Mississippi St.-Alabama Preview

Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy awoke Sunday morning with a

sickening feeling. The 11th-ranked Crimson Tide had just lost for

the second time to fall to a disappointing 7-2 on the season.

”It feels like the end of the world, it really does,” McElroy

said Monday.

The 17th-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs, meanwhile, are

enjoying their best run in more than a decade. The perennial SEC

Western Division underdogs are 7-2 heading into Saturday’s visit to

Tuscaloosa.

It’s all a matter of perspective.

Alabama is use to looking down from the top of the standings or

up from the bottom like Mississippi State. The Bulldogs (7-2, 3-2

Southeastern Conference) have won six in a row since early losses

to No. 3 Auburn and No. 5 LSU, their longest streak since opening

the 1999 season with eight straight wins.

They get another chance to show how far they’ve come.

”It would be a big win for us,” Mississippi State coach Dan

Mullen said. ”We have pretty high expectations of ourselves and

expectations of how we want our season to be. We’ve been successful

to a point so far, so that would be a natural deal for us to

improve on that success and continue on our good year.”

The talk in Tuscaloosa Monday was about what’s wrong with the

Tide. The defending national champions are coming off a 24-21 loss

at No. 5 LSU that all but killed their hopes for a repeat. It also

left Alabama needing plenty of help to win a third straight

division title.

The results have left the Tide crimson-faced after back-to-back

perfect regular seasons, even with a perfectly respectable

record.

The team that decimated Florida 31-6, then lost to South

Carolina and looked imposing in the second half of a blowout at

Tennessee hasn’t been able to impose its will on opposing teams on

a weekly basis like it did the past two seasons.

”It’s disappointing for all of us, of course, with the

aspirations we had coming into the season,” McElroy said. ”That’s

why I think expectations can become so far out of reach.

”All is not lost with this team. We just have to regulate our

confidence and be able to go out there and execute consistently.

That’s really what’s separated this year’s team from last year’s

team, just not being as consistent as we were.”

Coach Nick Saban uses phrases like being too

”results-oriented” instead of playing to an individual and

collective ”standard.”

The Tide is hardly out of the running for a BCS game, but Saban

is eager to see if his players can respond when the title talk has

dwindled down. It’s been awhile since they weren’t contenders.

”Am I concerned that this team has the pride in performance to

do that?” Saban said. ”I think it’s a reality check for them to

see how important it is to you and what you’re willing to do to

make it happen.”

Mississippi State linebacker Chris White has his own idea of how

the Tide will respond to its latest defeat.

”I think they’ll probably come in madder than ever and more

ready than ever,” White said.

The records are essentially the same. Perception isn’t equal,

though.

Alabama is a nearly two-touchdown favorite over the Bulldogs.

The Tide, after all, boasts a 72-18-3 lead in the series (including

one forfeit and a vacated win) and has won the last two meetings by

a combined 63-10.

”That’s a lot of disrespect,” Mississippi State running back

Vick Ballard said of the point spread. ”I didn’t even know that. I

don’t know how they do any of those odds. We just have to come out

and prove them wrong on Saturday.”

Mississippi State has used a formula that’s familiar to the

Tide: a strong running game and defense, limited turnovers and just

plain consistency.

That’s why it doesn’t seem strange to Tide center William

Vlachos to see the Bulldogs hanging in there with only Auburn and

LSU having more wins among SEC teams. Arkansas is also 7-2.

”If you go look at the way they’ve played, they deserve it,”

Vlachos said. ”They’ve earned everything they’ve got. They’ve

beaten people the right way, they’ve played physical, they’ve

played smart, and they’re good in every facet of the game.”

AP Sports Writer David Brandt in Starkville, Miss., contributed

to this report.