Mullen's Bulldogs are 7-0, just like Alabama. They play in the SEC West, just like Alabama. Yet no one thinks Mississippi State is anything at all like Alabama. The Crimson Tide are ranked No. 1 in the BCS, the Coaches' Poll, the Harris Poll and the AP Poll. Only seven of 235 human voters in any of those polls believe a team is better than Alabama, and none of those seven ranked Mississippi State first. In fact, the Bulldogs are ranked No. 11 (BCS), No. 12 (Coaches), No. 12 (Harris) and No. 13 (AP). The only way Mississippi State can change that perception and make anyone believe that the Bulldogs' 7-0 start is a legitimate feat and not a mirage caused by a back-loaded schedule is to play toe-to-toe with Alabama Saturday. "This is the opportunity they wanted," Mullen said of his players.
The excitement in Starkville is as thick as the smoke that wafts from the pit at Petty's Barbecue. The Bulldogs are excited. Heck, their coach is excited. He has already faced and beaten an undefeated Crimson Tide team in a big game before, as Florida's offensive coordinator in the 2008 SEC Championship Game. He had Tim Tebow that day, but Mullen earned his paycheck by beating Nick Saban and Kirby Smart's defense without injured Percy Harvin. Still, Mullen knows this is different. He's a massive underdog going into Bryant-Denny Stadium, where a man called Bear still growls on fall Saturdays and sends more than 100,000 people into hysterics. Mullen can only imagine the adrenaline rush he'll feel Saturday night. "I've never jumped out of an airplane," he said. "But I imagine it's like being on a three-and-a-half hour free fall."
So does Mississippi State stand a chance? The Bulldogs have players. Cornerback Johnthan Banks is a future first-rounder who is tied for the SEC lead in interceptions. Tailback LaDarius Perkins leads the SEC in rushing yards (724) and all-purpose yards (1,002). Quarterback Tyler Russell and a group of veteran receivers combine to average 224.7 yards a game. But will that be enough against a team that has the nation's best offensive line, the SEC's most efficient quarterback (AJ McCarron) and a defense that leads the nation in scoring defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense? "They're the best team in the country," Mullen said. "It's pretty obvious."
The knock against Mississippi State is that the Bulldogs have played a soft schedule to this point. That can't be disputed. Mississippi State's first seven opponents have a combined record of 19-32. The Bulldogs' previous SEC opponents, meanwhile, have a combined record of 5-17 and are winless in 14 league games. How bad is it? Until this season, Mullen hadn't beaten a non-Ole Miss SEC West opponent. He beat Auburn, but the Tigers may wind up 0-8 in SEC play. Now compare that to Mississippi State's next three opponents (Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU), which are a combined 19-3 overall and 9-3 in SEC play. "If we don't prepare really well, if we don't have a great week of practice, on Saturday then we don't have a chance to win the game," Mullen said. "But you can say that about any of the games we have left on our schedule." He's correct. The Bulldogs close with steadily improving Arkansas and Ole Miss.
Alabama faces a similar gauntlet. The Crimson Tide's next three opponents (Mississippi State, LSU, Texas A&M) are a combined 19-3 and 8-3 in SEC play. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban knows his team can't look past Mississippi State to LSU. "They always play tough against us," Saban said Monday. "They don't play okay against us. They play well. We struggled as much against them last year as anyone else that we played against."
One factor to consider: The Bulldogs won't be scared or awed by the Crimson Tide. Mississippi State has played the eventual national champ each of the past three seasons; the players understand full well how good a true national title contender is. "A lot of times you play a team that's No. 1 in the country and there's some shock," Mullen said. "Or you go into their stadium and get intimidated. Our guys won't have that." All they'll have is the best team in the country standing between them and an entirely different perception of the program.
• Cincinnati at Louisville (Friday): This one will be appointment viewing for athletic directors considering firing their current coach. Cincinnati's Butch Jones and Louisville's Charlie Strong will be hot names once the firing begins in earnest. On the field, this should be a fun quarterback matchup between the Bearcats' Munchie Legaux and the Cardinals' Teddy Bridgewater.
