STARKVILLE, Miss. -- If you’re looking for a dominant team this season in college football, save yourself some time and energy and quit looking.
There isn’t one.
But as we stop to catch our breath at the halfway point of a season that’s already had a Twilight Zone feel to it, is there any debate about who’s the most deserving team to be No. 1 in the polls?
Here’s a clue: Hail State. Of course, given No. 3 Mississippi State’s 38-23 beatdown of No. 2 Auburn on Saturday before a record (and ear-splitting) crowd of 62,945 at Davis Wade Stadium, it’s more like “Hell yeah” in these parts.
“If you ask me, we were the No. 1 team from the get-go,” Mississippi State defensive end Preston Smith said. “We already knew it in our locker room. Now, the rest of the country knows it.”
The only poll that counts is the one the College Football Playoff selection committee unveils in early December. Beginning Oct. 28, they’ll start putting out a poll every week. And with three straight wins over top-10 foes, Mississippi State has the kind of resume that nobody else in the country can match right now.
It’s the first time a team has beaten three straight top-10 foes in the Associated Press poll in more than 30 years. Ironically, Auburn was the last to do it in 1983.
But on this day, with the rain pouring for much of the game and cowbells clanging to decibel levels usually reserved for rock concerts, Auburn was unable to overcome four turnovers and a Mississippi State team that’s as resilient as it is physical.
And confident, too.
“There’s still going to be some people doubting us, but I think a lot more people are going to realize now we’re for real,” said Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott, who made up for two first-half interceptions with 367 yards of total offense, two rushing touchdowns and one touchdown pass. “I can tell you everybody within this football facility knew what we could do, and we’re headed in that direction.”
It’s no coincidence that Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” blared from the JumboTron loudspeakers just as the fourth quarter began Saturday. It’s a song Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen has strategically placed on his iPod when he goes for a jog, and he’s made sure it kicks off the fourth quarter for every home game this season.
You see, Mullen always believed this was possible, that Mississippi State could rise up and challenge in the SEC, even when just about everybody else thought he was dreaming.
“An overachiever, to me, is someone who accomplishes more than anybody in the world thought you could accomplish,” Mullen said. “I’ve always thought of myself as an overachiever. I’m from Manchester, New Hampshire, and played at [Division III] Ursinus College, and here I am. So when I come here, my vision was that we could do this.”
Really, when you survey the carnage around the rest of the country this season, why not Mississippi State?
We’ve already seen a couple of Hail Mary touchdown passes to win games. Over in the Big 12, Baylor is doing what Mississippi State is doing in the SEC. The Pac-12 champion might be lucky to get out with two losses.
For that matter, does anybody really think a team from the SEC’s Western Division is going to make it through the season unscathed?
“They don’t give out any awards for the midseason,” Mullen said. “We’ve got to clean some things up and keep getting better.”
The Bulldogs (6-0, 3-0 SEC) are off next week and then play at Kentucky on Oct. 25 before coming back home to face Arkansas and UT-Martin in back-to-back weeks. Then it’s on to Alabama on Nov. 15. And, way on down the road in the final week of the regular season, there's a game known as the Egg Bowl in this state that could be epic.
“You play so many big games in this league that it’s impossible to circle one,” Mullen said. “That’s the thing I liked about the guys this week. They had a very business-like approach.”
Something else that separates the Bulldogs, when you start projecting legitimate playoff candidates, is that they’re outstanding in the two areas where you need to be outstanding -- quarterback and defensive line.
Prescott didn’t have one of his better games Saturday and was the first to admit that he threw too many bad passes. But every time Auburn made a move, Prescott and Mississippi State were there to answer.
“That’s what we do. We rally around each other,” said Prescott, who’s now accounted for 23 touchdowns this season. “Nobody’s bigger than anybody else on this team, and we believe in each other.”
Mullen believed when he took the job in 2009 that Mississippi State had a chance to swim in these waters, and he said there’s credit to go around, too, from university president Mark Keenum, to athletic director Scott Stricklin, to the Mississippi State fans. The environment Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium was as electric as any college sporting event you’re ever going to find.
“Everybody is invested to build us into a football school,” Mullen said. “But if you would have said 15 years ago that there would be 62,000 people at Davis Wade Stadium cheering for a team that may be No. 1 in the country, if you wanted to put some money down on that, I don’t know if many people would take that ... even the most loyal Bulldog fans.”
But now they’re playing with house money in StarkVegas.