Mullen, MSU winning playing Alabama-style football

No. 17 Mississippi State has embraced a formula that’s familiar

to Alabama fans: Physical, attacking defense, pounding offense and

a penchant for winning the turnover battle.

It’s working for the Bulldogs, while the 11th-ranked Crimson

Tide have slipped by its standards.

The Bulldogs (7-2, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) ride a six-game

winning streak into Tuscaloosa Saturday night while Alabama (7-2,

4-2) is starting to look mortal, if not vulnerable.

The Tide is coming off a 24-21 loss at No. 5 LSU that took the

defending champions out of the national title picture and left

coach Nick Saban grumbling about his team’s attitude.

”We’re 2-2 in our last four games. We’re not last year’s team

and this year’s team has got to decide what they want to

accomplish,” Saban said. ”We harp on focus and execution and

sometimes we have some lapses and we don’t get it.

”It’s been very costly relative to what we could accomplish.

The players are going to have to respond to that, and it’s a

reality check.”

The season hasn’t been a total letdown for Alabama, which is

still in the running for a BCS bowl.

Mississippi State fans have few complaints about a team that is

enjoying a terrific season even if it has been largely overshadowed

in a loaded SEC Western Division. The Bulldogs have won six

straight for the second time since 1955 and first since opening the

1999 season 8-0.

They’ve got considerable ground to make up to turn this game

from across the state line into a rivalry. Alabama leads the series

72-18-3 and has won seven of the last nine.

”When you start winning games and splitting those wins and it

becomes a tough game each year, then it becomes a little more of a

rivalry,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said.

A Bulldogs win would be another signal of how far they’ve come

in Mullen’s second season.

They were picked to finish last in the SEC West while Alabama

was the preseason favorite to win the division – and a second

straight national title. Instead, they come into the game with

virtually identical records.

”They’re playing with a lot of hunger, they’re playing with a

lot of passion,” Tide tailback Mark Ingram said. ”That’s why

they’re playing so tough out there.”

The Bulldogs were hit hard during their open date. Defensive end

Nick Bell died Nov. 2 after a brief battle with cancer. It’s

something that struck both teams hard.

Tide defensive end Marcell Dareus and Bell had been friends

since they were kids in suburban Birmingham. The two spent part of

the weekend before Bell’s death together in Tuscaloosa.

”Of course they’ll want to dedicate this game to Nick,” Dareus

said. ”I’m dedicating this game to Nick. I’m going to dedicate the

rest of the season to Nick.

”He was a real close friend of mine. A great guy all the way

around.”

The Bulldogs will wear patches honoring Bell on their

jerseys.

Mullen and his program have also been caught up in the

allegations involving the recruitment of Auburn quarterback Cam

Newton last year.

On the field, Mississippi State has excelled Alabama-style. The

Bulldogs rank 14th nationally in rushing behind quarterback Chris

Relf and running back Vick Ballard; Alabama is 34th, even with

Trent Richardson and Heisman Trophy winner Ingram. Richardson is

questionable for the game with a knee injury sustained against

LSU.

The Bulldogs are 20th in run defense, 13 spots ahead of Alabama.

Mississippi State hasn’t overtaken Alabama in turnover margin,

where they’re tied for 15th.

”They probably create more negative plays than anybody we’ve

played all year,” Saban said. ”We expect a really tough game on

the line of scrimmage.

”You’d better be ready to bow it up.”

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

to this report.