Mississippi State embracing underdog status entering game against Alabama


STARKVILLE, Miss. — Four days before kickoff against Alabama, the bounciest of the Bulldogs strolled into a weekly interview session late. He took his place in front of the Mississippi State backdrop with a smile, a metal chain dangling to the middle of his chest.

Josh Robinson’s day had been delayed thanks to lengthy position meetings, which in turn pushed back media obligations with ESPN — problems often associated with the No.

1 team in the country. But the star running back arrived in better-late-than-never fashion, and Robinson, the loquacious character that he is, wanted to put on a show for reporters.

“Go ahead and ask me whatever you want,” Robinson said after singing a few bars of gospel. “Except about the election.”

Aug. 30 So. Miss. 49-0
Sept. 6 UAB 47-34
Sept. 13 South Alabama 35-3
Sept. 20 LSU 34-29
Oct. 4 Texas A&M 48-31
Oct. 11 Auburn 38-23
Oct. 25 Kentucky 45-31
Nov. 1 Arkansas 17-10
Nov. 8 UT Martin 45-16
Nov. 15 Alabama 3:30 p.m.
Nov. 22 Vanderbilt 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 29 Ole Miss TBD

The laughter died down and the interview began, with Robinson fielding question after question: about the mystique of Alabama, the daunting nature of a trip to Tuscaloosa, the familiar label of underdog that, despite a No. 1 overall ranking, has been bestowed upon these Bulldogs once again leading up to the biggest game of the season. Though Dan Mullen’s team has done no wrong in 2014 — an undefeated record, a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, a string of three consecutive wins against top-10 opponents — the buzz of Saturday’s showdown is something of a time machine to months and years gone by.

Mississippi State, a team that controls its own destiny for the College Football Playoff, is still clawing for respect.

“We’re back to the team we were to begin the season, the team we were earlier in the season where nobody expected us to win, didn’t think we could win,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. “We were the underdogs in all those games. Feels good to be back to that.”

When Mississippi State makes the drive to Tuscaloosa this weekend, it will do so as a remarkable 8.5-point underdog, a point spread that players said is fueling them to prove one more set of doubters wrong and extend the best start in program history. Four months ago, as Mullen addressed reporters inside the Wyndsor II Ballroom in Hoover, Alabama, such a line might have been viewed as generous, what with mighty Alabama picked to win the conference yet again and ranked No. 2 in the nation to begin the year. But now, with the Bulldogs three games away from an almost unfathomable perfect season, to doubt them by such a wide margin verges on disrespectful.

To get here, Mullen guided his team through a season that resembled a fairytale. It began with Prescott bursting onto the national canvas as a dual-threat machine, mowing down Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama with 11 touchdowns in a newly installed up-tempo offense. Yardage and points were churned out by the dozen as Prescott validated — at least for the moment — his preseason second-team All-SEC honors ahead of one Bo Wallace. Still, his team’s overall potential remained masked by a haze of subpar opponents.

In swept chapter two, a three-game stress test that would either validate or vanquish Mullen’s upstart squad. Twenty-year demons were trampled with a 21-point lead after three quarters on the road at No. 8 LSU, as Mississippi State hung on for a win fans would cherish until … the very next game. Sixth-ranked Texas A&M invaded Davis Wade Stadium and left on the wrong end of a 48-31 thrashing to undress its perfect season, and Auburn suffered the same fate seven days later.

Mullen’s plucky Bulldogs had survived an SEC minefield to advance to chapter three.

“Guess what?” Robinson said. “This is a new Bulldog team. This ain’t the same Mississippi State that you’re used to seeing.”

John David Mercer | USA TODAY Sports Images
Quarterback and Heisman candidate Dak Prescott has fueled the Bulldogs’ undefeated season.

And he was right. Never would Bulldog fans envision such greatness against the nation’s best teams. Never would they imagine an undersized, unshapely running back like Robinson ripping off 6.7 yards per carry to morph himself into the second-leading rusher in the SEC. Never would they fathom De’Runnya Wilson, a 6-foot-5 project of a wide receiver, entrenching himself as Prescott’s primary red zone weapon.

Never, ever did they believe sleepy Starkville would own college football.

“Before the season nobody expected us to be No. 1 in the country,” Wilson said. “So we just enter every game and every day with a chip on our shoulder.”

They walked the walk and talked the talk through a 6-0 start that earned the Bulldogs the top spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff rankings, ushering in chapter three: Survival Mode. Every dream of a perfect season comes with at least one escape valve pulled to turn a possible loss into a narrative-enhancing win. Mississippi State reached for its lever in a dogfight with Kentucky.

A gritty touchdown run by quarterback Patrick Towles pulled the Wildcats to within seven points at 38-31 as the clock showed 2:31 remaining. And then came an onside kick from the ages, plucked from the air on a bounce by Mississippi State tight end Christian Holmes, whose path to the end zone was unimpeded for a 61-yard return score.

The Bulldogs emerged unscathed 45-31 and would run their record to 9-0 after a narrow win against Arkansas and a catch-your-breath beatdown of Tennessee-Martin last week.

Which brings us back to Tuesday and the Josh Robinson show inside the Leo Seal Jr. Football Complex in Starkville. He is a ball of angst, excitement and confidence all rolled into one smiley package, counting down the days and hours until kickoff in Tuscaloosa, the beginning of chapter four. That is when the Bulldogs will square off against its latest set of doubters. That is when, Robinson said, people will see how different this Mississippi State team is.

“We’re just going to have to show you Saturday,” he said.

Scott Harrigan
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