• Tennessee at South Carolina: Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said he won't give quarterback Connor Shaw the hook like he did last week in Gainesville. "We told Connor that this is his game and we're not going to pull him out at halftime if he's struggling," Spurrier said. "He needs to go play. He has struggled a bit the last couple of games, and we're trying to help him out a little bit anyway we can." Playing Tennessee's defense instead of the defense of LSU or Florida probably will help more than anything. Meanwhile, Volunteers coach Derek Dooley has suggested that he might yank quarterback Tyler Bray if Bray is "too loose with the football." The Gamecocks need a bounceback win. The Vols, meanwhile, just need a win. Not for nothing, but Johnny Majors (1992), offensive coordinator Randy Sanders (2005) and Phillip Fulmer all lost their jobs after losses to South Carolina.
• Texas at Kansas: This is the only gimme left on the schedule for the Longhorns, who can become bowl eligible with a win. This season is the mirror image of last season. Last year, if Texas could have done anything on offense, the Longhorns might have won 10 games. This year, if the Longhorns can do anything on defense, they could have something resembling a successful season. If the defense keeps playing the way it has, the last four games will be rough.
• Kentucky at Missouri: Someone will walk out with their first SEC win of the season. The loser is probably looking at 0-8 in the league.
• Colorado at Oregon: Chip Kelly showed mercy against Arizona State, which he probably could have beaten by 70 points on national television on a Thursday night. If they wanted, the Ducks could probably beat the Buffaloes by at least 100. It all depends on how merciful Kelly feels.
• Florida vs. Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla.: Georgia safety Shawn Williams took heat this week for ripping the Bulldogs' defense for playing "soft," but Williams wasn't wrong. There is far too much future NFL talent on that defense for it to be as porous as it has been since the Tennessee game. The good news for Georgia is that correcting issues this week could lead to an SEC East title. The bad news is that in the past three weeks, Florida has beaten two teams (LSU and South Carolina) that have better defenses than Georgia.
• Texas Tech at Kansas State: Optimus Klein gets most of the pub, but don't forget about Wildcats tailback John Hubert, who has rushed for at least 100 yards four times this season. Expect the Wildcats to grind it out on the ground to keep the ball out of the hands of Texas Tech's Seth Doege, who has thrown 13 touchdown passes in the past two games.
• Ohio State at Penn State: This is a huge recruiting weekend for Penn State, which only has 15 scholarships a year -- and possibly fewer, considering the Nittany Lions can only carry 65 total beginning in 2014 -- to offer starting in 2013. Penn State's top targets will take in a game between two teams undefeated in Big Ten play. All coach Bill O'Brien can promise for the first three years of the class of 2013 is the chance to play in front of the crowd at Beaver Stadium. He can't offer championships or bowl games. But if the fans pack the stadium and the Nittany Lions put on a good show against a team that is serving its one-year bowl ban, then some of those recruits may be willing to come aboard.
• Texas A&M at Auburn: Here is a brief excerpt from the open letter Auburn president Jay Gouge sent to fans Thursday: "I know your concerns are sincere and heartfelt, and I share many of them," Gouge wrote. "As we do every year, the football program will be evaluated in an objective, thorough and professional process. ... For everything there is a time, and now is the time to support." That isn't even the usual vote of confidence/kiss of death most struggling football coaches get. And with Johnny Football about to be unleashed on Auburn's defense, things look like they're about to get worse in the Loveliest Village on the Plains.
• Notre Dame at Oklahoma: Oklahoma is asking fans to "Stripe the Stadium" for Notre Dame. Fans in even-numbered sections are supposed to wear crimson. Fans in odd-numbered sections are supposed to wear white. This sounds like an awful lot of work. Readers of this space are keenly aware that the football gods frown on [insert color here]-outs beyond the high school level. I'm not entirely sure how the football gods feel about stripe-outs, though this could look pretty cool. Guess we'll find out Saturday.
