STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — South Alabama has never played a Southeastern Conference opponent in football. It's only the fourth season the Jaguars football program has existed.
So they are pumped for their low-risk, high-reward game against No. 23 Mississippi State.
While it may seem the Bulldogs will have a difficult time matching that enthusiasm when the upstart Jaguars visit Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday night, coach Dan Mullen expects his players to do just that. It's a challenge he relishes as the Bulldogs gain a better reputation thanks to consistent winning.
"As we continue to improve as a program, that's something that comes with it," Mullen said. "We want to be the game people are always trying to get up for. They have the opportunity to play a premier program, but we stick with what we've talked about all year. We have to perform to our level."
South Alabama is a transitional Football Bowl Subdivision program that is part of the Sun Belt Conference. The Jaguars aren't eligible for the conference championship or a bowl game. That opportunity comes next season.
As for this season, beating a ranked SEC team — or even coming close — would be a great way to get the program exposure and respect. The Jaguars lost to North Carolina State 31-7 last season, falling behind 28-0 before halftime.
The Sun Belt has already pulled off one high-profile upset this year: Louisiana-Monroe beat then-No. 8 Arkansas. A South Alabama upset over Mississippi State might be even more shocking, considering the Jaguars' program is in its infancy.
"We don't bring it up a lot, they know about it and we have talked about it a couple of times," South Alabama coach Joey Jones said. "The bottom line is that we have to believe in what we are doing and go out execute it."
Mississippi State is trying to start its season with a 4-0 record for the first time since 1999 and only the second time since 1965. The Bulldogs are coming off an uneven performance in a surprisingly close 30-24 victory over Troy last week. The defense gave up 572 yards to the Trojans' spread option attack.
Mullen said those problems give his team plenty of motivation. The Bulldogs have an off week after the South Alabama game and won't play again until Oct. 6 against Kentucky.