TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Mississippi State and Alabama are the only Southeastern Conference teams that still control their fates in the playoff scramble.
Guess what? Now, they play each other.
In a Western Division where teams have been picking each other off one by one, the top-ranked Bulldogs and No. 4 Crimson Tide meet Saturday in the latest potential playoff elimination game.
“It’s just the SEC West,” Tide quarterback Blake Sims said Monday. “There’s a lot of great teams, and Mississippi State is a great team.”
Gone are onetime top 10 teams LSU and Texas A&M from the playoff conversation. No. 9 Auburn and No. 10 Mississippi’s hopes are weakened.
The top two remaining teams already have big SEC wins: The Bulldogs over Auburn on Oct. 11 and Alabama in overtime against LSU last weekend.
Mississippi State (9-0, 5-0 SEC) is ranked atop the College Football Playoff rankings. Alabama (8-1, 5-1) is fifth, but could move into the top four Tuesday night since Auburn lost to Texas A&M.
The Bulldogs have been atop the AP poll for the past five weeks, but can embrace the underdog mentality this week. Oddsmakers have installed the Tide as touchdown favorites at Bryant-Denny Stadium, where Alabama has won 13 straight.
“Every article you read, everywhere you look, we’re the big underdog in this game,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “We’ve done that before and we know that role. We’ll be OK with that. Our guys will play with great effort and with a chip on our shoulder that we try to play with every week no matter what the rankings or what everyone else is predicting.”
Mississippi State is still relatively new to the lofty perch atop college football, while Alabama probably has as much experience in huge games lately as anybody. The Tide has won three of four matchups with No. 1 teams over the past five seasons and outscored them collectively 101-36.
In fact, the previous time a top-ranked team was an underdog was the BCS championship game in January 2013 according to STATS. In that game, No. 2 Alabama was an 8.5-point favorite over No. 1 Notre Dame, and won. Alabama was a more modest favorite over No. 1 LSU in both meetings in the 2011 season, including the BCS championship game. The teams split the games.
Nick Saban has loaded up the Tide roster with top-rated recruiting classes. Mississippi State is making do with a Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Dak Prescott, the SEC’s No. 2 rusher Josh Robinson and an assemblage of players who mostly came into the SEC with less hoopla.
“They probably have more 5-star players sitting on the bench who can’t get a rep than we have on our entire roster,” Mullen said.
Prescott and the Bulldogs bring the SEC’s top offense against the No. 1 defense. They also were able to play an easy game against Tennessee-Martin while Alabama was engaged in another physical game with LSU, and a dramatic win.
Saban said the challenge is more mental than physical, avoiding the “relief syndrome, like we just won a big game so we’re supposed to get a week off, go to the golf resort.”
“It’s the wrong time of the year,” he said. “We have another tough game coming up.”
For the Bulldogs, it’s a chance to play a high-stakes November game. A win would give them the clear inside track to the SEC West title and move them closer to securing a playoff berth.
“Obviously the opportunity to play big games late in the season is what it’s all about,” Mullen said. “It’s what you work for. When you’re in mid-to-late November and you’re playing important games, it’s going to be fun.
“Hopefully that becomes the norm for our program as we move forward.”
NOTE: The LSU game left tailback T.J. Yeldon nursing a sprained left ankle. Yeldon, who had hurt his right foot against Tennessee two weeks earlier, didn’t return after a play when he fumbled deep in Tide territory. He was helped off the field late in the game. “T.J.’s OK. He’s got a little ankle sprain,” Saban said. “He’ll probably be a little bit slowed the first couple of days this week, but hopefully we’ll get him going later in the week and he’ll be OK.”
AP Sports Writer David Brandt contributed to this report.
Follow John Zenor on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jzenor
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.