Starkville, Mississippi is just over 80 miles away from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Depending on whether there are many cops on Highway 82, you can make the jump from T'town to Clanga in 75 minutes.
Despite the relatively short trip between the two schools, the programs and cultures could not be more dissimilar. Mississippi State is a small, Morrill land grant university. It is a rural university, with a largely rural in-state student body all set in a sleepy town of 24,000. What athletic success the Bulldogs have sustained has largely been in baseball, where MSU has a storied tradition of excellent individual players and nationally-competitive teams.
Tuscaloosa, the once-capital of Alabama, has taken a different trajectory. Alabama's fifth-largest city boasts nearly 37,000 students, the majority of which are now from out-of-state. The city is teeming with growth, and lies 40 minutes away from a city of one million people. While outlying Tuscaloosa County is still largely bedroom communities, agricultural workers and coal miners, city-center Tuscaloosa aims for a genteel sophistication (with varying degrees of success.) As my mom called it, "puttin' on airs."
And, of course, there are University of Alabama athletics: The Crimson Tide boasts the third-richest athletic department in the nation. The football team has been a national brand since the 1920s, with 24 conference pennants and 15 national title flags fluttering over Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mississippi State, meanwhile, is dead last in athletic revenue in the conference, and the results have shown for the cash-strapped program, with just one divisional title in the modern era and just one SEC championship -- the aberrant 1941 season.
So, to say this one has been a bit of an historical mismatch is to do a disservice to one-sidedness. Is it a rivalry? From Alabama's end, certainly not. Mississippi State cannot make Alabama's season, but it certainly can wreck it. The inverse does not hold true in Starkville, where Alabama is considered a rival, though certainly not as heated as LSU or Ole Miss (along with in-state Southern Miss, which is just sad.)
Seriously, don't let this happen.
Alabama and Mississippi State first teed it off in 1896, making it among the oldest Southeastern Conference traditional meetings. In that game, fans would get a taste of what the next century would look like, as Alabama blanked the Bulldogs 20-0.
That inaugural score would prove to be prophetic. Of the 99 series meetings (Saturday's matchup will be the 100th tussle,) 27 of those have ended in shutouts, usually with Alabama getting the edge. In fact, in one score games, Alabama leads the series 24-10.
That number matters, because of the 99 meetings, Mississippi State has prevailed just 18 times, with the teams tying three times. Historically speaking, Mississippi State can claw their way into a one-score game about a third of time -- but then they abidingly lose. Only eight times have the Bulldogs even beaten Alabama by double digits. Meanwhile, Alabama has tended to thump Bully.
Adjusted for PPG (as well as cumulatively,) Alabama has scored more, and more per game, against Mississippi State than any other charter member of the league. All-time, over 99 meetings, Alabama averages over 22 PPG against State, scoring 2226 points. In fact, the Alabama opponent with the next number of meetings (Vanderbilt at 83 meetings) has defended the Tide better, and scored more points in the process, than has Mississippi State.
In the modern era, the Bulldogs have not fared too well, and the series has been one of often-very long streaks. Of MSU's 18 series victories, only seven have come in the post-Ears Whitworth era. At one point, Alabama had rattled off an impressive 22 straight wins over State. Conversely, MSU's longest win streak is three, occurring three times in the century of meetings (and accounting for half of MSU's wins:) 1912-1914, 1953-1955, 1996-1998. Alabama historians will recognize those years from the wretched coaching on-hand at the Capstone, especially the mid '50s Whitworth years and the beginning of Mike Dubose's disastrous tenure.
Historically speaking, if Alabama has better coaching, and the Tide have essentially done so since the Xen Scott era began in 1919, Mississippi State does not beat the Crimson Tide.
In terms of moment, the series has not seen very many "big" games. State has largely been relegated to the role of spoiler, although recently the Bulldogs have come into the series with some high stakes.
In 1940 and 1941, Mississippi State fielded some of the program's historically best teams, winning both home-and-away meetings over the Tide. The 1941 team would later claim the SEC Championship, the only one in program history. 1941 was quite anomalous, though. While Mississippi State would finish 8-1-1 that year, Frank Thomas' team ended at 8-2, ranked #20 in the AP poll (and the University now claims a national title for this one, much to our collective shame.)
