By MATTHEW STEVENS
Nobody can anticipate calling the Mississippi State-Alabama game, The Battle of Highway 82 anytime soon.
However, if one judges by recent back-and-forth results and the distance between the two schools – the Crimson Tide is a rivalry game for those who bleed maroon and white around the MSU campus.
“It is a rivalry game and we look at this game as a must-win game for us and our season,” senior linebacker K.J. Wright said. “They’re a really physical football team. They’re not going to come in and try to trick us.”
Mullen, who has insisted on devoting his time and effort to securing in-state talent instead of branching off to other Southeastern states, said Monday that despite having 13 active players from Alabama on the Bulldogs roster, he wouldn’t totally consider the contest with the Crimson Tide a rivalry.
“It’s not close to what the other rivalry [Egg Bowl with Ole Miss] is for us,” Mullen said. “There’s a state line between us and a majority of our team is from Mississippi. We've got a do a good job of balancing the series out more. Rivalry games come when you win.”
84 miles separates the two campuses and for an MSU program that has already beaten Georgia and defeated a Florida team on the road, a victory at Bryant-Denny Stadium would essentially cap a season that could turn into a big recruiting message for future prospects throughout the southeast.
“I think it just shows all those kids that hey, you can go to a school to have an opportunity to compete for championships and play,” Mullen said.
For the kids that live close to that Alabama border, the importance of this game resonates back to recruiting decisions they made years ago.
Mississippi State’s senior offensive tackle Derek Sherrod went to high school five miles from the Alabama state line in Caledonia, Miss., and was aware of the fan base split at a young age.
“We’ve had a lot of hard fought games and as a senior I’ve had the pleasure of beating them once,” Sherrod said. “It was always a question growing up as to who my favorite team would be. You always got a say from all three aspects MSU, Alabama and Ole Miss after a weekend of college football.”
Mississippi State’s starting quarterback Chris Relf was born and raised in Montgomery, Ala., and never recruited by the Crimson Tide program despite being ranked as the second-best quarterback at a Scout.com camp in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Mullen attempted to downplay the chatter that this game is a showcase moment for the 6-foot-4, 240-pound signal caller.
“He wasn’t recruited by Auburn, LSU or Florida or Kentucky any of those people either,” Mullen said. “I don’t think this one is more than any of the other ones for him. Probably more Auburn than this one for him, being from Montgomery.”
Relf, who failed to complete a pass in last year’s 31-3 blowout by Alabama at Davis-Wade Stadium, spent the bye week working on his technique and footwork fundamentals with Mullen and the offensive staff in order to become more reliable in the passing game.
The junior signal caller has only completed double-digit passes against one team in the Division 1 Football Subdivision and that came in State’s 17-14 loss to Auburn.
“We threw the ball a lot last week. And it's better. Throwing a football is a skill. Any time you have a skill, you're going to continually improve. … He concentrates on it, he's improved some things, and he did a nice job," Mullen said.
For the first time since 2000, State (7-2, 3-2) will have a better or equal record in its match up against Alabama when they make the trip this Saturday (6:15 p.m., ESPN2) to Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. Despite that fact, the Bulldogs are a 14-point underdog this week according to the Las Vegas odds makers.
“We'll have our hands full," Mullen said. "They've got experience, they got depth and talent at every position on the field.”