With the Bulldogs standing at 5-0 for the first time since 1999, a buzz unlike many before has surrounded the fan base in anticipation of Saturday night's contest against Tennessee. With all of the focus on how big this game is in the context of the Mississippi State season, it brings up the question as to when was the last time a game played in Starkville was so big.
We broached this topic a bit on Monday's For Whom the Cowbell Tolls radio show, but what follows is a bit more of a detailed analysis of the candidates, some from the show, some not.
Arkansas (2010): This matchup had the feel of a big time game, and the results matched the hype. Mississippi State came into the game fighting off the effects of 30-10 loss to Alabama that snapped a six-game winning streak that included victories at Florida and over Georgia. With a win, Mississippi State fans had to feel that as a three loss team, they would have a chance at maybe the Chik-Fil-A Bowl or an outside shot at the Cotton Bowl.
As it would turn out, even though the No. 22 Bulldogs lost to the No. 13 Razorbacks that night, Mississippi State did not plunge much in the bowl selection process, going to the Gator Bowl and thumping Michigan 52-14.
So what was on the line? If you really look at it, not much. This was a matchup between teams fighting for middle of the pack positioning in the SEC West. It is hard to say that anything turns out differently for the Bulldogs if they knock of Arkansas. In fact, it is still possible the Bulldogs end up in the same bowl game. Sure, one could say bragging rights and the ability to get the Arkansas monkey of their backs would have been very big parts of the win, but as far as on the field consequences, this game did not have many.
LSU (2011): Perhaps one of the most hyped games at Davis Wade Stadium since 2001, the Bulldogs hosted LSU on a Thursday night ESPN game. The officials at Mississippi State made sure that the fans knew all of the cheers and how to act by bringing in former starts to the Cowbell Yell.
This game, the last to feature two ranked squads in Starkville saw the No. 25 Bulldogs, basically waving a white flag in the fourth quarter, give in to the relentless attack from LSU in a 19-6 defeat.
So what was on the line? Mississippi State had hoped to carry over its momentum from 2010, and the loss the week before to Auburn slowed it down. This loss stopped it. The next two weeks saw the Bulldogs need overtime to defeat La Tech (who has turned out to be pretty good) and then lose to Georgia in Athens. In 2011, it seemed the Bulldogs could not fire on all cylinders. A win here might have remarkably changed that.
Auburn (2012): With hindsight being what it is, most Mississippi State fans can admit that the Auburn Tiger team defeated a few weeks ago does not have much talent. That said, the 28-10 win played a huge role in perhaps removing a mental barrier for Mississippi State.
So what was on the line? Coming in, most Mississippi State fans felt that a win would propel the Bulldogs into the top half of the SEC. Also, the game gave the Bulldogs an opportunity to notch a win over Auburn, a team that had found a way to defeat Mississippi State numerous times in the past forever.
Georgia (2010): Even though the visitors from Athens would be missing A. J. Green, the battle of Bulldogs proved to be an eagerly anticipated matchup for fans of both sides. For Mississippi State, Georgia served as a big name foe out of the SEC East coming to Starkville, even though the squad was unranked and in a bit of a down year.
For those who do not remember, the Bulldogs walked away with a 24-12 victory.
So what was on the line? There may not have been a more critical matchup to the Bulldogs' 2010 success than this game. With a tough road game against Florida looming and a trip to Houston upcoming, the Bulldogs could have finished the stretch that became a six-game winning streak no better than 3-3 or even 2-4. Either of those finishes would have meant no bowl game for the Bulldogs, and who knows what pressure Dan Mullen may have faced in 2011
If you don't think this could have happened, notice State's 29-24 win over UAB, 10-7 win over Florida, and 24-17 win over Kentucky. All three of those could have gone the other way.
Kentucky (1999): In 1999, Mississippi State stood at 7-0 after edging out Auburn and LSU by a combined three point total, and they entered this matchup at No. 8 in the country, their fifth straight week in the rankings.
The Wildcat team had an explosive offense led by quarterback Dusty Bonner. The Hal Mumme coached team came into the matchup averaging 402 yards per contest. The Bulldogs held the Wildcats to 176 yards, but they gave up 143 yards on 19 penalties as well.
In the end, a 45-yard Scott Westerfield field goal gave the Bulldogs the victory.
So what was on the line? With a 7-0 record and the No. 8 ranking, the Bulldogs had plenty to lose in this contest. The team, off to the best start in school history, needed the win to set up an undefeated matchup with Alabama, who came into the game ranked eleventh. Arkansas and Ole Miss would follow, and both of those teams held rankings.
With an undefeated record and difficult matchups to close out the season, Mississippi State had began to hear whispers of being not only an SEC West contender, but a national championship contender if they could get past Alabama.
Not since this victory has Mississippi State played a game that led to talk of being an outside threat to the national title.