By necessity, college football is an endeavor defined by brands. Compared with other sports, there are too few games among too many teams that are too far-flung and too varying in quality for anyone to make reliable assumptions based on win-loss records alone. Yet for precisely that reason, college football has remained uniquely bound to its assumptions, forever deferring to the authority of Top 25 polls, the BCS, and now the almighty playoff selection committee to render judgment on what amounts to a menagerie of closed loops. With such limited information on offer, reputation carries the day.
Since Nick Saban landed on campus, of course, the strongest brand in the game is the red script “A” of Alabama, so much so that it’s hard to shake the suspicion that the Crimson Tide are the real no. 1 even when their national ranking at a given moment doesn’t reflect it. That belief may as well be branded on the sport’s collective consciousness: Since 2008, Alabama has spent 40 weeks atop the AP poll,1 finishing there three times, and only six weeks outside of the top 10. The 2014 edition checks in at no. 5 in the latest committee poll, having lost once already, at Ole Miss, and narrowly survived subsequent road trips to Arkansas and LSU. Despite its apparent vulnerability, though, Bama also remains an irresistible darling among the nation’s gamblers, who are giving Saban’s squad better odds to claim the national championship in January than any other team except Oregon.2
For comparison, the only other school in that span with more than a dozen appearances at no. 1 is Florida, which held the top spot for 15 weeks in 2008 and 2009. But the Gators haven’t come close to the summit since losing the SEC championship game (and the no. 1 ranking) to Alabama in December 2009. Before the current run, Alabama had been ranked no. 1 for 31 weeks in its entire history.
The Ducks just passed the Crimson Tide over the weekend, posting 15-4 odds to Bama’s 4-1.
Saturday’s date with Mississippi State will mark the 64th consecutive game the Crimson Tide have entered as favorites, according to Las Vegas — as of midweek, the spread is up to 8 points after opening at 6 — a streak spanning the career of every player on the roster. It’s the fourth time in that period the Tide have been favored to beat the no. 1 team in the nation. As ever, Alabama under Saban is the safest bet in the game, a blue-chip stock regardless of its record or its opponent’s.
Which forces us to ask: What does it mean for Mississippi State to be both no. 1 in every broadly recognizable capacity and, simultaneously, a perpetual underdog?
On paper, the Bulldogs should have nothing left to prove, having already dispatched three top-10 opponents (LSU, Texas A&M, and Auburn) in as many games earlier this season, all in decisive fashion. The upset of LSU ended a 14-year losing streak against the Tigers and a 15-game losing streak against ranked opponents, while the win over A&M gave MSU its first consecutive victories over ranked teams in program history. The victory over Auburn, ranked no. 2 at the time, gave the Bulldogs their highest-rated victim since 1980 and lifted them to no. 1 for the first time. No team in the 79-year history of the AP poll has risen as quickly from outside the rankings altogether to the top. Over the subsequent month, as other contenders have fallen by the wayside, MSU’s share of first-place votes has only increased.
Still, it seems hearts and minds — and wallets — are not quite convinced. The cognitive dissonance between the polls, where Mississippi State reigns supreme for the fifth week in a row, and the tidal wave of smart money rolling in behind the Saban Death Star is a tidy, tangible illustration of just how deeply entrenched the programs’ brands really are, beyond any short-term assessment of records or résumés in 2014. In Mississippi State’s case, that’s still scraping by with the smallest revenue stream in the SEC, still fielding a roster comprised of three-star recruits, still more than seven decades removed from its lone conference championship, in 1941. Still, you know, Mississippi State.
“(They) probably have more five-star players sitting on the bench that can’t get a rep on their team than we have on our roster,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said earlier this week, understating the ostensible talent gap by a wide margin: Alabama’s projected depth chart for Saturday boasts 48 players who arrived as four- or five-star recruits; Mississippi State’s depth chart lists nine, only four of whom are starters.3 At running back alone, the Crimson Tide have the luxury of spelling five-star starter T.J. Yeldon, who will be limited by a gimpy ankle, with a five-star backup, Derrick Henry, while two other highly recruited options, Altee Tenpenny and Tyren Jones, wait in the wings. “They got more and more and more coming out of there, too,” Mullen said. “They’ve still got a couple more five-stars. I don’t think the well’s going to run dry for them on talent anytime soon.”
