By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Nov. 13, 2013
Mississippi State is a team in transition in 2013. And unfortunately for the Bulldogs, it’s a transition from contender to bottom-feeder.
The Bulldogs have become, overall, a respectable SEC team under head coach Dan Mullen, but have yet to take the next step up. Mullen has become somewhat notable, not necessarily for his successes, but rather for his struggles against other SEC West opponents. He also heads the program that lost Cam Newton to Auburn in 2010, and in seasons since, the program endured allegations of NCAA rules violations. No SEC program embodies the concept of “almost” quite like Mississippi State.
But the biggest problem Mississippi State faces in the here and now, is that this is a team that continues to lose ground to all six of its SEC West competitors in regards to talent. MSU’s recruiting has always been scattershot, no matter the name on the head coach’s door. And in 2013, the Bulldogs find themselves rebuilding a defense undercut by graduation, and a depth chart that has suffered several key losses due to injury. Questionable handling of the quarterback situation has done Mississippi State no favors, either.
But Alabama finds itself is a somewhat precarious spot – potentially suffering from a post-LSU hangover. This was the game in 2012 that almost caused Alabama to lose its spot in the BCS Championship Game. Fortunately for the Tide, Johnny Manziel is not quarterbacking the Bulldogs.
For Alabama to lose this game, something would have to happen outside the bounds of normal football. Alabama would have to suffer a key injury – perhaps multiple key injuries – or the Crimson Tide would basically have to fail to prepare whatsoever in the coming week.
Mississippi State has been a pure spread-option team under Dan Mullen until the last season or so, when Mullen had to adjust the offense to fit the skill set of QB Tyler Russell. But an injury to Russell early in the year changed things, and with Dak Prescott under center, State has gone back to the pure spread-option look. Prescott, though, is banged up, so Alabama could see either version of Mullen’s attack. The Bulldogs are a respectable 35th in total offense, and have good balance (26th rushing, 52nd passing). But scoring offense comes in at 58th, and consistency has been erratic at best. Alabama uses a multiple, pro-style attack that ranks 40th in total offense, 27th in rushing and 57th in passing, but one that has been incredibly efficient, leading to a ranking of 12th in scoring offense.
Because of the statistical success of the offense, it’s hard, at face value, to complain about what MSU has done at the quarterback position this season. But the analysis goes deeper than that. Tyler Russell (38-of-57, 66.7%, 468 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT) started the season atop the depth chart, but was injured in the opener and lost his job to Dak Prescott (128-of-219, 58.4%, 1,542 yards, 7 TD, 7 INT). Since then, Russell has made a pair of spot starts while Prescott has dealt with an injury Bulldog coaches refer to as a “stinger,” but might be more of a shoulder ailment. The biggest difference between the two players is the ability to run the ball: Russell has 18 carries for 6 yards (0.3 avg.), but historically he’s been better than that. Prescott, on the other hand, is the team’s leading rusher, carrying 111 times for 722 yards (6.5 avg.) and 10 touchdowns. Thanks to a mass exodus of talent at the quarterback position in the SEC after this year, Prescott might find himself running first-team preseason all-SEC heading into 2014, but right now, his passing efficiency numbers (121.7 compared to 149.5 for Russell) aren’t good enough. Mullen clearly prioritizes mobility at the position – he might be the only head coach in the SEC who would have voluntarily started Chris Relf so many times – but Russell’s ability to throw the ball downfield would seem to be a better option. Alabama will counter with A.J. McCarron, who has put up an efficiency rating of 169.1 while proving to be both accurate and a playmaker. Blake Sims will serve as his backup. Prescott is listed as “questionable” for this game, but he still is expected to play. As for how long he plays, and how effective he is while he’s in the game, that’s another matter. Advantage: Alabama