• Michigan at Nebraska: For Michigan, the most important game of this season is probably still Ohio State. For Nebraska, Saturday's showdown with the Wolverines is the most critical matchup remaining on its slate. Why? Look no further than the Big Ten Legends Division standings. Nebraska (2-1 in league play) can't afford to fall two games behind the Wolverines -- really three, because Michigan would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker -- and expect to have a chance to play for the Big Ten title. Michigan wouldn't be in great shape with a loss, but Nebraska would only need to lose once more to bring the Wolverines right back into the race. If Nebraska lost, the Cornhuskers would need Michigan to lose three of its final four games. (Or possibly two, but that would involve a messy three-or-more-way tie.)
"I think they'll be a coach who is coaching and working in college or professional football."
-- Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long on the Sports Talk with Bo Mattingly radio show this week discussing the Razorbacks' next football coach. That sound you heard is an audible sigh from Butch Davis.
Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said this week that he plans to allow the Scarlet Knights to kick off to Kent State's Dri Archer instead of trying to aim the ball away from the tiny speedster. Archer averages 47.7 yards a kick return, so this is either a monumentally bad idea or a plan that -- if it works -- will crush the spirits of the Golden Flashes and allow the Scarlet Knights to roll to 8-0. The Rutgers defense should worry as well. Archer also averages 10.1 yards a carry and 13.9 yards a catch. Not bad for a guy who only had one scholarship offer coming out of Venice (Fla.) High in 2009.
Match the embattled head coach with the bloated buyout figure to see who has the best chance of sticking around despite a subpar record.
Here's your answer key: 1-C, 2-A, 3-B. Yes, kids, if Iowa fires Kirk Ferentz, it would owe him $250,000 a month until January of 2020. So enjoy Kirk Ferentz, Hawkeyes. The Big Ten Network has made that league's schools quite wealthy, but even that largesse can't put a dent in the hostage note athletic director Gary Barta so masterfully negotiated in 2010. In SEC country, the boosters will have to dig deep, but they'll eventually get what they want if they desire a change.
This week, Texas coach Mack Brown went public with his displeasure with The Longhorn Network. Brown tapes three television shows a week, and he'd prefer to concentrate on football. Assuming the Longhorns don't lose at Kansas and Brown returns next year as coach, he'll probably add a rider to his contract that lessens his LHN workload. While he's at it, Brown should consider a few more outlandish requests. If he needs some inspiration, here are some of the best from the treasure trove of concert riders at TheSmokingGun.com.
5. Kenny Rogers: The rider for the Rogers tour gently reminds promoters that "CHAIN RESTAURANT FOOD IS NOT ACCEPTABLE. IT IS THE QUALITY, NOT THE EXCESSIVE QUANTITY THAT IS REQUESTED FOR THE KENNY ROGERS TOURING PERSONNEL." In unrelated news, Kenny Rogers lends his name to a chain of rotisserie chicken restaurants called Kenny Rogers Roasters. These have sadly flopped in America but apparently are huge in Asia. In college, I used to eat excessive quantities because the Kenny's near my apartment offered all-you-can-eat chicken and sides for $7.95. I never left without consuming at least one (1) whole chicken.
4. Michael Buble: The crooner required one bottle of premium single-malt Scotch and one hockey puck from the local team. He is Canadian, after all.
3. DMX: The rapper requested 24 new towels for himself and 24 for the stage crew. He also requested a gallon of Hennessey and three boxes of condoms.
2. Van Halen: Among the items Van Halen requested during its 1982 tour were four cases of Schlitz Malt Liquor, one case of Country Time Lemonade, M&Ms ("WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES") and one large tube of KY Jelly.
1. Iggy Pop: He had an epic, delightfully written rider for his 2006 tour. If Brown only takes one suggestion from it, let it be this one: "2 large industrial fans to be provided by promoter -- one on stage and one in the dressing room for use by the drummer. He's practicing that scarf thing they used to do in the Bon Jovi and Heart videos."
Those in Iowa City lamenting the continuation of Ferentzball for the better part of this decade can take solace in a leisurely breakfast at The Hamburg Inn No. 2. Build your own omelet. Put anything you want in it. Just make sure it comes smothered in sausage gravy. That way, your nerves will be properly lubricated at 11 a.m. local time when the Hawkeyes take the field at Northwestern.