By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Oct. 24, 2012
Mississippi State is not one of the traditionally strongest teams in the Southeastern Conference, but you wouldn’t always know it from speaking with Alabama players, particularly in years when Alabama has much to lose.
On its way to a BCS title run in 2011, Alabama slogged through a 24-7 win over the Bulldogs in Starkville, no doubt made more difficult by Alabama’s encounter with LSU the prior week. But whether it was a 19-7 win for the 1999 SEC Champion Crimson Tide, a game that was in doubt until Shamari Buchanan caught a long pass for a touchdown, or a 30-21 win in 1992, a game Alabama very nearly lost (and by default, very nearly lost its chance at its 12th national championship), the Bulldogs seem to rise to the challenge with pesky frequency.
This time around, Alabama gets the Bulldogs before the LSU game, not afterward, which should make a difference. But the Bulldogs are also undefeated, and in no way a pushover. The Bulldogs bring a surprisingly balanced, potent offense, and one of the best defenses around. State also supplanted Alabama as the nation’s leader in turnover margin last week. Alabama cannot get caught looking ahead to LSU.
Mississippi State has broken from its strict interpretation of the spread-option offense, thanks to having a quarterback who can throw the ball. The Bulldogs will still run the ball plenty, but the emphasis is now on balance, and MSU’s offense now more resembles a Big 12 spread offense than the Urban Meyer-designed spread-option attack head coach Dan Mullen has run in previous years. Mississippi State is 47th in rushing offense, 56th in passing offense, 50th in total offense and 27th in scoring offense nationally, which puts the Bulldogs at or just above the conference midline in those categories. Alabama counters with its pro-style attack that is coming off two solid offensive performances against Missouri and Tennessee the last two weeks. Alabama is ranked just 75th in passing offense, but leads the nation in passing efficiency, as both Missouri and Tennessee can attest. The Crimson Tide is 20th in rushing offense and 14th in scoring offense, and 39th in total offense.
Tyler Russell was one of those few mega-heralded recruits that actually panned out. Bulldog fans have treated him as a program savior ever since he was a senior in high school, and now that Chris Relf has moved on, Russell is finally living up to his potential. Russell has a strong arm, good size (6’4”, 220 pounds) and has improved his decision making tenfold over the last two seasons, when he and Relf alternated at the position. Russell is 122-of-203 (60.1%) for 1,573 yards, 15 touchdowns and just 1 interception this season, putting him on pace for one of the best seasons for a Mississippi State quarterback in school history. He is also very mobile and may present a greater overall challenge for Alabama than Tyler Bray did the previous week. His backup is Dak Prescott, who is more of a runner and figures to play in certain packages. Alabama will call again on A.J. McCarron, who is completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and who has yet to throw an interception in 2012. His last interception? Against Mississippi State, in 2011. Blake Sims will be his backup, and is starting to get more playing time, even coming into the Tennessee game as Wildcat quarterback in the first quarter last week. Prescott and Sims mostly cancel each other out, and Russell gives McCarron a run for his money. The difference is McCarron has reached the point where he can take over a game himself if need be. But Russell isn’t far off from that point himself. Advantage: Alabama
