Mississippi State guard Ben Beckwith is a 6-foot-3, 306-pounder who looks like what you would get if you introduced one of Slayer’s guitar techs to a squat rack. He plays with a nasty streak, and he seems incapable of providing a BS answer to any question. So, though Robert’s Rules of Getting Interviewed Before Football Games suggested Beckwith say the Bulldogs are treating Alabama like any other opponent, Beckwith told the truth. Saturday’s clash in Tuscaloosa does mean more, and that’s good, because the top-ranked Bulldogs needed some motivation. “We’ve had a little lull these past three weeks,” Beckwith said. “There’s no doubt about that. There’s not a person on the team who will tell you we’ve played well the past three weeks.”
After a dizzying four-week run in which Mississippi State beat LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn in games that seemed to push the needle closer to the red line each week, the Bulldogs moved to No. 1 in the polls. Then they played Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee-Martin. It was like returning home from a grand adventure to find piles of laundry and dirty dishes. The mundane details of facing ordinary opponents couldn’t compete with what the Bulldogs had just experienced, and players' engagement waned. “The games aren’t as hyped,” Beckwith said. “The moment isn’t as big. It’s kind of hard to keep those younger guys -- and a lot of the older guys -- that juiced and that hyped.”
This game will be hyped. This moment will be huge. The winner will control its destiny in the SEC West, and therefore also in the national title race. The 9-0 Bulldogs might be able to lose and remain in the hunt for one of the four playoff spots. The 8-1 Crimson Tide probably cannot. So, if the Mississippi State players needed stakes, they’ve got them. Alabama players have had to grapple with this phenomenon their entire careers. The Crimson Tide have been so successful in part because coach Nick Saban has found a way to normalize the week-to-week experience. That takes practice, and this is all new to Mississippi State.
Sure, the Bulldogs came to Tuscaloosa with a 7-0 record two years ago, but that was a function of a soft early schedule. Everyone knew it, including coach Dan Mullen, who joked about the fat point spread before the game. “If we walk in the stadium and they spot us those 24 points, I’m going to be really excited,” Mullen cracked a few days before Mississippi State went to Bryant-Denny Stadium and lost 38-7 on Oct. 27, 2012.
The Tide are an eight-point favorite this week even though the College Football Playoff committee ranked Alabama four spots below the Bulldogs. This is also fine with the older Mississippi State players, who find themselves in a role to which they became accustomed. “We’re back to the team we were to begin the season -- the team we were earlier this season -- where nobody expected us to win, didn’t think we could win,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. “We were the underdog in all those games. It feels good to be back to that rather than us being expected to win by a huge margin and if that doesn’t happen, then everybody’s questioning. It’s good to be back to ourselves and be who we are this week.”
And just as they did during the three-game surge that put them atop the polls, the Bulldogs can play the overlooked card. Players can unleash their rage against one of the programs that thought they weren’t good enough during the recruiting process. Well, most of them can. Former walk-on Beckwith doesn’t have enough energy to hate every school that passed on him. “I would say you get up knowing that you’re playing guys who overlooked you, but I can do that every game,” Beckwith said. “But there are some guys on this team that did get overlooked by all those schools that we played against, and that gives them a little drive.”
Motivation means little if a team can’t execute, and that seems to be the key difference between Saturday’s game and more recent editions of the series. Mississippi State has already proven it can play at the level required to hang with Alabama. That hadn’t happened since Bama’s rise began in 2008. Still, the Bulldogs must prove they can cover Tide receiver Amari Cooper. They must prove defensive linemen Kaleb Eulls and Preston Smith can fight through Alabama’s offensive line and pressure Tide quarterback Blake Sims. Beckwith and his fellow linemen must open holes for Prescott and running back Josh Robinson, and receiver De’Runnya Wilson must get open against Alabama’s secondary. Meanwhile, Alabama’s defense must prove it can contain a mobile quarterback. Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace ran for three first downs against the Tide. Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs ran for 75 yards against Alabama. Last Saturday LSU’s most productive plays came when Anthony Jennings tucked and ran. Take away sacks, and Jennings averaged 5.2 yards a carry.
Alabama coach Nick Saban can easily remind his players that Mississippi State is a threat by pointing to a different game from 2012. A week after Alabama pulled off a thrilling, come-from-behind win at LSU, Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M stunned the Tide in Tuscaloosa. This week Alabama is fresh off an even more thrilling come-from-behind victory over LSU, and Mississippi State also has a quarterback who wouldn’t mind stating his case for the Heisman Trophy. That’s why Saban was quick to respond on Saturday when he was asked whether wins such as the ’12 and ’14 comebacks against LSU could be built upon. “We didn’t play very well after that win,” Saban said of the ’12 game.
While the 2012 Alabama team went into the Texas A&M game undefeated and bounced back to win the national title, this group has less margin for error. “But, there is a but. We didn’t play that great,” Saban said of the 20-13 win at LSU. “We need to play better, and we need to improve. And that takes a lot of maturity on our players’ part to understand that they can’t be satisfied just because we won. We’re really capable of playing better and executing with more consistency, and we’re going to need to do that to beat the teams we need to beat coming up.”
Then Saban said something that applies to both teams. “Most of the time, that’s not our nature as human beings, you know. We win, and we’re satisfied. We think we’re supposed to get a break.”
The breaks are over Saturday. It’s time to find out who really wants to play for the national title.
• Cal at USC: The last time the Bears beat the Trojans, Aaron Rodgers threw for two touchdowns and ran for another and then got pulled in the third quarter in favor of backup quarterback Reggie Robertson, who passed for 217 yards with two scores in Cal’s 34-31 triple-overtime upset of USC in 2003. Now that we all feel old, let’s enjoy watching the Bears try to get bowl eligible and the Trojans try to finish strong in this final NCAA sanctions-addled season.
