- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Just call Saturday’s Mississippi State-Tennessee game the Must-Win Bowl. Both teams enter with winning records, but both need to leave with a victory for very different reasons.
For the 19th-ranked Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0 SEC), a win will help generate more national respect for the program and push it closer to its goal of reaching Atlanta.
“It will really open people’s eyes,” cornerback Johnthan Banks said of getting a win against Tennessee. “People are walking around saying Mississippi State hasn’t played anybody. We actually have played five games. Tennessee is supposed to be a good team. It’s supposed to have a good quarterback, so if we go out and handle business, we’ll finally get the spotlight we deserve.”
The Bulldogs have been here before. After winning nine games in 2010, Mississippi State failed to live up to expectations last season, losing six games. So, people have a hard time taking this team seriously.
The start to 2012 hasn't helped because of the low level of competition Mississippi State has faced. The Bulldogs’ opponents have a combined record of 8-19, with Troy (3-2) being the only opponent with a winning record.
While Mississippi State owns the nation’s No. 11 scoring defense (13.4 points per game), is forcing four three-and-outs per game and has trailed for just 10:19 this year, three of their opponents (not counting Football Championship Subdivision team Jackson State) rank 106th or higher in total offense and scoring offense.
The perception is that the Bulldogs haven't had much competition to deal with. A win over a talented Tennessee team should get more people thinking about Mississippi State.
Competition will always serve as a measuring stick, but the Bulldogs have been impressive. The defense has allowed only two touchdowns at home, and the offense is one of three schools (Texas A&M, Tennessee) with a quarterback (Tyler Russell) averaging over 200 yards a game, a running back (LaDarius Perkins) averaging over 90 yards a game and a wide receiver (Chad Bumphis) averaging over 75 yards per game.
“People say were underdogs, but anyone who watches us knows how hard we play,” Bumphis said.
For Tennessee (3-2, 0-2), much more is on the line. It’s no secret that coach Derek Dooley entered the season on the hot seat, and the heat only intensified with an 0-2 SEC start against division rivals Florida and Georgia.
“We’re all rallying around [Dooley] and we’re trying to play for him,” senior linebacker Herman Lathers said. “It’s going to be great once we really home in and get a big road win.”
A win will keep Dooley afloat, but a loss could doom him, especially with a tough October slate. After Saturday, Tennessee hosts No. 1 Alabama and then travels to No. 3 South Carolina. Losing Saturday could mean the Vols leave October with a 3-5 record, meaning Tennessee has to sweep November in order to have a chance at eight wins, which might be the magic number for Dooley.
Lathers said Saturday’s matchup is exactly what this team needs to create some much-needed momentum going forward. A win over a team like Mississippi State could jump-start this team, Lathers said. The Vols are refreshed after their bye and the focus has been much better with the Bulldogs approaching.
“Each game we want big games, big road games and hostile environments just so we can prove that we have a team that can compete for 60 minutes on the road in a hostile environment,” Lathers said.
But the Bulldogs don’t intend on helping the Vols save their season. They have much bigger goals in sight. Along with garnering more respect, Mississippi State wants an SEC championship.
The Bulldogs believe they're every bit as talented as their SEC counterparts and Saturday will either be a step toward or away from Atlanta.
“We know we can do it,” Banks said. “When you look at the SEC right now, or the whole country, everybody is neck-and-neck. Last year, Alabama was way more talented than everybody, but everybody is right there, neck-and-neck [this year].
“We know we can go out and win a championship. All we have to do is go out, execute and believe in ourselves.”