LaDarius Perkins doesn’t get a lot of publicity, but he’s been a thorn in the side of SEC defenses now for three years. Despite checking in at only 190 pounds, Perkins runs a lot bigger than he is. He’s carried the ball 125 times for 724 yards (5.8 avg.) and 8 touchdowns in 2012, and he rarely goes down on the first hit. Derek Milton (26 carries, 178 yards, 6.8 avg., 2 TD) is the primary backup, with Nick Griffin and Josh Robinson also providing quality depth. The Bulldogs do use a fullback on a semi-regular basis, Sylvester Hemphill. Although Hemphill has yet to carry the ball in 2012, he has in the past, and has been effective in short-yardage sets. His primary role now is as a blocker, but he’s also caught 3 passes out of the backfield. Alabama will start Eddie Lacy (99 carries, 570 yards, 5.8 avg., 7 TD), with T.J. Yeldon (83 carries, 565 yards, 6.8 avg., 6 TD) serving as almost a co-starter. Kenyan Drake is a quality third back, while Brent Calloway and Ben Howell also have seen time there this year. This category is actually closer than it might first seem, as the Bulldogs have a depth advantage now that Alabama has lost Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart for the year, but the one-two punch of Lacy and Yeldon allow Alabama to keep a starting-quality back in the game on every down. Advantage: Alabama
As much improvement as Tyler Russell has made at quarterback this year, so has his receivers. Chad Bumphis (29 catches, 479 yards, 16.5 avg., 6 TD) has finally become the player he promised to be in high school, able to get open, make plays with the ball after he catches is and shift between outside receiver and the slot. Chris Smith (26 catches, 293 yards, 11.3 avg., 2 TD) and Arceto Clark (15 catches, 216 yards, 14.4 avg) round out the starting unit, while Joe Morrow and Brandon Heavens are decent options off the bench. The real surprise has been tight end Marcus Green (14 catches, 166 yards, 11.9 avg., 5 TD), who has been dangerous in the red zone. Alabama counters with its A-group of Amari Cooper, Kenny Bell, Christion Jones and Kevin Norwood. All four have been featured in one game or another this year, but it’s Cooper who is starting to stretch defenses to their breaking points. He’s caught 28 passes for 425 yards (15.2 avg.) and 5 touchdowns this year. Meanwhile, Bell, the speedster of the group, is averaging almost 23 yards per catch. Michael Williams may not be the receiver Green is at tight end, but he’s unmatched as a blocker, and is also dangerous in the red zone because of his height (6’7”). Marvin Shinn, Danny Woodson Jr., Cyrus Jones and Nathan McAlister provide depth at wideout, while Brian Vogler gives Alabama another tall target at tight end. Kelly Johnson will start at H-back. Alabama will have to account for Bumphis at all times, but Smith and Clark have issues with consistency, and the Tide has better depth. Advantage: Alabama
This is probably the biggest edge for Alabama on the offensive side of the board. The Crimson Tide will start Barrett Jones at center, flanked by Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen at guard and Cyrus Kouandjio and D.J. Fluker at tackle. Arie Kouandjio has developed into a top backup inside. Mississippi State isn’t chopped liver, but right tackle Charles Siddoway and center Dillon Day need some seasoning. The other three positions are in good shape, especially guards Gabe Jackson, one of the best in the conference, and Tobias Smith. Left tackle Blaine Clausell is still learning and growing, but has tremendous upside. The Bulldogs are 14th in the country in sacks allowed, but on the flip side, haven’t faced a defensive line as good as Alabama’s yet. The other issue is depth, as Alabama’s second team is in better shape than State’s. Advantage: Alabama
The Bulldogs run a 4-3 defense that is pedestrian up front, but rock-solid in the back. The Bulldogs are a respectable 47th against the run, but haven’t faced a true powerhouse rushing team in 2012. The pass defense ranks 21st in raw pass defense and 12th in pass efficiency defense despite playing several pass-happy teams, good numbers as expected from a team boasting one of the most veteran and able secondaries in the country. Alabama counters with its 3-4 over/under scheme that leads in all major defensive statistical categories other than raw pass defense, where it ranks 2nd. Where Alabama holds its biggest advantage, other than in rush defense, is in sacks, where the Crimson Tide ranks 21st and Mississippi State comes in 82nd.
