A year ago at this time, No. 17 Mississippi State and second-ranked Alabama had much more on the line in Tuscaloosa, Ala. This year is an important game for these two programs, but the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide had the SEC West on the line with just two games to spare.
MSU ran into a buzz saw in the first half and the pressure of the national spotlight and big game seemed to be too much. A 19-0 deficit through a quarter and a half was cut, but State lost 25-20.
"We had not been in that big of a game before in this program," MSU coach Dan Mullen said. "I think we came out and played a little tight in the first quarter and a half of trying to almost be too perfect, instead of just going out and playing football. I think that is one thing all of the guys learn. A lot of that is on me. I'm making sure that they are ready to go play in the situation they are going to go play in. Our guys needed to be loose."
The loss has stuck with Mullen for a year. Now he has the opportunity Saturday to respond with his Bulldogs. Alabama comes to Starkville in front of a CBS audience at 2:30 p.m., and his team will be ready.
This time, Mullen is hoping his team is much more loose than before. What can be 100-percent expected, however, is a team playing with heavy hearts.
Last Friday, MSU players and coaches got word of the loss of a teammate in freshman defensive end Keith Joseph Jr. of Pascagoula. Players have shown their devastation throughout the last week, especially at Joseph's memorial service on campus Thursday.
Mullen hopes the team can find solace in a few hours of play on the field.
"Unfortunately, through somewhat experience, I think for all of these young men, football is their safe place," Mullen said. "For any problem our players are dealing with, when they step on the football field that is when a lot of things disappear. They are getting to do what they love. I do think that for players it is a comforting, safe place to be when dealing with this situation."
Either way, Saturday's game is a monster challenge for the Bulldogs. A win puts the Bulldogs back in the conversation nationally and in the SEC for big postseason implications. It also proves Mullen can win big in November. The talent level is noticeable, but Mullen is confident that his team will be ready.
"They have five star players across the board," Mullen said. "They have a pretty explosive offense and great playmakers in the perimeter. They have a big, physical running back. Their quarterback manages in the right situation. They have all-star offensive linemen. They have the best defense in America to go along with it.
"It is going to be a huge challenge for us. We have improved every week with a young football team. I know over the last four games we have seen significant improvement from one week to the next. We are going to have to take another huge step forward this Saturday and play at an extremely high level to put ourselves in a position to win."
The Bulldogs will honor Joseph Jr. and his father Keith Joseph Sr. with a moment of silence on Saturday prior to the national anthem. An "MJ" logo will be worn on the team's helmets with the emblem also painted on each 20 yard line.
Freshman safety Jamal Peters -- a close friend of Joseph Jr. -- will wear the fallen player's No. 99 jersey against Alabama.