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Rare ranked battle for Bulldogs, Crimson Tide

 

David Miller

 

STARKVILLE -- It''s not every year the Mississippi State and the University of Alabama football teams meet with identical records. 

 

Both teams haven''t been ranked entering their annual late-season game since 1999, when the Bulldogs were No. 8 with an 8-0 record and the Crimson Tide were No. 11. 

 

Alabama (7-2, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) enters its game at 6:15 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2) against No. 17 MSU (7-2, 3-2) ranked No. 11 in the Associated Press poll. 

 

Those factors, combined with MSU''s six-game winning streak and its short but savored victories against the Crimson Tide in 2006 and in ''07, shed light on a burgeoning rivalry between teams separated by just 83 miles. 

 

Some of MSU''s most noted wins have come against Alabama, including a 6-3 victory in 1980 that snapped the Crimson Tide''s 28-game unbeaten streak. Up to that point, the Bulldogs hadn''t beaten Alabama since 1958. 

 

Since 1996, the Bulldogs have won six of the 14 meetings between the programs, even as the Crimson Tide have re-established themselves as annual national title contenders since coach Nick Saban took over in ''07. 

 

The Alabama football reputation -- and dominance -- is ever-present in Mississippi, especially for Caledonia native and current MSU tackle Derek Sherrod, who considered going to Alabama before committing to MSU in ''07. 

 

"With me living so close to the state line all throughout my life, it was always a question who would be my favorite school," he said Monday. "The majority of fans were Mississippi State fans, and then probably second most was Alabama fans, then Ole Miss fans. You always got a little bit of say from everybody after each weekend of college football." 

 

How the series takes shape in the future is what MSU coach Dan Mullen considers the key component in the growth of the rivalry. He doesn''t consider the Alabama series to be on par with MSU''s rivalry with the University of Mississippi. 

 

"There''s a state line between us and a lot of our team''s from Mississippi," Mullen said of the Alabama series. "The other one is a much bigger rivalry game. We gotta do a good job of balancing the series. Rivalry games come when we win. When you start winning games and splitting those wins to where it becomes a tough game each year." 

 

MSU has 15 players from the state of Alabama -- more than any other outside of Mississippi. Winning games in places like Bryant-Denny Stadium, or at places like LSU and Florida, helps create regional notoriety, which in turn helps recruiting. 

 

Mullen said winning in those environments helps "to a point," but building a winning reputation is a greater recruiting tool. 

 

"There''s a lot of kids that grow up in Mississippi wanting to play for Mississippi State, just like a lot of kids grow up in Alabama wanting to play for Alabama," Mullen said. "I think that (MSU''s win at Florida) helped as a learning curve, and it showed all the guys we recruit we''re going to build a championship program, so in recruiting, guys know they can come here, play, and they''re going to be playing for championships at some point during their career." 

 

 

 

Bye-week bye-byes 

 

As Mississippi State players laid teammate Nick Bell to rest, the emotions of a tough week will be difficult to put behind them. 

 

Mullen admits the memory of Bell, who passed away last week after a brief bout with cancer, will resonate. He doesn''t mind his players performing with Bell on their minds. 

 

However, he has urged his team to channel the emotion in the right way. 

 

"For our guys, play with a little heavy heart and learn how they''re gonna move in every day of their life," Mullen said. "They got to put it behind them, and it''s not going to be out of their minds. In a situation like that, I don''t know how it''s going to be motivating to anybody, except for the fact of learning lessons Nick taught you in life, and living life to the fullest. But I don''t know how that would pertain to playing a football game." 

 

MSU also moves on past a week of rest, which, considering its mourning of a comrade, wasn''t typical of a bye week. 

 

Still, being spared the wear and tear of an SEC ballgame was beneficial, especially to a linebacking corps that has seen K.J. Wright and Chris White play more snaps than defensive coordinator Manny Diaz would prefer. 

 

"It''s a testament to coach Balis and our strength program," Diaz said. "I wish we didn''t have to prove it every week. We could help ourselves at times by getting off the field and not playing 80 snaps a game. But I know our guys have the confidence we can win the game in the fourth quarter because of our level of conditioning. 

 

 

 

Bell to be honored 

 

MSU players will wear a patch on their jerseys for the rest of the season to honor Bell. 

 

The team also will honor Bell by having one of its players wear Bell''s No. 36 for the rest of the season. Players will rotate who wears the number each game, and Mullen said the team will announce who begins that trend Saturday when MSU travels to Alabama. 

 

Wright said the team has picked which players will wear the number, noting the guys who were closest to Bell as the ones selected. 

 

In 2008, several players wore No. 22 to honor former linebacker Jamar Chaney, who suffered a broken ankle in the team''s season-opening loss at Louisiana Tech.

 

 

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