Mississippi State is still trying to replace names like Fletcher Cox from recent years, and Kaleb Eulls might end up being the guy to watch. Eulls is big for a 4-3 defensive end (280 pounds), but moves well. But the best playmaker for the Bulldogs so far in 2012 has been the other end, Denico Autry, who has 2 sacks and 4 quarterback hurries on the year. The tackles are solid if nothing else; Josh Boyd has started for forever, while Curtis Virges is a decent second option. Preston Smith and Shane McCardell give the Bulldogs a pair of reserve ends almost as good as the starters, but depth inside is a concern, as P.J. Jones has been hurt and Dewayne Cherrington mostly ineffective. Alabama counters with Jesse Williams in the middle, flanked by Ed Stinson and Damion Square at end. Quinton Dial, D.J. Pettway and Jeoffrey Pagan provide depth outside, while Brandon Ivory and Darren Lake back up Williams. Stinson and Pagan are becoming forces to be reckoned with, while Williams is one of the most dynamic, consistent inside players in the SEC. Advantage: Alabama
Cameron Lawrence is the walking definition of overachiever. He’s not the most dynamic outside linebacker in football by any measure, but he is consistent and seems to have a knack for being part of big plays. Deontae Skinner has been solid enough on the other side, but redshirt freshman Benardrick McKinney has been nothing short of a revelation in the middle. He leads the team in tackles and is 6’5”, 240 pounds. Depth is in good shape, primarily behind Ferlando Bohanna and Matthew Wells. Chris Hughes also adds to the mix. Alabama counters with Trey DePriest, C.J. Mosley and Nico Johnson inside and Xzavier Dickson and Adrian Hubbard outside. Tana Patrick, Denzel Devall, Reggie Ragland and Tyler Hayes provide depth. Mosley, already one of the most feared linebackers in the SEC coming into 2012, has done nothing but improve his play over the course of the season. Mississippi State has an advantage in terms of experience off the bench – most of Alabama’s backups are true freshmen – but Alabama’s starters make more plays as a whole and just have more talent, period. Advantage: Alabama
It might be easy for some to dismiss Mississippi State’s secondary because it’s … well, Mississippi State. But that would be a mistake. Cornerback Johnthan Banks will likely go in the first round of the NFL Draft, and off corner Corey Broomfield stands an excellent chance at being a mid-round pick himself. Safeties Darius Slay and Nickoe Whitley are a solid 1-2 punch. As for depth, the Bulldogs have an experienced Jamerson Love on one side and dynamic redshirt freshman Taveze Calhoun on the other. There is plenty of depth at safety, too, thanks to Dee Arrington, Jay Hughes and Louis Watson. Alabama counters with Dee Milliner and Deion Belue at cornerback, Robert Lester at one safety position and Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix, Nick Perry and Vinnie Sunseri at the other. Statistically, Alabama holds the edge here, but the Bulldogs have a far better depth situation, particularly at corner. Alabama’s reserve corners – John Fulton, Geno Smith and Bradley Sylve – typically don’t play until late in games, although Fulton did step in for both Belue and Milliner at times this year when injuries dictated. On top of that, Slay and Banks are accomplished ballhawks, with Banks in particular being the bane of quarterbacks. Close call, but give the Bulldogs their due. Advantage: Mississippi State
Mississippi State has somewhat of a situation at placekicker, as Devon Bell, Brian Egan and Charlie Grandfield continue to compete for the job with no clear winner. Bell will apparently start against Alabama, with Egan, who has served along with Bell as the team’s kickoff specialist, as option No. 2. Punter Baker Swedenburg averages 40.6 yards per punt, and the Bulldogs have done a good job at covering punts. Punt and kickoff returns are just so-so, with Johnthan Banks and LaDarius Perkins handling those. Alabama counters with a unit that has misfired for two straight weeks. The return game is in good hands with Cyrus Jones at the moment, and Cody Mandell has been reliable at punter aside from a dropped snap against Missouri. But long kicker Cade Foster had a bad night against Tennessee, both on kickoffs and field goal attempts, and A.J. McCarron even got into the act by muffing a hold on a point-after attempt. Jeremy Shelley, though, has been solid as the short-distance kicker. In all honesty, neither team has been lighting the world on fire lately, but Alabama has better return units and Shelley’s reliability has to be considered. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in seven categories, Mississippi State in one, although there are a lot of close calls here. What isn’t close are the trench battles, as Alabama holds a significant lead in both OL/DL matchups.
And that’s where this game is most likely to turn. Mississippi State has been just OK against the run so far this year, even though the Bulldogs have yet to face anyone who is considered a threat to run the ball. Alabama will look to exploit that, not only because of the Tide’s running back talent, but because it keeps Alabama from having to go against the Bulldog secondary, which gives up next to nothing in comparison with anyone else’s defensive backfield.
The other factor to consider is one that can’t be measured, the intangible factor. There have been plenty of times in recent years when Mississippi State didn’t look like it belonged on the same field as Alabama, based off paper analysis. But when it came time to strap on the helmets, the Bulldogs gave Alabama as much as the Tide wanted.
Will Alabama be looking ahead to LSU, or will it stick to its knitting against an improving team hungry to make a statement? There’s the real analysis – and there aren’t any stats, charts or measuring tapes that can foretell the outcome.
Mississippi St. 10
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