TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — This Alabama-Mississippi State game is about current stars like Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper, not the number of stars once bestowed as recruits.
If history and pedigree are on the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide’s side entering Saturday’s mega-SEC West showdown, the Bulldogs are the ones sporting the No. 1 ranking and perfect record.
It’s new territory for a one-sided rivalry between programs stationed some 85 miles apart geographically and worlds apart historically.
Mississippi State (9-0, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) and Alabama (8-1, 5-1) stand on much more even ground this season. Both are shoo-ins for the first College Football Playoffs if they win out. The Bulldogs hold the top spot in the CFP rankings, the Tide is fifth with a virtually guaranteed move up with a win.
Alabama, which has been dominant at Bryant-Denny Stadium, is an 81/2-point favorite whatever the rankings.
Mississippi State’s already played in one game of similar magnitude, beating then-No. 2 Auburn at home. Coach Dan Mullen is hoping his players have a chance to get used to them.
“They love it,” Mullen said. “This is what they came to school here for. They wanted to put us in a position where we’re on a national stage here at Mississippi State.”
They’ve certainly arrived. Mississippi State has held the top spot in the AP rankings for five weeks and is seeking to match its program-best 13-game winning streak set from 1942-44.
The Tide, which routinely lands top-ranked recruiting classes and contends for titles, has won the past six meetings and 79 percent overall.
Quarterback Blake Sims said Alabama had to put that one in the rear view mirror quickly and “realize that this is the next step to get to the promised land.”
Added Tide receiver DeAndrew White: “Big games, we’re pretty used to it around here.”
Some things to watch in the game:
DAK VS. DEFENSE: This is the field where Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel had his Heisman moment in 2012. The Bulldogs’ Heisman candidate is averaging 334 yards in total offense, which is 59 yards more than Alabama’s league-leading defense is surrendering.
Prescott has been intercepted five times in the last three SEC games but has four 200-yard passing/100-yard running efforts already.
HOME DOMINATION: Alabama has had a couple of shaky road performances, but it’s been a different story at home. The Tide has won 13 straight at Bryant-Denny and outscored its four opponents in the mammoth stadium this season by a collective 194-33. Alabama is outgaining opponents by an average of 415 yards in those games, which include SEC contests with Florida and Texas A&M.
ROBINSON & YELDON: Mississippi State’s compact, powerful running back Josh Robinson is having the kind of season many expected from Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon. The league’s No. 2 rusher, Robinson stands just 16 yards shy of 1,000 for the season. He’ll face the nation’s No. 3 rushing defense, which has allowed only two touchdowns on the ground.
Yeldon isn’t ranked among the SEC’s Top 10 rushers. He has sustained foot and ankle injuries in the past two games but has practiced this week and, Saban said, is “doing well.”
MISMATCH? Mississippi State is ranked last in the SEC in pass defense and faces one of the nation’s top receivers in Cooper. He already has a pair of 200-yard games this season.
The Bulldogs are allowing 301 yards per the air.
FRONT SEVEN: Both defenses have big, physical front sevens. The Bulldogs, who are tied with Texas A&M for the league lead in sacks, are led by middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney and defensive end Preston Smith. Tide lineman A’Shawn Robinson is a force inside and out while at linebacker Xzavier Dickson is the pass rushing specialist and Reggie Ragland is having a big year.