• Ohio State at Minnesota: The Buckeyes need some serious style points here. Virginia Tech will play Duke at the same time, and the last thing Ohio State needs is someone flicking the jump button between this game and a Hokies’ loss and thinking, “The Buckeyes lost to this team.” Minnesota is 7-2, but that could be a mirage. After all, the Gophers lost to Illinois. The entirety of the TCU fan base hopes Minnesota is for real.
• Clemson at Georgia Tech: Welcome back, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. Your early dark horse for the 2015 Heisman returns to the starting lineup for the first time since suffering a broken finger in a 23-17 win over Louisville on Oct. 11. Meanwhile, the Yellow Jackets will try to give themselves a shot in the ACC Coastal Division. This is Georgia Tech’s final ACC game, and a win would make it 6-2 in the ACC. Georgia Tech trails Duke by a game in the loss column, but Duke still has two more league games after Saturday’s meeting with Virginia Tech. Duke already beat Georgia Tech head to head, so the Jackets would have to beat Clemson and the Blue Devils would have lose at least two to Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Wake Forest.
• Virginia Tech at Duke: Though Georgia Tech wraps its ACC schedule on Saturday, Duke still can’t clinch the Coastal no matter what happens to the Yellow Jackets. The Blue Devils’ lone loss came at Miami on Sept. 27, and the Hurricanes are 3-2 in ACC play entering Saturday’s matchup with Florida State. Even a loss would not mathematically eliminate them. After all, this naturally will be the week that Virginia Tech puts it all together, because ACC Coastal.
• Iowa at Illinois: It’s doubtful Tim Beckman can save his job at Illinois, but he can make life a lot more miserable than it already is for Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz.
• South Carolina at Florida: Will Muschamp can save his job at Florida. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier is one of Muschamp’s favorite people in the profession, but don’t expect any sentimentality from either man. Spurrier despises losing and has already done it five times this season. Muschamp needs a win here and a decent performance at Florida State to make coaching the Gators in 2015 a realistic possibility. Speaking of possibilities, Florida still has a mathematical chance to win the SEC East. It would need to beat South Carolina, have Georgia lose to Auburn on Saturday and have Missouri lose two of its final three games, with one of those losses coming at Tennessee next week. I said it was a mathematical possibility, not a realistic one.
• TCU at Kansas: Jayhawks fans tore down the goalposts after beating Iowa State 34-14 last week. The goalposts are safe this week.
• Washington at Arizona: The Wildcats bounced back from their loss to UCLA by beating Colorado last week, but they still must beat Washington and Utah to have a chance to turn the Territorial Cup into a clash for the Pac-12 South title.
• Nebraska at Wisconsin: The Cornhuskers’ path to the Big Ten title game looked pretty clear when the Badgers lost at Northwestern on Oct. 4. Then quarterback Joel Stave’s recovery from the yips turned Wisconsin’s season around. We’ll see if Minnesota can hang around in the West Division race, but it could be a matchup of two of the nation’s best backs (Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon) that determines which team faces Ohio State in Indianapolis.
• Auburn at Georgia: Auburn is trying to rally from a heartbreaking 41-38 loss to Texas A&M. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs get Todd Gurley back from his four-game NCAA suspension for selling autographs. A Georgia win combined with any Missouri loss in the next three weeks would give the Bulldogs the SEC East title.
• Missouri at Texas A&M: Which Texas A&M team will show up for this game is anyone’s guess. The people in Athens will pull for the version that beat Auburn.
• Florida State at Miami: Vegas seems shaky on the Seminoles, listing them as a mere 2.5-point favorite. Miami is playing its best football of the Al Golden era. This feels like a trendy upset pick. Florida State, which might have been bored in some previous games, will not come out bored here.
• LSU at Arkansas: Speaking of weird lines, Arkansas -- which hasn’t won an SEC game since 2012 -- is favored against the Tigers by between one and two points depending on the sportsbook. The Razorbacks are playing too well to not break through at some point, so it might make sense the moment comes against an LSU team that exhausted a lot of emotional energy in an overtime loss to Alabama.
• Michigan State at Maryland: Can the Spartans bounce back from last week’s 49-37 home loss to Ohio State? This is a prime upset opportunity for the Terrapins, who will play without receiver Stefon Diggs because of a suspension but probably would have been without him anyway because he has a lacerated kidney.
• Arizona State at Oregon State: The Beavers used to be good for about one wacky upset in Corvallis every year. They don’t seem capable of that in 2014, so the rest of the Pac-12 South probably won’t make up ground on the Sun Devils.
Vintage video of the week
The great Bill Connelly wrote this week that advanced statistics suggest this season could end in chaos similar to the ends of the 1990 or ’84 seasons. In case you have forgotten, a Colorado team that got five downs to beat Missouri shared the national title with Georgia Tech in ’90. In ’84 BYU won the national title.
The inciting incident that could take this year to that level of weirdness, Connelly writes, would be Miami upsetting Florida State on Saturday. Still, it’s tough to believe anything could rival 1984. The Cougars had their path to the title cleared 30 years ago next Monday, when Nebraska had its 27-game Big 8 winning streak snapped by Oklahoma and unbeaten South Carolina -- yes, South Carolina -- got stunned at Navy.
On the menu
I’ll be in Tuscaloosa for Mississippi State-Alabama on Saturday, but since SI frowns on $700 hotel rooms, I’ll be staying in nearby Birmingham. That hopefully means I’ll eat something from the Saw’s empire. With any luck, I’ll be able to hit Saw’s Barbecue, Saw’s Soul Kitchen, Saw’s Juke Joint or Post Office Pies. Or maybe all four.