problem: the committee, in its first ranking, had TCU at No. 7, six positions ahead of Baylor.


Sensing it would have to reward Baylor if the Bears win the Big 12 Conference, the committee closed the gap to three spots this week.

The panel inflamed the situation, though, by putting TCU into the fourth position — which would put it in a national championship semifinal. The Horned Frogs close with what should be wins against Kansas, Texas and Iowa State.

The committee could have avoided all this by putting Alabama at No. 4 instead of TCU. The position doesn’t matter right now because Alabama was going to leapfrog the Frogs anyway if it defeats Mississippi State.

Placing TCU at No. 5 would have closed the Baylor gap to two spots and eliminated the potential need to drop TCU out of a playoff spot before the final ranking is released on Dec. 7.

How Mississippi State-Alabama plays out will also be important to the selection committee. An Alabama blowout victory would allow the committee to trapdoor Mississippi State down the rankings given the Bulldogs’ laughable nonconference schedule.

A tight game would probably force the committee to keep Mississippi State in the mix.

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