November 14, 2014 9:36:23 AM
With more than 60 Mississippi-born players on its roster, No. 1 Mississippi State has one of the most homegrown teams in the Southeastern Conference. But coach Dan Mullen's second-most fertile recruiting ground has been the state of Alabama, where 15 current Bulldogs call home. That includes starters like Beniquez Brown, a sophomore linebacker from Florence, and De'Runnya Wilson, a sophomore receiver from Birmingham.
Wilson, a 6-foot-5, 225-pounder, leads MSU in catches (22), receiving yards (367), and touchdowns (six). He said the chance to play Alabama in a high-stakes game is a dream come true.
"It's awesome," Wilson said. "I grew up an Alabama fan, rooting for them. Now I get the chance to play against them and beat them. Can't ask for anything better than that."
Brown, MSU's second-leading tackler and one of its vocal leaders on defense, never seriously considered the Crimson Tide as a four-star prospect out of Florence High School three years ago, as his recruitment came down to MSU, Auburn, and Ole Miss. Three years later, Brown is eager to return to his home state.
"It's great getting to go back and play in front of family and friends," Brown said. "It's going to be a huge game, great atmosphere."
Other Alabama-born starters for the Bulldogs are senior left tackle Blaine Clausell (Mobile) and senior tight end Malcolm Johnson (Tuscaloosa).
The Kiffin factor
Alabama coach Nick Saban made waves in the offseason when he turned his team's offense over to former USC and Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin, who became Alabama's offensive coordinator last spring.
Judging by the results, Saban made the right decision.
Through nine games, Alabama is third in the SEC in total offense. The Crimson Tide are averaging 487.3 yards per game. Only Mississippi State and Auburn rank higher.
From MSU's defensive coaching staff, there is plenty of respect for Kiffin.
"He is very creative in the way he gets the ball to their playmakers, very inventive with their shifts at the line," MSU defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said. "They are so talented, that already puts a lot of stress on you, but (Kiffin) really knows how to take advantage of his team's strengths. They can throw it, they can run it ... They are very balanced, which is another challenge."
MSU cornerbacks coach Deshea Townsend, a former All-SEC performer at Alabama, echoed Collins' praise for Kiffin.
"He's one of the best play callers in the country," Townsend said.
Judging by Alabama's performances at Bryant Denny Stadium this season, its home-field advantage could be even more pronounced.
In four games at home this season, Alabama has averaged 48 points per game and enjoyed an average margin of victory of more than 30 points. By contrast, Alabama is averaging 23 points per game and has won games by an average of eight points per game.
Asked why Alabama's offense is so much better at home, Collins offered no answer.
"That's a great question," Collins said with a smile. "You tell me."
For the Bulldogs, Saturday will be the third of four conference road trips. The first two were wins at LSU and at Kentucky. The win at LSU's Tiger Stadium at night will be closest in atmosphere to the game at Bryant Denney Stadium. Mullen is counting on that big-game experience to help his Bulldogs.
"Our guys have been in big stadiums with loud, hostile crowds," Mullen said. "Our guys have been in that position, and that gives players confidence. When you walk in to a hard place to go play with a loud, hostile crowd, the fact that you have been in that situation before gives you confidence."
By hosting Football Championship Subdivision opponent Tennessee-Martin for Homecoming a week ago, MSU could give injured receiver Jameon Lewis another week to recover. It also gave the Bulldogs a chance to rest several other key players, including offensive guard Justin Malone, who didn't play. Others, like tailback Josh Robinson and Wilson, played sparingly.
In his weekly press conference, Mullen said Lewis and Malone "are expected to be 100 percent. Last week, we chose to shut them down for the week in an effort to have them back at 100 percent this week."
Junior cornerback Will Redmond also will return. Redmond sat out last week's 45-16 victory as a result of a one-game suspension for academic reasons.
MSU hasn't lost since a 20-7 loss to Alabama last season in Starkville. In that game, MSU competed well, but did so without sophomore quarterback Dak Prescott, who missed two games after getting injured in a 51-41 loss to Texas A&M.
Now a junior, Prescott has his team off to a perfect start and is in the conversation for the Heisman Trophy. A win in Tuscaloosa would cement Prescott's growing legacy, but he isn't approaching the showdown that way.
"We're not worried about that or the rankings," Prescott said. "They are a great team, a great program, and we are just focused on doing what we have to do. It's not about last year, it's about this year."
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