By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Nov. 9, 2011
Before anyone starts having a panic attack, let’s get this out of the way early: The likelihood that Mississippi State beats Alabama on Saturday – even a wounded Alabama team suffering from multiple injuries and a Cajun-flavored hangover – is very low.
However, stranger things have happened, and often they happen in Starkville. Mississippi State nearly derailed Alabama’s 1992 national championship bid, a game that turned on a controversial call in Bama’s favor that today, would probably have been reversed by replay. In 1996, the Bulldogs played a part in ending Gene Stallings’ career, as a shocking loss led to a widely-rumored locker-room confrontation between Stallings and then-athletic director Bob Bockrath. And by the way, no one needs to bring up a certain 6-3 loss at the tail end of Paul Bryant’s Alabama coaching career.
The point is, this is the SEC, and aside from one or two teams each year (Kentucky and Ole Miss fill those slots in 2011), anyone in the conference is capable of knocking off anyone else. Mississippi State, after all, is the team that gave LSU its second-toughest game of the season.
The Bulldogs aren’t the same team in 2011 largely due to key losses in its defensive front seven as the result of graduation, plus an offensive line that never effectively replaced left tackle Derek Sherrod. Quarterback Chris Relf has also regressed as a senior, and MSU is now effectively a two-QB team.
Mississippi State is fully committed to the spread-option offense, but with the advent of the two-quarterback system recently, the Bulldogs are employing more pure spread plays. The Bulldogs have been mediocre offensively this year, ranking 77th in passing offense, 56th in total offense and 60th in scoring offense. Even though the rushing game is Mississippi State’s forte, the Bulldogs rank only 37th in the category. Alabama counters with its pro-style attack that until last week had rarely been stopped or even slowed. While Alabama still ranks highly in rushing offense, scoring and total offense, the Tide has slipped to 68th in passing. Multiple injuries also threaten to slow the Tide’s attack.
Chris Relf can’t throw and Tyler Russell is only an average runner. Aside from that, everything works just great with the Bulldogs’ two-QB platoon. Relf has a gaudy completion percentage (60.3%), but has thrown nearly as many interceptions (6) as he has touchdowns (7). This would be acceptable were it not for the fact that his rushing prowess seems to have gone away in 2011, likely due to inconsistency along the MSU offensive line. Relf is averaging just 2.8 yards per carry had has scored only twice on the ground. Head coach Dan Mullen waved the white flag to some degree a couple of weeks back, inserting Tyler Russell into the game more often. Russell has thrown as many touchdowns as Relf on approximately half the passing attempts. But he’s not the ideal spread-option quarterback, and he still tries to force the ball into coverage too often. Alabama counters with A.J. McCarron, who is coming off a checkered performance against LSU. But even with his LSU struggles, McCarron is 150-of-228 (65.8%) for 1,863 yards, 10 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Phillip Sims provides quality depth. Even though Mississippi State has more experience, McCarron has proven he can do more. Advantage: Alabama
There is no one in the country as good as Alabama’s Trent Richardson, but Mississippi State’s Vick Ballard isn’t bad. Ballard is averaging almost 6 yards per carry this year and is a tough between-the-tackles runner. LaDarius Perkins brings more speed off the bench. Robert Elliott and Nick Griffin add depth. When the Bulldogs need a fullback, they turn to Adrian Marcus and Sylvester Hemphill. Alabama counters with Richardson, then Eddie Lacy and finally Jalston Fowler and Blake Sims. Richardson has already eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark, while Lacy and Fowler are big backs that can punish defenses. Lacy, however, is still suffering from a turf toe injury. The Bulldogs have just as much depth as Alabama, but the presence of Richardson tilts this one in the Tide’s favor. Advantage: Alabama
The emergence of Arceto Clark has been a welcome surprise for Mississippi State; the reduction in Chad Bumphis’ productivity has not. Clark leads the team with 25 catches for 378 yards (15.1 avg.) and 3 touchdowns. Bumphis, who was expected to be one of the SEC’s top receivers in 2011, has just 20 catches. But he’s dangerous with the ball in his hands and, along with slot receiver Jameon Lewis (6 catches, 132 yards, 22.0 avg., 1 TD), are threats the run the ball as well as catch it. Chris Smith is actually the third starter along with Clark and Bumphis, but he’s averaging less than 10 yards per catch. Ricco Sanders, Brandon Heavens and Michael Carr add depth. Starting tight end Marcus Green doesn’t catch many passes, but he has made big plays when he has caught one. Brandon Hill, his backup, is mostly a blocker. Alabama counters with Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks at wideout along with DeAndrew White, Kenny Bell, Brandon Gibson, Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones. Maze and Hanks have had strong seasons, but the third receiver position is still up for grabs. Maze might be slowed this week thanks to an ankle injury. Michael Williams starts at tight end and is a devastating blocker, but his receiving skills are just average. Brad Smelley had developed into a weapon at the H-back position, but was hurt against LSU and might not play. If he doesn’t, senior Chris Underwood will get his first career start. Brandon Lewis, Brian Vogler and Harrison Jones provide depth. This is a hard one to call thanks to the injuries to Maze and Smelley. If those two were 100 percent healthy, Alabama would lead this category. But it’s the Bulldogs otherwise. Advantage: Mississippi State
The offensive line has been a sore spot for the Bulldogs all season long. The real problem position has been left tackle, where James Carmon and Blaine Clausell have struggled. Carmon was considered “the next Terrence Cody” when he was recruited out of JUCO a year ago, but he didn’t have the quickness for defensive tackle and moved to offensive line this spring. He doesn’t have the footwork for the position, however. Thanks to injury, Carmon has been forced to sit at times this year and Clausell, overmatched and outweighed in this his freshman year, forced to play. Addison Lawrence is a solid right tackle, however, and guards Quinton Saulsberry and Gabe Jackson are consistent. Dillon Day took over at center at mid-year, but he’s just a freshman and is frequently overmatched. Templeton Hardy backs up the interior, but he has failed to live up to potential. Alabama again has to contend with injuries here, notably tackle Barrett Jones and guard Anthony Steen. Jones sprained an ankle against LSU and although he returned in that game, will probably sit this game and next week’s contest against Georgia Southern. Look for Alfred McCullough to start at left tackle opposite D.J. Fluker. Steen should be able to go at right guad opposite Chance Warmack, with William Vlachos at center. If Steen is still suffering from concussion after-effects, John Michael Boswell will probably start in his place. Even though Alabama is banged up, the Tide has better depth and is just better overall. Advantage: Alabama
Mississippi State employs a 4-3 set that relies on a veteran secondary. The Bulldogs are 19th against the pass and 26th in pass efficiency defense, but are just 66th in rushing defense. MSU is 16th in scoring defense, however. The issue with run containment is a defensive line lacking athleticism and a linebacker group that lacks playmaking ability. Alabama counters with a defense that is literally No. 1 in all major categories, utilizing a 3-4 over/under alignment.
