There’s a little something beneath their words this week, a hint of passion they can’t quite hide. Mississippi State receiver and Birmingham, Alabama, native De’Runnya Wilson is usually pretty good about not saying too much in interviews.
“I didn’t want to go to Alabama,” he told reporters this week, referring to his high school recruitment.
But he may have given himself away immediately after.
“I grew up liking Alabama.”
In fact, Wilson remembers his first phone call from those in Tuscaloosa. It was the Friday after one of his Thursday night high school games, and the Crimson Tide were one of the first schools to contact him. He talked to an assistant for a few minutes. And they never called him again.
“That’s the last time I heard from Alabama,” Wilson said.
But if he has his way, it won’t be the last time Alabama hears from him. A piece of that anger he tried to hide slipped out just in interviews this week, and Wilson is one of many who have a similar story – men who never got the attention they felt they deserved from the coaches on the other sideline, players who heard from no one but Mississippi State.
LSU, Auburn, Texas A&M; those were the first stops for these Bulldog mercenaries as they paved a path of bitterness and revenge, leaving destruction in their wake.
“We’re the underdogs,” running back Josh Robinson said. “Always gonna be the underdogs. Even though we’re No. 1, we grind like we’re No. 2.”
Tuscaloosa is up next.
“I just wanted to come here and beat Alabama,” Wilson said. “That’s my dream. That’s what I want to do as a football player.”
Hell hath no fury like a receiver scorned, it seems.
And here MSU is, No. 1 in the country, expected to lose on the road. The undefeated Bulldogs, winners over three-straight top-10 opponents early in the season, find themselves on the wrong side of the supposed safe money against a one-loss team in their own division.
But as Dan Mullen said earlier in the week, they’re used to that. This team wouldn’t be who they are if anyone outside of those wearing maroon and white believed in them.
“We’re all we got!” senior captain Jay Hughes yells before games.
“We’re all we need!” his teammates chant back.
State had an odd few weeks following their win over then-No. 2 Auburn in which people actually were picking them to win, and expecting them to do so in grand fashion. Three games later, they’re still undefeated, but for whatever odd and appropriate reason, they’d rather be road dogs against the nation’s elite than home favorites against Homecoming fodder FCS opponents.
“We’re back to the team we were to begin the season,” junior quarterback Dak Prescott said, “where nobody expected us to win, didn’t think we could win. We were underdogs in all those games, so it feels good to get back to that rather than us expected to win by a huge margin and if that doesn’t happen, then everybody’s questioning. It’s good to be back to ourselves and be who we are.”
Seemingly always underrated – or never-rated in the case of some of these Bulldogs who no one else wanted – what else does MSU have to do?
They took down top conference foes, both at home and on the road. They beat the teams they were supposed to beat, both on the blue grass of Kentucky and the green grass of Scott Field. Ranked opponents, undefeated opponents, struggling opponents and surging opponents. MSU has taken down the hapless and the hopeful alike.
It’s strange to ask why there’s no respect, when even those with the shortest of sight can see the big No. 1 next to their name. But it seems like people are waiting on one more thing, one last expectation to defy: beat Alabama.
It’s understandable, to a certain degree. MSU hasn’t yet accomplished the feat since Dan Mullen arrived. But they hadn’t beat LSU, either, nor A&M. They hadn’t beat a winning Auburn team in any of their better years. Not until this year, of course.
“We can overcome anything,” Wilson said. “I feel like we’ve done that all year. It’s only gonna get better and only gonna continue. We’ve got great leadership, man. I don’t think this team has ever been this good, simply because of the leadership we have.”
Guys like Prescott and Hughes, to name just two, fill those leadership positions, and they are players whose roles were much smaller than the last time State met the Tide under similar circumstances. And it’s that memory which may be damaging the confidence those on the outside have of the Bulldogs on the inside.
Everyone in Starkville knows the game and remembers it with an emotional stew of bitterness, disgust and regret. MSU was 7-0, top 15, going into Tuscaloosa proclaiming ‘We Believe!’ and rallying the faithful in anthemic support. Then the Bulldogs got crushed. That 7-0 team limped to an 8-5 finish, losing five of six games beginning with that 38-7 mental and physical beating by Alabama.
That memory still exists in the corners of brains where State fans store the worst from years of disappointment in cheering for their team.
But that game never happened as far as the current Bulldogs are concerned. Half of them weren’t even there. Wilson wasn’t. Neither was fellow Alabama-native Beniquez Brown. Defensive end Chris Jones was just being discovered as a high school star in Houston, Mississippi. Even the ones who were there, weren’t what and who they are now.
The name on the jerseys may be the same, but the team is far from similar, in any fashion.
“This ain’t the same Bulldog team,” Robinson said. “This ain’t the same Mississippi State you’re used to seeing.”
They get yet another chance to prove it this Saturday, and they really don’t care if you believe or not.
“Any field we approach, any game we approach,” Wilson told reporters, “we’re not gonna go there timid. We’re gonna attack and hit the other team in the mouth.”
Said Robinson, “That’s what we live for. That’s the reason we came to play for Mississippi State.”