The Bulldogs’ only five-star recruit, sophomore defensive lineman Chris Jones, is a backup.
Saturday’s trip to Tuscaloosa is the third game this year that’s been billed as the biggest in Mississippi State history, joining the October home stands against Texas A&M and Auburn, and given the timing, this one probably has the best claim to the distinction. With a win, the Bulldogs will move within one game of clinching the SEC West, a mere formality at that point with East Division doormat Vanderbilt on deck; from there, they would advance to the conference championship game regardless of the outcome in the regular-season finale against Ole Miss, and arrive in Atlanta to face an inferior SEC East squad with a playoff berth virtually assured. Eight weeks ago, such a ceiling for the Bulldogs would have barely been conceivable. Even now, though, it’s hard to imagine until we see them measure up to the gold standard.
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The SEC has produced only a handful of transcendent quarterbacks in the past decade, and for all of them, beating Alabama served as a kind of rite of passage. Tim Tebow had his moment against the Tide in 2008, when he rallied Florida from a fourth-quarter deficit in the SEC championship game; the Gators went on to win the BCS crown a few weeks later. Cam Newton had his in 2010, clinching the Heisman Trophy and a perfect regular season for Auburn with a jaw-dropping comeback in the Iron Bowl; from that point on, the Tigers’ eventual national championship felt like a foregone conclusion. And Johnny Manziel had his in 2012, morphing in the course of the Aggies’ upset from a productive but not especially celebrated upstart to the face of the sport.
There’s a perceived trend that Saban’s defenses have struggled against versatile, dual-threat quarterbacks, as if any other defense over the past few years has fared better. Still, in one fashion or another, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott has been compared to all of the above players, both stylistically and symbolically as the once-in-a-generation talent capable of carrying his team into lush new territories beyond the historic limitations. So far, so good: MSU leads the SEC in offense, Prescott is a fixture near the top of Heisman boards, and he has no competition for the title of best quarterback in school history. In September, when Mississippi State was still unranked, I wrote that Prescott would go down as a beloved figure in Starkville if the Bulldogs managed to finish better than fifth in a ruthless division that, at the time, featured five other teams — i.e., the entire division except for MSU and Arkansas — ranked in the AP’s top 10. Obviously, he’s exceeded the mark.
Still, there’s a reason the list of breakthrough performances against Alabama is limited to one or two names every other year. And as usual, the 2014 defense is every bit the proving ground its imperious reputation suggests: Bama is leading the SEC in total defense and yards per play allowed, among a host of other categories, for the sixth year in a row. (For the time being, Alabama’s five-year reign as the SEC’s top scoring defense has been interrupted by Ole Miss, which is yielding an FBS-best 11.9 points per game; the Crimson Tide rank second nationally at 13.9.) Alabama has been especially stingy against the run, allowing just 2.8 yards per carry and a grand total of two rushing touchdowns, fewest in the nation. Last week, LSU’s Herculean freshman Leonard Fournette pounded out 79 yards on the ground against the Tide, the most of any opposing back this season, but it took him 21 carries to get there — good for an excruciating 3.8 yards per carry, with a long gain of 13.
No opposing defense has given Mississippi State any reason to be that patient; through nine games, MSU has gained at least 450 yards in each, including an eye-opening, 570-yard evisceration of LSU that sent the Bulldogs’ stock into orbit along with their quarterback’s. In that game, as in most others, Mississippi State had its way in the running game, which in turn made life much easier for Prescott as a passer. Between Prescott and junior Josh Robinson, a 5-foot-9, 215-pound Volkswagen of a back whose prodigious ass has emerged as a mainstream curiosity, MSU effectively deploys two workhorse tailbacks who have combined for 1,763 yards, 22 touchdowns, and 16 runs of 20 yards or longer on roughly 32 carries per game. That one of them also happens to be one of the most efficient passers in the league — à la Tebow and Newton — is a problem with only one tenuous solution: Force Prescott to throw early and often, and not on his terms.
