Any time a program faces a No. 1 ranked team in the country, it provides an amazing opportunity to change the outlook of a program and its fan base. The simple fact is that these types of match-ups do not come around very often, and the fact that Mississippi State is facing a No. 1 ranked team for the third time under Dan Mullen is quite an anomaly as this is only the sixth time the Bulldogs have squared off against a No. 1 foe.
The Bulldogs have only won one such match up, picking up that win over No. 1 ranked Alabama in 1980 when the Crimson Tide were closing in on a third consecutive national championship. The comparisons between that season and this season have been made by many, but that trivia misses the importance of the match up Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium. The importance is that this match up provides Mississippi State, and maybe more importantly, this fan base, a chance to hit the reset button on the last 15 or so football games.
There is magic when a No. 1 team comes to town. Think about the way everyone still talks about the win over Alabama in 1980. It was far from a masterpiece for the Bulldogs. They barely held on to win that game, but in the hearts of most Maroon and White fans, that game was the pinnacle of Bulldog football, even more so than a close game in the SEC Championship against Tennessee.
For those not alive in 1980 (such as I) and many others, another match up with a No. 1 team still stands out as a significant game in Mississippi State history--No. 1 Florida traveling to Starkville in 2009. At the time, Mississippi State football had seen some pretty lean years. There had been a Liberty Bowl victory in 2007, but even that season had many negatives to it, and 2008 had been a disaster. 2001-2006 had not been pretty either.
Dan Mullen became the third coach for the Bulldogs in the 2000s, which seemed hard to believe given where the team had been from 1998-2000. Mississippi State fans had gotten discouraged by the state of their program, and who could blame them? The team had lost to Troy State and Maine during that time period.
However, magic happened on Oct. 24 in Starkville. The Mississippi State Bulldogs, a team given little chance against the Florida juggernaut led by Tim Tebow, stood toe-to-toe with the No. 1 ranked team in the country.
Mississippi State struck first to take a 3-0 lead over the Gators, but as one would expect, Florida did not let it last. In fact, the Gators scored the next ten points to go up 13-3, and they seemed ready to plunge the dagger into the Bulldogs late in the first half. What happened next was huge for Mississippi State.
Johnthan Banks snagged an interception and returned it 100 yards to cut the score to 13-10. That moment jolted Davis Wade Stadium and fans at home with a burst of electricity. There were no #webelieve signs. No, this was something real. This was something more organic. Fans did not need the prodding of a handful to get fired up and believe in the team. They were all believing in the Bulldogs as Mississippi State headed to the locker room only down a field goal.
Belief continued to grow in the second half. Derek DePasquale tied the game at 13-13, and the Bulldogs were in the hunt. Of course, everyone knows what happened next. Florida did what No. 1 teams do against upset minded upstarts, they found a way to drop a hammer late. The Gators used a field goal, a touchdown run by Chris Rainey, and a pick-six to go up 29-13 with under nine minutes to play.
The Bulldogs never quit fighting, and Banks picked off Tebow again and returned it for a touchdown to cut the lead to 29-19, where the score stayed for the rest of the game. It has to be the only time a former Heisman trophy winner had been pick-sixed by a freshman twice in one game.
Yes, the Bulldogs walked away with a loss that day, and they did not make it to a bowl game in 2009. However, something bigger was won that day and that season. The Bulldogs, and perhaps more importantly, their fans, started to believe that Mississippi State could again become a top team in the SEC eleven years after the Bulldogs lone trip to the SEC Championship Game. That game made Bulldog fans fall in love with this team again, and the rest of the season made Mississippi State fans believe that Mullen could be the guy to lead Mississippi State to the Promised Land.
Five years later, that confidence is starting to wane. Some fans are starting to grumble that "Dan is not the Man." Others have grown frustrated with the efforts and play of particular players. All of that can change against Alabama. It is unlikely that Mississippi State will defeat the Crimson Tide Saturday, but the ship can start to be righted with a competitive performance. Just like in 2009, Bulldog fans wanted to believe, and that night against Florida, we believed (not #webelieved). Against Alabama, Dan Mullen and the Bulldogs have a chance to provide that organic belief that this program needs. If it happens, it might lead to the opportunity the Bulldogs need to continue their climb in the SEC.
If Saturday night ends with Bulldog fans feeling frustrated by the team's performance, Mississippi State will have lost an opportunity, but if the night ends with celebration or the pain of believing but losing, things may have a new beginning in Starkville.