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Mississippi State eyes playoff, another shot at Alabama

11/19/2014

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Their confidence never wavered.

Dak Prescott, Josh Robinson and the rest of the Mississippi State Bulldogs weren't defeated, even in defeat.

They walked off the field in Bryant-Denny Stadium last Saturday in pain. The dream of an undefeated season was over. Their No. 1 ranking would soon vanish. That terrible feeling in the pit of their stomachs? Their coach, Dan Mullen, said to embrace it. Feel it. Let it serve as motivation.

An hour after that 25-20 defeat to Alabama, they met with the media. They were somber, but more determined than ever.

"I still think we're one of the best four teams in the country," Prescott said. "We just played one of the other best four teams in the country. It's an early playoff game, in my mind."

"We're never going to roll over," Robinson explained. "That's not us, it's not in our character.

"I'm pretty sure we're going to see [Alabama] in the playoffs. I don't know when, but we're going to see them."

It sounded unlikely at the time, another "We want Bama" sign in a pile of hundreds. From Ball State to Baton Rouge, everyone wants a piece of the Crimson Tide. Sometimes you'll hear fans chant it in the fourth quarter of blowouts.

But Mississippi State wanted Alabama -- again.

Something about the Bulldogs' 20-6 run and finishing only 5 points shy gave them confidence. In spite of losing the red zone battle, the field position battle and the turnover battle, they were right there at the end. As Mullen said, it wouldn't have taken a "Herculean effort" for them to win the game.

"Everybody felt like if we had five more minutes it would have been a different game," said linebacker Richie Brown. "So I know everybody wants a piece of them again."

If the season ended today, they would.

On Tuesday, the College Football Playoff selection committee ranked Alabama No. 1 and Mississippi State No. 4. If everything holds, they'll meet in New Orleans for a playoff semifinal game.

"I didn't see the rankings," Robinson said on Wednesday.

Informed of the situation, his eyes lit up.

"That's fine with me," he said. "Karma, it'll come back to you now."

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Mullen didn't watch the release of the committee's newest rankings, either.

"I didn't pay much attention to it because I knew we'd be in the mix anyway," he said. "We're 9-1 with wins over three top-10 teams and our only loss is a 5-point loss on the road to the No. 1 team in the country.

"Your vision is, ‘Hey, wherever they put you, you're still in the discussion.'"

Earlier this week, he told his players just that.

In a meeting with the team's leadership -- a group that consists of Prescott, Jay Hughes, Bernardrick McKinney, Richie Brown, Ryan Brown, Taveze Calhoun, Dillon Day, Malcolm Johnson and Kaleb Eulls -- Mullen set the tone.

He'd step up his leadership this week, he said, but he wanted the message to come from within, too.

"Hey, everything we want is still ahead of us," he told them. "The season didn't end on Saturday. We're 9-1 with two regular season games left with a lot of football left to be played by a lot of other schools.

"The minute you start worrying, you're going to end up 9-3 in a hurry."

In a nice bit of imagery, Mullen put it like this: "You hold that rope and you don't let go. Even if you got pulled across that line in tug-of-war, we're not going to let it go. Get your feet back in the ground and start pulling again."

As Mullen told them, "You get a chance to finish 11-1 and that's a whole different picture."

That starts Saturday against Vanderbilt. It will either culminate the following week against Ole Miss, or it will end with no shot of playing for an SEC title or reaching the playoff.

How the Bulldogs respond to their first loss of the season is up to them.

"I don't think you get over it as much as you move on," Mullen said.

If anything, it has made players more hungry.

"It's kind of a positive," said center Dillon Day. "A lot of people see it as motivation. ... That game opened our eyes that we can get beat if we don't play our A-game."

Which is why they want Bama again. They want to show what their best really looks like.

If only they had a few more minutes the first time around.

"Oh, the outcome would be different," Robinson said. "We just ran out of time."

It looks like maybe they'll get another chance to prove it.

But before there's any rematch, there's work to be done.