By John Zenor
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — College football fans don't have to wait until Alabama-LSU for a showdown of highly ranked, unbeaten SEC West teams.
No. 13 Mississippi State's surprising rise means that matchup comes two weeks early. The Bulldogs visit the top-ranked Crimson Tide Saturday night in the first meeting of two ranked SEC West teams since the BCS championship game in January.
It might lack some of the national appeal of that Nov. 3 rematch in Baton Rouge, but the stakes are awfully high. The winner controls its own destiny in the division and takes a big step toward even bigger ambitions. In Alabama's case, that means staying ahead of the pack.
"At this time of the season, it's kind of like you're running the 100-yard race and now you're getting down to about 70 meters and you've got 30 meters to go," Alabama coach Nick Saban said Monday. "And a lot of people are close, right on your heels and you've got to be able to finish the race."
The perception is that Mississippi State (7-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) is at least a few steps behind the Tide (7-0, 4-0), which is favored by 23-1/2 points. This is a chance for the Bulldogs to show they've closed that gap.
They're off to their best start since the 1999 team won its first eight games and Mississippi State didn't even enter the rankings until a month into the season. Alabama has been No. 1 for eight weeks running and has easily dispatched SEC foes Missouri (42-10) and Tennessee (44-13) the past two weeks on the road.
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen dismisses any suggestion that this game will be about gaining respect nationally.
"For our guys, to me, the respect issue comes down to our guys respect themselves, they respect each other," Mullen said. "And that's really the only respect you need in a football team.
"What people outside our building say about us is their opinion. We have to worry about what we think about each other inside. And I think our guys have a lot of respect for the leaders on our team. And they respect how everybody on the team works, and they respect each other and they respect our program. So they give great effort in those regards because of those things, and that's really all that matters."
Nevertheless, the respect is evident from the Alabama team for the Bulldogs improvement, even though the Tide has dominated the last four meetings by a collective 117-27 margin.
"They have improved a lot over the past three years," Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson said. "We're not taking them lightly because they're a good team. I don't think they get the credit they deserve. We're going to come in with the mindset of they want to knock us off, so we're gonna try to get after them the best we can for a 60-minute game."
It's a big one for the SEC West, which had three teams in the national title hunt — Alabama, LSU and Arkansas — going into the final weekend of the regular season last year. The decline of Arkansas and Auburn, plus the rise of several SEC East teams, has dimmed the spotlight on the division somewhat even with No. 22 Texas A&M entering the mix.
The SEC East has been part of all the marquee league games so far, such as Florida-Texas A&M, Florida-LSU, South Carolina-Georgia and LSU-South Carolina.
This game features two of the nation's top three teams in turnover margin and two of the league's most efficient quarterbacks.
Alabama's AJ McCarron has the nation's highest passing rating. He has thrown for 16 touchdowns and his interception-free streak has risen to 239 passes. Mississippi State's Tyler Russell has 15 touchdown passes against one interception.
"It's always been a great game because they are great at running the ball," Tide linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "They have a great offense and a great defense. They have one of those defenses that gets a lot of turnovers, too, and we're right there with them on turnovers. It ought to be a great day."