Tackles Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd have been decent in getting to the passer, but the run defense has been porous for much of the season. Ends Kaleb Eulls and Sean Ferguson have struggled to affect quarterbacks. The quality of play falls off precipitously from the starters to the backups. Trevor Stigers and Shane McCardell back up the ends, while Curtis Virges and the undersized Devin Jones back up the tackle slots. Alabama counters with Josh Chapman in the middle flanked by Damion Square and Jesse Williams. Williams was banged up against LSU but should be fine for this game. Undra Billingsley, Quinton Dial and Ed Stinson offer depth at end, while Nick Gentry backs up Chapman in the middle. Although Cox and Boyd are good players, there’s not much of a comparison here. Advantage: Alabama
Talk about your no-comparison situations. This one isn’t even worth discussing. Cameron Lawrence has a bright future for Mississippi State, but he, Brandon Wilson and Deontae Skinner are outclassed by Alabama’s group. Matthew Wells and Brandon Maye provide decent depth off the bench. But Alabama has Dont’a Hightower, Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley in the middle and Courtney Upshaw and Jerrell Harris outside. Alex Watkins and Adrian Hubbard provide depth at Upshaw’s Jack linebacker position, while Chris Jordan and Trey DePriest are available inside. Part of the Bulldogs’ biggest problem on defense – consistency – is due to this position group. Advantage: Alabama
Surprisingly, Mississippi State has been strong in the secondary this year. Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield give the Bulldogs two large, physical corners. Charles Mitchell and Wade Bonner are lunchpail players at safety, but they get the job done. Jay Hughes and Nickoe Whitley back up Bonner and Mitchell, while Darius Slay and Jamerson Love are good corners off the bench. For Alabama, injuries are again a factor. Dre Kirkpatrick might miss a week or two at cornerback, which elevates Dee Milliner to a starting position opposite DeQuan Menzie. Phelon Jones’ role would increase significantly. Mark Barron, Robert Lester and Will Lowery hold down the fort at safety. While this category gets a little closer if Kirkpatrick is out, Alabama still takes it. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama would love to have Derek DePasquale on its roster. DePasquale is 9-of-14 on field goal attempts and doesn’t have tremendous range, but he’s good in the clutch. The Bulldogs are good in punt returns and decent in net punting behind punter Baker Swedenburg, but are the worst team in the nation in kickoff returns. Alabama counters with a group that is good in returns and coverage, but the Crimson Tide is mediocre in punting and the kicking situation speaks for itself after last week’s debacle. Although MSU is truly terrible in kickoff returns, this category is mostly about kicking and punting, and the Bulldogs win both those areas easily. Advantage: Mississippi State
Alabama leads in six categories, Mississippi State in two – although if Marquis Maze and Brad Smelley were 100 percent, this likely would be a 7-1 comparison. Alabama comfortably controls both OL-DL matchups.
For these reasons, a Mississippi State win would truly be an upset. The maddening thing about upsets is you don’t see one until it happens, and you’re just left to kick yourself in the pants for weeks afterwards when one does happen.
Fortunately for Alabama, even a hobbled Crimson Tide team should be able to win this game by two scores or more. The Bulldogs struggle to stop a good running game, and State has been almost inept on offense at times this year. Taking away the 55 points Mississippi State scored on UT-Martin and the 59 points in the opener over woeful Memphis, the Bulldogs have averaged 19.6 per game the rest of the way. That’s not good enough to keep Alabama under its boot – and the Bulldogs are highly unlikely to score 19 or 20 points against this Tide defense in the first place.
Alabama’s biggest concern has nothing to do with Mississippi State. It has to do with LSU, more specifically the hangover resulting from playing in the so-called “game of the century.” Teams that play in those games (and especially ones that lose) often forget there’s a game the following week. The efforts of the Bama coaching staff to keep this team focused will determine how close this game is in the end.
Mississippi St. 10