It’s not David vs. Goliath anymore, not like years before, but Mississippi State-Alabama this weekend is still some kind of competition of styles. It’s a left hook vs. a quick jab, spread vs. I-formation, paper vs. plastic, moneyball vs. straight up money.
It’s the upstart Bulldogs and the program Dan Mullen has slowly developed vs. the empire that is Alabama football built by Nick Saban.
In MSU’s rise to the top of college football this season, much has been written about the way Mullen did it – signing players no one else wanted and turning them into stars, developing them over years and targeting a specific type of temperament in his recruits. Not that he doesn’t want the obviously great players, of course, but as he said Monday, it’s about using the available resources.
“I don’t think there’s one exact way to build a program,” Mullen said. “It’s kind of what your school is. What you are, who you have, what you can recruit, how you can build it and how you want to design your program.”
For State, ‘What you can get’ is typically a buffet of under-evaluated (or completely non-evaluated) players from rural areas of a state which is already rural to begin with.
On the other sideline Saturday, ‘Bama will be the complete opposite. A roster full of those who were once the nation’s elite high school players battle each other for their coaches’ eyes and trust so they can get on the field.
“Nick has kind of the model program in the country right now,” Mullen said. “They probably have more five star players sitting on the bench that can’t get a rep on their team than we have on our entire roster.”
Sounds like coach-speak hyperbole; is actually true.
Going by the 247 Sports composite ratings (an averaging of rankings from across the recruiting services), the rosters line up almost exactly as you’d expect for Mullen and Saban.
At MSU, there are three players in the starting 22 who were rated higher than a three-star coming out of high school.
At Alabama, there are only two in the starting lineup who weren’t ranked as four or five stars when they signed with the Crimson Tide.
Mullen doesn’t have a single starter on his offense who was any higher than a three star, and that’s where the difference is most clear. From left to right, MSU’s offensive line consists of a two star, a no star, a two star, a three star and a three star. What averages out to a two-star line will be facing an Alabama front whose three-man defensive line is two five stars and a four star. Two more four stars and two more five stars are behind them at linebacker. Same story in the secondary.
And that’s part of it, too. That immeasurable but quite-important attitude coming from a team full of players who weren’t good enough for most of the teams they’ve beaten on their way to 9-0 and No. 1 in the country.
That team full of unwanted overachievers has won 12-straight games. Their last loss? Alabama.
Maybe that’s why the Tide are favored on Saturday. Or maybe it’s because, no matter the success MSU has had so far, people can’t rationalize the thought that Mullen’s band of also-rans could be better than Saban’s stock of prizefighters.
“It’s in every article you read, everywhere you look,” Mullen said, “that we’re the big underdog going into this game. And we’ve done that before. We know that role. We’re gonna be OK with that. Our guys will come in and play with great effort and play with that chip on our shoulder.”
State seems to play better that way. It’s their mentality as a whole, but to pretend all 100-plus on the roster came from the same background is, at the least, misleading.
While the starting lineup is low on stars, it’s heavy on talent with an NFL-ready middle linebacker in Benardrick McKinney, a Heisman-candidate quarterback in Dak Prescott, the conference’s second-leading rusher in Josh Robinson and three-time SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week winner Preston Smith, an NFL prospect who was once a two-star signee.
And beyond those starting 22, there is a much deeper well of talent than a lazy narrative would suggest. The lone five star, defensive lineman Chris Jones, finds himself a backup, though he plays significant reps. A four-star receiver, four-star cornerback, four-star running back and four-star defensive tackle are all role players for MSU, even if they’re not [yet] listed as starters.
And while MSU certainly does find players in small Mississippi towns who went unnoticed (2012 Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks comes to mind), Chris Jones stands as an example of a small-town guy everyone wanted.
MSU has four stars from Mississippi and two stars from Louisiana just as much as it has four stars from Texas and no stars from Somewhere, Mississippi.
And that’s exactly how they want it. Very few believed in the players who have gotten MSU to this point. They’re just fine if no one believes in them now.
“Every week, no matter the rankings or what anyone else is predicting,” Mullen said, “we want to come in and play that way as a team.”
After a month as the favorite, the ‘Dogs are back where they want to be.
“This is the reason I came here,” defensive end Ryan Brown said. “I have jitters even thinking about it.”