In 1980, Alabama was the consensus No. 1 team in America, and was riding back-to-back national titles and a 27-game winning streak, when the Tide traveled to Jackson, MS to meet the Bulldogs. Well, let's have Kleph retell what happened:
The Crimson Tide's powerful wishbone running game only eked out 116 yards against the Bulldogs, a staggering figure given it was averaging better than 300 yards a game to that point. Alabama could only muster 64 yards in the air to make up the difference. Neither team managed to find the opposing end zone. Alabama's kicker Peter Kim nailed a 49-yarder in the second quarter to give the Tide their only score of the day. The Bulldogs' Dana Moore hit two in the second half, one from 37 yards out and the other from the 22, to put State ahead. Alabama's four lost fumbles made the difference and none more than the last. Alabama Quarterback Don Jacobs led the tide on a furious 44-yard drive in the game's closing minutes. With the ball on the Mississippi State four yard line and just 25 seconds left in the game, Jacobs was nailed in the backfield by Bulldog defender Tyrone Keys and fumbled the ball. State's Billy Jackson recovered and one of the greatest eras of Alabama football came to an ignominious end.
That 1980 meeting would remain the biggest one in series history until 2012. Other games of varying degrees of importance would come later: The 1999 game between two top-11 ranked teams, where Alabama ruined MSU's perfect season, 19-7, on an exceptionally loud Tuscaloosa night. The 1996 game, where Alabama alum Jackie Sherrill would defeat his alma mater en route to a three-game State winning streak. The 2009 meeting, where Mark Ingram all-but sealed his Heisman fortunes with a career long 70-yard #manball special right off guard.
Enter Dan Mullen, the offensive wunderkind who directed Urban Meyer's two-time national champion Florida Gators and coaxed the considerable talent out of eventual-Heisman trophy winner, Tim Tebow. While Mullen led that 2009 State team, it was not until 2012 that Bully finally had a roster that could match up with the SEC elite -- or so we thought.
If you recall, that 2012 game featured a bevy of State social media tactics, beginning with the #hailstate and #webelieve hashtags, giant billboards throughout the Mississippi corridor reading "our state," and the like.
Well, belief only carries one so far. And, as the No. 13 undefeated Bulldogs came into Tuscaloosa to face the No. 1 (and defending National Champion) Alabama Crimson Tide, a rude awakening was to be had. In a 38-7 laugher, Alabama would pull its starters in the third quarter and State was again left with few answers to the talent gap that has nearly always plagued the program.
Then, of course, came last year's momentous meeting. Mississippi State, with its first-ever No. 1 ranking came to Tuscaloosa to meet a Crimson Tide team desperate for a signature win to get back into playoff contention. Once again, the Bulldogs fell flat, as Alabama harassed Dak Prescott the entire game before going into prevent mode (where Dan Mullen then played to lose closely instead of winning, for playoff perks.) The Tide would win 25-20 on the way to its 24th SEC championship and an appearance in the inaugural college football playoff.
This year, both teams entered the season suffering significant roster attrition, particular on the offensive lines and in the backfield. Mississippi State is led by Senior QB and Heisman dark horse Dak Prescott, one of the least heralded dynamic players in the country. Prescott has 18 TDs this season, while throwing just one pick. Alabama leans on man-child and Heisman front-runner Derrick Henry, who leads the nation with 17 touchdowns on the ground and has over 1200 yards rushing. The Bulldogs are a respectable 7-2, though somewhat depleted up front, while Alabama is expected to contend for another national title, currently second in preliminary playoff rankings.
On paper, and given the advanced stats, this game should be closer than expected. But, if the series has taught us anything, it's that a better Alabama team, when focused, usually handles its business against an historically outmatched State squad -- cowbells be damned.
Series Record: Alabama 79-17-3 (77-18-3 after vacation and forfeits.)
Longest Streak: Alabama 22
Biggest margin of victory: Alabama 59-0
Current streak: Alabama 7