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Mississippi State at Alabama: Bulldogs are ready for the big one

The whole world, pretty much, believes Mississippi State deserves to be ranked No. 1 in the College Football Playoff standings. The Bulldogs are 9-0 following a string of mostly one-sided victories; they’ve earned the distinction. Yet how to explain their status as eight-point underdogs on Saturday?

MSU at No. 5 Alabama (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2) forces that question under our noses, and I’m struggling to come up with the answers. On the field, the Bulldogs clearly have been the better team this season. On reputation alone, though, the Crimson Tide might present a challenge the likes of which the Bulldogs couldn’t handle on their best day.

“They probably have more five-star players sitting on the bench who can’t get a rep than we have on our entire roster,” said MSU coach Dan Mullen, deftly playing the underdog card.

Recent history in this series certainly suggests the Bulldogs are in trouble; they’ve never scored more than 10 points against the Tide under Mullen and have been held to seven in each of the last three meetings, while giving up a combined 100 points. And here’s a five-alarm fact: Alabama is 3-1 in its last four games against No. 1-ranked teams and has outscored those teams by an amazing count of 101-36.

The big ol’ point spread begins to make more sense, perhaps. Still, MSU is so different this season — with a top Heisman contender in quarterback Dak Prescott, a premier running back in Josh Robinson and the most potent offense in the Southeastern Conference — and has this glorious vibe about it that the 2014 Tide don’t seem to have. Not without trepidation, I’m going to predict this one will be tantalizingly close. Bulldogs eke out their hardest-fought victory yet, 33-31.

Speaking of point spreads, the line for No. 3 Florida State at Miami (7 p.m., Ch. 7) absolutely shocks me. The 9-0 Seminoles — winners of 25 straight overall and four straight in this annual series — are favored by only 2½ points. What gives?

The unranked Hurricanes (6-3) have been exceptional in their last three games, dominating Cincinnati, Virginia Tech and North Carolina by an average of 24 points. Their true freshman quarterback, Brad Kaaya, happens to be having a far better season throwing the football than FSU’s Jameis Winston. Miami also has Duke Johnson (1,213 rushing yards, 7.7 yards per carry), one of the best backs in the country. You bet this could end in a playoff-shifting upset, but I’m most compelled by the fact the Seminoles haven’t failed to win any game by at least three points since November 2012. They stay perfect, 34-27.

Another important day for the Big Ten brings us No. 8 Ohio State at No. 25 Minnesota (11 a.m., Ch. 7) followed by No. 16 Nebraska at No. 20 Wisconsin (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7).

The 8-1 Buckeyes are just about golden in terms of the East Division race, but they need to continue to play dazzling football if they’re going to claw their way up the playoff standings. And that could be awfully hard to do with a morning kickoff in chilly conditions, especially given the possibility of an emotional letdown after OSU’s great victory at Michigan State last weekend. Did I mention Minnesota (7-2) is coming off a 51-14 bludgeoning of Iowa? Then again, these are the very Gophers who lost at Illinois. Buckeyes roll on, 35-21.

West co-leaders Nebraska (8-1) and Wisconsin (7-2) are 4-1 in Big Ten play — as is Minnesota — making this the game of the year, as expected, in the league’s lesser division. The Huskers have been dreadful away from home against ranked opponents during Bo Pelini’s time as coach. In their first-ever Big Ten game, in 2011, they lost in Madison by 31. A season later, the Badgers crushed them 70-31 in the league title game.

But the real story of this game should be the battle of superstar running backs, Ameer Abdullah and Melvin Gordon. The Huskers’ Abdullah leads the nation in all-purpose yards per game (187.9); Gordon is tops in rushing (166.8). I like the Badgers’ nationally No. 1-ranked defense, led by linebackers Derek Landisch and Vince Biegel, to make the difference. Go Bucky, 34-24.

Two other top 25 matchups flying somewhat under the radar: No. 9 Auburn at No. 15 Georgia (6:15 p.m., ESPN) and No. 19 Clemson at No. 22 Georgia Tech (11 a.m., ESPN). This could turn out to be a very good day for the Peach State.

Running back Todd Gurley returns from suspension for the Bulldogs, whose Gurley-Nick Chubb one-two punch is ridiculously good. Can Auburn stop it? No. Can Auburn match Georgia’s scoring? Just about, but call it Bulldogs by a count of 41-34.

The Yellow Jackets offense ranks second in the nation in rushing, but Clemson is fourth against the run and second in total defense. Also interesting: The units are first in third-down offense and third-down defense, respectively. This is a fun one, but the deciding factor could be the return from injury of Clemson freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson. Sorry, Peaches, I’m going with the Tigers, 27-24.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg