Always in the life of Mississippi State, there has been Alabama. Ole Miss may be the Bulldogs' biggest rival, but right there, a short drive east on U.S. Highway 82, has been their biggest tormentor. And really, there is nothing else to know about the game Saturday, the most important in the 119-year history of Mississippi State football.
If the No. 1 Bulldogs defeat the No. 5 Crimson Tide, it will remain their most important game for only a matter of days. If Mississippi State leaves the field a loser, as it has 78 times in the 98 games between the schools, then the game Saturday may hold that designation for years to come.
"For many years, they've been the bell cow to which you wanted to measure yourself," former Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton said of Alabama. "It's been a one-sided rivalry."
Not merely in terms of the result. It's been a one-sided rivalry in the sense that Alabama fans don't think of Mississippi State in the same way that they think of Auburn or LSU or Tennessee. Alabama fans don't think of Mississippi State at all.
The schools are separated by 80 miles, according to Google Maps, the closest geographical pairing in the Southeastern Conference. Or by light years, according to college football history.
Alabama has won 10 wire service or BCS national titles. Mississippi State became No. 1 for the first time four weeks ago. Alabama has 19 players in the College Football Hall of Fame, Mississippi State has two. Eleven times, Alabama players have finished in the top five in Heisman voting. The Bulldogs have had one top-10 vote-getter in Heisman history: Shorty McWilliams finished 10th in 1944, when the war had stripped the sport of nearly every able body.
In those days, Alabama didn't play in Starkville, Mississippi. From 1933 to 1957, the teams played every year but one at Bama's Bryant-Denny Stadium. In the early 1930s, MSU's Scott Field seated 6,000, while Bryant-Denny Stadium seated 18,000. However, by 1948, the former had 35,000 seats, 4,000 more than in Tuscaloosa. But still, Mississippi State made the trip.
Retired Auburn athletic director David Housel grew up in Gordo, Alabama, 20 miles west of Tuscaloosa and 60 miles east of Starkville. As close as the schools were, Housel said, "We thought about Mississippi State when they played Alabama and you saw all the cars coming up Highway 82. Mama always said stay away from the highway."
Other than that, Housel said, "The things that separate Mississippi State and Alabama are far bigger than that distance. It's your emphasis. ... Alabama doesn't see Mississippi State as a threat. They just happen to be living right down the street."
Of the 500 students from the state of Mississippi who attend Alabama today, the 73 from Lowndes County, which sits between Mississippi State and the state line, pay in-state tuition. (There is no reciprocal for the 1,161 Alabama residents at the Starkville campus.)
There is at least one building on the Tuscaloosa campus where the Bulldogs are taken seriously.
"Mississippi State, obviously, based on their body of work, has proven that they have one of the best football teams overall in the country," Alabama coach Nick Saban said Monday. Saban is one of five head coaches who have won at least one national championship in Tuscaloosa. Each one has a statue in a plaza outside the north end zone of Bryant-Denny.
The three Mississippi State head coaches prior to Dan Mullen had ties to Alabama. Rockey Felker, a former Bulldogs quarterback, coached there. Jackie Sherrill and Sylvester Croom played for Bama legend Bear Bryant. None of the three finished in Starkville with a winning record, although it must be said that Sherrill (75-75-2) won four out of five against his alma mater, and Croom (21-38) won two in a row.
Speaking of the hiring of Mullen, who came from the family tree of Urban Meyer, not Bryant, Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin said, "We were never going to do what Alabama does better than Alabama does it."
Mullen, with an emphasis on convincing Mississippi recruits to come to Starkville instead of going to Tuscaloosa or Baton Rouge, built this team into a national championship contender. It's hard to believe that Jack Cristil, who died on Sept. 7 at age 88, has missed it. Cristil, the voice of Bulldogs football, broadcast Mississippi State football for 59 seasons, from 1953 through 2011.
"Wrap this one in maroon and white," Cristil would say after an all-too-rare victory.
You can hear Cristil on YouTube, calling the end of the 1980 game, when Mississippi State upset No. 1 Alabama 6-3. The Tide fumbled the ball at the Bulldogs' 4-yard-line with six seconds to play. Yet that game is not remembered for what it did for Mississippi State, but what it did to Alabama. The Bulldogs ended the Tide's 28-game winning streak, ended its five-year undefeated run in the SEC, and ended Bryant's reign above college football. He would never have a team ranked No. 1 again.
Mississippi State has had one other victory of national import. In 1935, when the school had only 1,598 students, Maj. Ralph Sasse, a former Army head coach, took over the team. Sasse brought a brown bulldog from Memphis to be the school's first live mascot. On Nov. 2, he also took Mississippi State to play his old program at West Point, where Sasse implored the Bulldogs to "avenge Sherman's march to the sea."
Mississippi scored on a 65-yard touchdown pass in the final minute for a 13-7 victory that, had it occurred on any other day, would be remembered outside of Starkville to this day. But that same afternoon, in a battle of unbeatens, Notre Dame scored two touchdowns in the last 1:30 to win at Ohio State 18-13. In 1950, that game would be voted the greatest of the first half of the 20th century.
As ever, Mississippi State remained in the shadows.
The only shadows at Bryant-Denny on Saturday will be those cast as the sun sinks during the second half. There is no more metaphorical darkness for Mississippi State. They are No. 1, and they will step into Bryant-Denny Stadium on equal footing with mighty Alabama. As good as that will feel, no one in maroon and white wants Saturday to be the high point of this magical season.