Sunday, August 3, 2008

Mississippi State: If we would have only...

1998 SEC Championship Game

Since the SEC Championship Game was created, the only year Mississippi State has represented the West was in 1998. At the time, it didn’t seem as if getting back to Atlanta in the next few years would be too much to ask. Now, almost 11 years later, most people outside of Knoxville don’t even remember that State fans were allowed to step foot in Atlanta for a football game. The 1998 SEC Championship Game against Tennessee is the one game Bulldog fans need back, since it was their only true chance at winning the league since the start of the BCS.

A close second was the 2000 game against Arkansas, when they blew a 10-point halftime lead and allowed Auburn to claim the Western division title that they were in control of at the time. However, State went on to lose the Egg Bowl the next week, so neither game turned out to cost them a spot in Atlanta.

Tennessee was a huge favorite against State in Atlanta, and the general consensus was State was just lucky to be there. State and Arkansas tied for the Western division title, but State got the nod for Atlanta by virtue of their win on a last second field goal in Starkville. The Bulldogs just happened to host Arkansas the week after Clint Stoerner fumbled the game away in Knoxville. They also had the benefit of playing South Carolina, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt from the East, while Arkansas had to travel to Knoxville for one of its three games against the East.

Still, Bulldog fans made no apologies for showing up in Atlanta. And they shouldn’t have. They didn’t make the SEC schedule, and they went 6-2 in league play. They beat the Hogs head to head, regardless of when the game took place.

In the game itself, a combination of a weak Bulldog offense and tough Vol defense kept State from scoring any points on offense all night. However, that didn’t keep the Bulldogs from holding leads in the 1st, 2nd, and 4th quarters.

State started the scoring with a 70-yard pick-six by Robert Bean in the 1st quarter. Their defense was steady the rest of the way, and the Bulldogs were only down 10-7 at half.

The 3rd quarter was possibly the ugliest single quarter in SEC Championship Game history. There were only 72 yards and four first downs, combined. There were two more punts than first downs. By the end of the 3rd, many Bulldog fans believed this might truly be their night.

After all, the day in college football was shaping up to be a strange one. Tennessee was the third of the three undefeated teams playing that day; before the day started, all three thought they were entitled to one of the two coveted spots in the first BCS Championship Game. Undefeated UCLA fell to Miami in an early game. Then, by halftime, it was announced in the Georgia Dome that Kansas State just lost to Texas A&M in overtime.

The longer the underdog is allowed to hang around, the pressure shifts to the mighty favorite. State was allowed to stay close, and early in the 4th, they advantage when they had the chance to strike. Kevin Prentiss tiptoed down the sideline as he returned a punt 83 yards for a touchdown to give State a 14-10 lead. By then, Bulldog faithful knew it was their night. They were in perfect position to be the third team to take down an unbeaten that day.

The problem was none of this was new for the 1998 Tennessee squad. They started the year with a last second win at Syracuse. They beat Florida in overtime. Coming back from 14-10 with about nine minutes left was nothing compared to the Houdini act they pulled against Clint Stoerner and Arkansas.

And the Vols did just that. Their offense waited until it had to, but it came alive. They scored a touchdown on a 41-yard pass to Peerless Price in less than three minutes. Then, the Vols forced a fumble from State QB Wayne Madkin on the first play of the next drive.

The following play, the Vols scored a touchdown on another Tee Martin pass, this one to Cedrick Wilson. At 24-14 with less than six minutes to go, the game was all but over.

The game ended with the same score, and State was sent home after its only trip to Atlanta. They haven’t sniffed a BCS bowl since then, either. As mentioned earlier, the Bulldogs made a run at the West again in 2000 but faded late. That was their last winning season under Jackie Sherrill, and their last winning season period until Sylvester Croom got them over the hump last year.