MSU’s LaDarius Perkins (96 carries, 433 yards, 4.5 avg., 2 TD) has had a lackluster final season in Starkville. He’s a quality back, but the Bulldogs haven’t been able to leverage his skills properly. He has slightly above-average speed, and is slightly better than average between the tackles, but he excels in no one particular skill. Backup Josh Robinson (45 carries, 258 yards, 5.7 avg., 2 TD) has actually been more effective in limited work. Ashton Shumpert and Nick Griffin provide depth, and receiver Jameon Lewis is a weapon on sweeps. Alabama counters with the duo of T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake, who – provided ball security isn’t part of the equation – have developed into the best 1-2 punch in the SEC. Yeldon’s abilities both outside and between the tackles, coupled with Drake’s raw speed and surprising toughness, have been hard to match. Altee Tenpenny, Dee Hart and Derrick Henry provide depth. Neither team uses a full-time fullback, although Jalston Fowler fills the role for Alabama on a situational basis. MSU has good depth here and Perkins is a quality SEC talent, but Alabama has been far more productive and its players have greater ability. Advantage: Alabama
Probably the biggest pleasant surprise for Mississippi State this season has been the development of the wide receivers, relative to what they were expected to do. State starts three receivers in its base set, and all three starters were new at the beginning of the year, in addition to a new tight end. Junior Jameon Lewis (39 catches, 505 yards, 12.9 avg., 4 TD) has developed into a solid talent. He’s also carried the ball 13 times for 117 yards (9.0 avg.) and 3 touchdowns, and has thrown 3 touchdown passes on 3 attempts. The others in the primary rotation – Robert Johnson, Joe Morrow and true freshman De’Runnya Wilson – have developed into solid options. Morrow and Johnson are most useful in possession situations, however – they’ve combined for just 1 touchdown – although Wilson has established himself as a downfield threat. Fred Ross, Fred Brown and Brandon Holloway provide depth. Malcolm Johnson (17 catches, 206 yards, 12.1 avg., 1 TD) is among the top half of the league at his position as a receiver, but is a bit undersized (6’2”, 230). Alabama counters with its primary group consisting of DeAndrew White, Kenny Bell, Kevin Norwood, Amari Cooper and Christion Jones, with Chris Black, Raheem Falkins and Parker Barrineau providing depth. At tight end, O.J. Howard and Brian Vogler continue to split snaps. Jalston Fowler starts at H-back. While Lewis has developed into a top-tier SEC player, and the other Bulldog receivers have come along nicely, Alabama still holds a massive edge in experience, and the playmaking ability of the Crimson Tide’s group goes deeper through the chart than does MSU’s. The emergence of Howard at tight end for Alabama also largely negates the edge the Bulldogs enjoy there. Advantage: Alabama
Both teams got off to a rough start in 2013, and both teams have improved a lot since then. The Bulldogs have one true next-tier talent in left guard Gabe Jackson, although left tackle Blaine Clausell has the ability, if not always the consistency. Dillon Day will start at center, with Charles Siddoway at right tackle and Ben Beckwith at right guard. Beckwith starts largely because the Bulldogs lost Justin Malone early in the year. Damien Robinson and Justin Senior will back up the tackles, while Archie Muniz provides depth at guard. The right side of the line is highly vulnerable, with footwork being an issue for both starters. Alabama counters with Ryan Kelly at center flanked by guards Arie Kouandjio and Anthony Steen and tackles Cyrus Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd at the tackles. Grant Hill and Leon Brown provide depth outside, with Kellen Williams, Chad Lindsay, Isaac Luatua and Alphonse Taylor providing depth inside. State has overachieved a bit here in 2013, but Alabama has been far more consistent and is peaking at the moment. Advantage: Alabama
Mississippi State employs a 4-3 base set, and up front, the Bulldogs have had a solid season, ranking 34th in rushing defense. But injuries in the linebacker and defensive back groups have conspired to gut what was one of the best pass defenses in the league. The Bulldogs rank 64th in raw pass defense, 86th in pass efficiency defense and, as a result, 70th in scoring defense despite being 38th in total D. Mississippi State is particularly solid up the middle, but can be attacked on the edges. Alabama counters with its 3-4 over/under scheme that currently ranks 1st in scoring defense, 5th in rushing defense, 6th in total defense, 11th in pass defense and 14th in pass efficiency defense. Aside from the Texas A&M game and the first half against LSU, the Tide has been basically untouchable.
