Game of the year. #1 vs. #3. The SEC West title game. A playoff play-in game.
No matter what you know this weekend's Mississippi State versus Alabama game as, it really can be boiled down to being one simple thing: another football game.
Sure, this weekend won't be treated as another football game because at the national level it's not. The matchup between Mississippi State and Alabama is a game that could ultimately decide the west, the SEC, and a playoff spot. The game will host College Gameday, and it has been selected as the CBS game of the week. It features a Mississippi State team that has gone undefeated through a schedule that featured LSU and Auburn; it features an Alabama team that, after a loss to Ole Miss, has returned to being Alabama by moving to 8-1 and within reach of another SEC title.
This game is about so much and so much is on the line, but again, it really can be boiled down to being one thing: just another football game.
Two years ago, these two teams met in Tuscaloosa under somewhat similar yet quite different circumstances. MSU came in undefeated but on a questionable-at-best schedule; Alabama came in as Alabama, which is to say that they were #1. Some picked the Bulldogs to win, however that night would unfold much differently than the way State fans wanted it to go as Alabama squashed all MSU dreams with a 38-7 win. That year's MSU team bought into the hype, and they seemed to go in, not expecting to win, but rather expecting to be better than Alabama, which they were not.
They did not treat that night like another football game, although for that team it may not have mattered as much as they weren't a match physically or talent-wise for the Crimson Tide who would ultimately go on to win the national championship that year. But this year's team should treat Saturday night like another football game, because that's what it is.
I keep saying that because I feel like this team is at its best when the pressure's off and they are just playing football. No one gave them a chance to beat LSU, Texas A&M or Auburn, yet with the pressure of expectations off, they came out and defeated all three. They were at their best when they could just go out and play, and they rode that great play to a #1 ranking in the nation.
Since that #1 ranking came, it's been a different story. The team seems tight; they seem to be playing with the whole weight of the MSU fan-base on their shoulders. Sure, they've won three games since first being ranked #1, but the team hasn't seemed the same. More mistakes have been made; the defense hasn't been as tenacious. And some of that is with good reason: it's hard to get up for Kentucky and UT-Martin after you've played LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn. What is a testament from the last three games is that, despite a lack of motivation or energy, this team has simply gone out and been better than their competition, and that's what makes them different from MSU teams of the past.
An MSU team of the past would have taken that counter punch from Kentucky and would've been knocked to the mat. They would not have recovered, making the #1 ranking a short-term guest in Starkville. But this year's team was able to win those games because they were better, and because they were different than the "same old MSU team".
When Mississippi State and Alabama lace them up Saturday afternoon, two of college football's best teams will face off. That feels weird to say in the same breath as Mississippi State, yet this year's team has proven it to be true. But for State, this game needs to be simply about playing football and having fun again. Forget the hype around this game; forget all the pressures and the worries that come with success and just go have fun and play the game you love. If they can come out and simply play worry-free like they did earlier in the year -- before they were number one -- then State will have a chance.
Give me that team that played LSU again on Saturday; the team who were the underdogs with no shot to win. That's where we find ourselves again, and that's how we should play. The pressure is off; America has you pegged to lose. So go out and prove them wrong, play another simple game of football, and show them that this MSU team is different.