The only defense that has kind of stopped Mississippi State’s ground game is Arkansas’s, which managed to hold the Bulldogs to a season-low 128 yards rushing on November 1; not coincidentally, they also finished with 17 points in that game, a full three touchdowns below their season average, despite a career-high 331 yards passing by Prescott. (MSU’s previous low on the scoreboard was 34 points in the win over LSU.) The Razorbacks bent a few times, and broke once, allowing a wide-open, 69-yard touchdown pass from Prescott to Fred Ross in the fourth quarter that turned out to be the difference. But they also held their own against the run, kept Prescott in the pocket, and made him string together long drives with his arm.4 The flip side of Prescott’s big night in the yardage column was a pair of interceptions in the first half that exposed his limitations as a stand-and-deliver pocket passer.
Field position played a significant role: All 11 of Mississippi State’s possessions began inside the MSU 30-yard line, including five inside the MSU 10.
In his last three SEC games, Prescott has served up five interceptions to Auburn, Kentucky, and Arkansas against just three passing touchdowns, a significant red flag amid the weekly hosannas.
For Mississippi State’s offense, the ideal scenario this weekend wouldn’t require Prescott to necessarily channel Tebow, Newton, or Manziel. Rather, it would be a reprise of Auburn’s 34-28 stunner over Alabama in last year’s “Kick-Six” game, in which the Tigers racked up more yards (296) and first downs (17) on the ground, on more yards per carry (5.7), than any opposing offense had managed against Bama since Saban’s third game on the job in 2007.5 Almost all of those yards were generated out of the same basic option package, which consistently forced the Crimson Tide to account for tailback Tre Mason between the tackles, quarterback Nick Marshall on the perimeter, and occasionally a wide receiver as a downfield outlet. Even then, Auburn needed a series of improbable twists just to put itself in position to exploit the bizarro ending. But the blueprint exists, and Mississippi State stands to gain as much from it as the Tigers did last November.
In the intervening 89 games, Bama had allowed only 200 yards rushing twice, against LSU in 2008 and 2010, and then just barely. LSU has also come the closest of any opposing offense to 200 yards on the ground this year, grinding out 183 on 56 attempts.
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Two years ago, Mississippi State won its first seven games against the cushier half of the schedule, rising as high as no. 13 in the AP poll in late October. From there, the Bulldogs proceeded to drop four of their last five in the regular season by sobering margins — 31 points at Alabama, 25 points against Texas A&M, 20 points at LSU, 17 points against a middling edition of Ole Miss — and limped into the offseason at 8-5, complete with a Gator Bowl loss to Northwestern. The previous year, in 2011, MSU had opened in the preseason polls for the first time in a decade, at no. 20, only to finish 7-6 with a single victory over an opponent that finished above .500. In both cases, the takeaway was blunt but obvious: Even a solid, well-coached Mississippi State team is capable of going only so far, and no further.
Locally, there have been a few reminders this week of how badly the 2012 Bulldogs flamed out with a big opportunity seemingly within their grasp, but the 2014 edition has already advanced well beyond that threshold. Depending on how the dominoes fall elsewhere, these Bulldogs may have a chance to crack the playoff field even with a loss down the stretch, based on the strength of their midseason wins within the division. (Of course, for that scenario to remain a remote possibility, they’ll have to add another quality win on Saturday or in two weeks against Ole Miss.) The team that takes the field this weekend is a completely different outfit playing for dramatically higher stakes in November than any Mississippi State unit in living memory, and MSU fans are under no illusions otherwise.
Still, the Bulldogs can’t afford to approach the opportunity like they’re playing with house money, no matter how much of it happens to be wagered against them. Prescott may be back in 2015 as a fifth-year senior (or he may not), but the chance to further elevate the ceiling at Mississippi State is right in front of him, right now. As Mullen observed earlier this year, “If you win a really big game, the gift is you get an even bigger one the next week,” which has proven to be true. Each of his team’s high-profile wins since September has come at the expense of a higher-ranked opponent, and has opened up new possibilities. Now, the only way it can get any bigger than a top-five showdown at Alabama down the stretch is in a postseason venue with a championship on the line. If the Bulldogs find themselves in that position, here’s guessing the skeptics still inclined to brand them as the underdogs will be in much scarcer supply.