TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Fresh from one major upset, Mississippi State is gunning for an even bigger target: No. 1 Alabama.
The Bulldogs’ win over No. 10 Texas A&M makes the Crimson Tide’s break Saturday from a four-game parade of ranked opponents look more treacherous, even if the oddsmakers don’t think so.
The Bulldogs (4-5, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) remain four-touchdown underdogs despite that performance against the Aggies, who had been fourth in the College Football Playoff rankings. Alabama (9-0, 6-0, No. 1 CFP) hasn’t appeared nearly so vulnerable but must recover from the physical and mental toll of a 10-0 slugfest against No. 19 LSU.
“I think the biggest thing is we can’t have any kind of relief syndrome after a big, emotional game,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
The Tide has won the last eight meetings with the team from a mere 90 minutes away. Survive this game, and the Tide can win the SEC West outright with an Iron Bowl victory over No. 8 Auburn.
Saban said Mississippi State is playing the best it has all season. The Bulldogs’ challenge is to see if they can keep it up after that 35-28 win over the Aggies.
“For us, we have a very young team and I want to see how they react,” said coach Dan Mullen, who is 0-7 against the Tide but has produced four wins over Top 10 teams.
“In some ways, it is not a bad situation to be in. Nobody expects us to win, so we just have to go find a way to win the game without the pressure on us.”
Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey thinks it might be a boon to the Tide, just in case there was any temptation to look past this game. The Bulldogs racked up 574 yards of total offense against the Aggies.
“I know Mississippi State’s had a lot of close games that they’ve lost,” Humphrey said. “To beat Texas A&M must mean they’re doing something right. That actually might help our mind-set. They’re a pretty good team. They’ve got as many scholarship players as we do. They’ve got good players, too. You just can’t take anybody lightly.”
Mississippi State must win two of its final three games to become bowl eligible, finishing against Arkansas and at Mississippi.
Some other things to know about this game:
RUNNING QBS: The game features the SEC’s top two rushing quarterbacks. Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald, the co-SEC offensive player of the week, is fifth overall in the SEC with 839 yards and eight touchdowns. He faces the nation’s top run defense. Hurts has run for 635 yards and 10 touchdowns.
MILESTONES: Saban just picked up his 200th win as a college head coach. Now, he’s got a chance to equal the record of 40 wins as the No. 1 team currently shared by Ohio State’s Woody Hayes and Florida State’s Bobby Bowden. This is also Mullen’s 100th game as a head coach.
STANDOUT RECEIVERS: Neither team has put up huge passing numbers but both have standout wide receivers. Alabama’s Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart are both significant threats. Mississippi State’s Fred Ross leads the SEC with nine receiving touchdowns and his 54 catches ranks second.
PASSING OPPORTUNITY? Alabama hasn’t produced a 200-yard passing day in its past three games. The Bulldogs, though, rank last in the SEC in pass defense, giving up 21 passing touchdowns and 264 yards per game.
PROTECTING FITZGERALD: The Bulldogs have allowed 20 sacks this season despite Fitzgerald’s mobility. Alabama’s defense leads the nation with 37 sacks, led by Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams, making good pass protection paramount.