By John Zenor/The Associated Press
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Big games are practically a weekly affair for Nick Saban and Alabama, who have seemingly mastered the accompanying spotlight and pressure.
No. 13 Mississippi State is less accustomed to games like Saturday night’s visit to the top-ranked Crimson Tide, where the winner gains the inside track to an SEC West championship and what-ifs could haunt a season.
The Bulldogs (7-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) are off to their best start since 1999, the only other time the program has opened a season with seven straight wins.
“It’s a great opportunity for our guys,” Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen said. “We look at this as a championship-caliber game for us. You get into championship games, you’ve got to be ready to play for four quarters. There’s going to be a lot of potential momentum swings back and forth, back and forth.
“You have to weather the storm of the crowd, weather the storm of all the momentum swings.”
The Tide (7-0, 4-0) seems to have had a stadium-wide umbrella protecting the team from real trouble. Alabama hasn’t really been challenged and only Mississippi State rival Mississippi has been ahead of Saban & Co. — for all of 15 seconds.
That consistent dominance, plus two national champions in three years, convinced oddsmakers that this is a mismatch whatever the records indicate. Alabama is a 24-point favorite and has won the last four meetings by a collective 117-27.
Saban disputes any contention that Mississippi State has been anything but a tough win. The Bulldogs did beat his first Tide team, in 2007.
“They always play tough against us,” Saban said. “They don’t play OK against us, they play good. We struggled as much against them last year as anybody we played against.”
Alabama led only 10-0 going into the fourth quarter of that game a week after a loss to LSU temporarily muted the national title talk. The game ended up 24-7.
Now, a national title game rematch with LSU looms next week in Baton Rouge.
There seems little chance of overlooking the Bulldogs, though.
“This is probably the most complete team they have had since I’ve been here,” Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson said. “We’re not taking them lightly. We’re going to come in with the same mindset we’ve had week in, week out and go after them.”
The Tide’s 11-game winning streak isj the nation’s longest while Mississippi State has won nine in a row, one behind Oregon.
The teams have plenty of similarities.
Tide quarterback AJ McCarron and Mississippi State’s Tyler Russell have been two of the league’s most efficient passers with only one interception between them, thrown by Russell.
The game features the SEC’s leading rusher, Mississippi State’s LaDarius Perkins, and probably the top tailback tandem in ‘Bama’s Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon.
The defenses are led by two strong secondaries. The Tide’s Dee Milliner and Bulldogs’ Johnthan Banks are two of the nation’s top cornerbacks.
Mississippi State leads the nation in turnover margin and Alabama is tied for third.
Alabama’s defense still has a big edge, leading the nation in all the major statistical categories. But the Bulldogs rank ninth nationally in scoring defense.
“They’ve got a good defensive team, they’ve got good players, they’ve got a good offensive team,” Saban said. “They’ve got really good balance, a good quarterback who can throw the ball. They’re committed to running it, and do a good job of running it. Their runner leads the league in rushing, so they’re a good team all the way around.”
The Tide does have an edge in big-game experience. Alabama is 19-6 against Top 25 teams the past four seasons and has won six of the last seven such games.
“I think the more you listen to Coach Saban talk, and his philosophy on this, the more true they become,” Alabama center Barrett Jones said. “It doesn’t matter as much about the other team, it’s more about you. When you look at the film, as good as the other team is, every time we’ve lost a game around here it’s not because they just did amazing things, it’s because we didn’t execute.
“I’m not taking away anything from any team that we’ve ever played, that’s just the facts. So you learn to focus on yourself, and being better as a unit on the offensive line, and usually things take care of themselves.”
Mullen, though, has been part of national championship teams as Florida’s offensive coordinator, so he’s no stranger to the magnitude. He said it was evident that the players’ intensity picked up this week.
“You say you want to treat it like any other week, but we’re stepping our game up,” linebacker Cameron Lawrence said. “We’re hyped. We’re excited. Just walking around today all the guys have a glow in their eye. They’re ready for some action.”
AP Sports Writer David Brandt in Starkville, Miss., contributed to this report.
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Get ready for the game with GameDay and a special story from Brad Locke about the big game in Saturday’s NEMS Daily Journal newspaper.