The addition of true freshman Chris Jones to the line has given the Bulldogs an added dimension. Jones doesn’t start often – Kaleb Eulls and P.J. Jones are the regular starters inside – but Jones leads the team with 7 QB hurries and has amassed 4 tackles for loss and a sack. He’s an elite-level talent and would certain play for Alabama if he was on the Tide team. P.J. Jones has been solid this season, but Eulls has battled nagging injuries and hasn’t been the force he was expected to be. Curtis Virges offers depth. Outside, Denico Autry and Preston Smith start, with Ryan Brown and A.J. Jefferson the primary backups. Again, the expected star (Autry) has been second fiddle to a new starter (Smith). The biggest problem is consistency; the ends haven’t displayed as much as the tackles. The Bulldogs rank 99th in sacks, which is disappointing for a 4-3 defense. Alabama counters with Brandon Ivory in the middle flanked by Ed Stinson and Jeoffrey Pagan at end. A’Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen, Dee Liner and Anthony Orr provide depth outside, while Darren Lake and Korren Kirven back up the middle. The Bulldogs get credit for putting a respectable product on the field, but Alabama has better talent across the board and has done a better job of controlling the line of scrimmage and affecting quarterbacks. Advantage: Alabama
Benardrick McKinney is somewhat of a Dont’a Hightower clone. Just a sophomore, McKinney is 6’5”, 240 and has been strong in the middle against the run. He leads the team in tackles, and has added 4.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks to his total. The problems have been injuries plus a lack of production to either side of him. Strongside backer Deontae Skinner is recovering from a neck injury, and may not play. If he does play, he still won’t be 100 percent. It doesn’t help that top backup Ferlando Bohanna is also out. Freshman Beniquez Brown will start if Skinner can’t go, while Matt Wells starts on the weakside. Neither particularly stands out. Zach Jackson and Richie Brown provide depth. Alabama counters with C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest in the middle, with a rotation of Adrian Hubbard, Denzel Devall and Xzavier Dickson outside. Ryan Anderson and Dillon Lee provide depth on the edges, while Reggie Ragland, Tana Patrick and Reuben Foster back up the middle. To say that Mosley is an elite player would be a vast understatement, and as good as McKinney is, Mosley is several steps better. Alabama also holds a massive edge in the quality of the other players. This one isn’t close. Advantage: Alabama
You knew State would be affected by the loss of three starters from 2012; what wasn’t known was just how bad things would get. Injuries have played a part – S Jay Hughes was injured in the opener and won’t return – but injuries have had little to do with the issues at cornerback. Justin Cox was largely a bust and was replaced by Taveze Calhoun. Jamerson Love, who was expected to lead the group, missed three games with injury but even without the injuries, hasn’t lived up to expectations, especially in run support. He does, however, have 3 interceptions. Basically, S Nickoe Whitley, who has 4 picks and is fourth on the team in tackles, has been the lone bright spot. Kendrick Market took over for Hughes, but while Market is third on the team in tackles, he has just 1 tackle for loss and has yet to be credited with a defended pass. Freshmen Deontay Evans and Kivon Coman back up the safety slots, while Cox, Will Redmond and freshman Cedric Jiles provide depth at corner. Alabama counters with Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix and Landon Collins at the safety positions, to go along with Deion Belue, Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve at corner. After a rough outing against Texas A&M, this unit has been largely untouched since. Jarrick Williams has become a key figure as a reserve safety, while Geno Smith offers depth inside and John Fulton, Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith back up the corner slots. Whitley is a quality player and Love can make plays if quarterbacks get careless, but Alabama holds a major depth advantage here and is better on the edges. Advantage: Alabama
Devon Bell was expected to be one of the best kickers in the SEC, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Bell is just 5-of-11 on field goal tries, and has also missed an extra point. As a result, Evan Sobiesk has gotten 3 attempts and has hit 2 of them. But Sobiesk and Bell are a combined 3-of-10 from beyond 30 yards. At punter, Bell has split the position with Baker Swedenburg, and both have good numbers. The return game has been a mixed bag. The Bulldogs are the worst in the SEC in punt returns and 10th in kickoff return yardage behind, mostly, Jameon Lewis. Alabama holds a big edge in a comparison of kickers; Cody Mandell is the SEC’s best all-around punter, and kicker Cade Foster has put together a superb season. Mandell is also adding kickoffs to his repertoire, in the event Foster struggles. Unfortunately for Alabama, kickoff coverage is backsliding quickly. The Crimson Tide went from 1st in the conference two weeks ago, to 4th after the Tennessee game and 8th after LSU. The loss of Vinnie Sunseri on coverage units has been huge. Still, that’s two spots better than Mississippi State. Alabama isn’t as solid as it was a month ago, but special teams have been horrible for the Bulldogs this year. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in all eight categories, and also controls the OL-DL matchups by a comfortable margin on both sides.
If State wants to pull an upset here, two things have to happen: First and foremost, the offense has to be effective, whether that comes from having a quarterback having a career day, or the Bulldogs solving the riddle of the Alabama rush defense. In fact, both would probably need to happen. Also, the Bulldogs must make more plays in the back seven of its defense, which will be tough given the number of injuries and overall lack of experience Mississippi State has in those areas.
It would be foolish to say Mississippi State couldn’t do those things. Just about any SEC team is capable of pulling an upset over any of its competitors. But provided Alabama doesn’t completely sleepwalk in its preparation this week, the likelihood of Mississippi State being the team to derail Alabama is miniscule.
If anything, Alabama should hope for Dak Prescott to play, as it will give the Tide good preparation for what will come in two weeks when Alabama visits Auburn. But it’s not clear which quarterback gives Mississippi State the best chance to win this game – and it’s likely that even the Mississippi State coaches don’t know the answer.
Look for Alabama to get off to a slow start in this game until the adrenaline of competition kicks in, then pull away from the Bulldogs in the second half.
Mississippi St. 10