By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 13, 2014
When was the last time Alabama had to get through a more highly-ranked Mississippi State team to win a national championship?
The answer may be, never. But it’s happening in 2014.
If it’s ever happened in the past, it probably came back in the days of World War II. During Alabama’s 1941 championship year, Mississippi State defeated the Crimson Tide 14-0 – but that game came in Week 2 of the ‘41 season, before things had a chance to reach a fever pitch the way they have now in the post-BCS, football-as-committee era.
And atop those committee rankings at the moment? None other than the Bulldogs of Mississippi State, who come into this game undefeated and trying to prove that they’re more than just a novelty in this 2014 season.
Alabama is coming off its annual exposure to trench warfare, otherwise known as the LSU game, and the results were almost too terrible to imagine. Alabama needed a last-minute, game-tying drive and an overtime period to defeat the Bayou Bengals, and the Tide’s reward is a date with a Bulldog team that is more dynamic offensively, has better speed at the quarterback position and who spent last week toying with UT-Martin.
If this game was being played in Starkville, it would be even more of a circus than it figures to be in Tuscaloosa. But with Alabama’s home-field performances being so strong in 2014, the top concern might not be Mississippi State, but the annual post-LSU hangover from which the Crimson Tide always seems to suffer.
Mississippi State is a spread-option based team. Dan Mullen, together with Urban Meyer, basically built that system, borrowing heavily from Rich Rodriguez’s offensive philosophies. The Bulldogs have played around with tempo and some elements of the hurry-up, no-huddle philosophies, but at its heart remains a spread-option team built around its quarterback. The Bulldogs are ranked 6th in the country in total offense, 15th in rushing offense, 38th in passing offense and 11th in scoring offense, although MSU’s schedule hasn’t been the best. Alabama counters with its multiple, pro-style attack that ranks 19th overall, 34th in rushing, 28th in passing and 33rd in scoring.
As good as Blake Sims’ year is going for Alabama – he’s thrown for 2,243 yards, 17 touchdowns against just 3 interceptions, and has an overall rating of 159.0 – Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott may be having a better one. Prescott has thrown for 2,231 yards, 18 touchdowns and 7 picks, but it’s the rushing numbers that separate them. Sims has run 262 yards on 51 carries (5.1 avg.), scoring 5 times. Those are first-rate numbers, but Alabama doesn’t leverage Sims’ ability on the ground the way MSU does with Prescott. Prescott has carried the ball 143 times for 779 yards (5.4 avg.) and 11 touchdowns and is the team’s second-leading rusher. Such numbers are eye-popping, given that sack yardage is included. The primary reason for Prescott’s increased ground work, aside from the difference in offensive strategy, is that he’s roughly the size of former Auburn QB Cam Newton. As for backups, Alabama’s Jake Coker tops State’s Damian Williams, but it’s not by a lot, and the Bulldogs have the advantage of being able to run virtually the same set of plays with Williams as they do Prescott. Prescott is definitely the player to watch for Mississippi State and gives the Bulldogs the edge here, and if his foot sprain has healed, he will be a tough out. Advantage: Mississippi State
The biggest surprise on Mississippi State’s team hasn’t been Prescott, it’s been the emergence of Josh Robinson at running back. Robinson has been the league’s most effective all-around back, carrying 146 times for 984 yards (6.7 avg.) and 11 touchdowns, and also catching 19 passes for 278 yards (14.6 avg.), which makes him the team’s second-leading receiver. Brandon Holloway (33 carries, 223 yards, 6.8 avg., 1 TD) is a nice change-of-pace back, while Prescott is like having another starting tailback on the field. Nick Griffin and Ashton Shumpert add depth. Alabama will counter with T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, although it remains to be seen whether Yeldon can carry a full workload this week after suffering an ankle injury against LSU. If he can’t, fullback Jalston Fowler likely becomes Henry’s backup, with Tyren Jones and Altee Tenpenny offering depth only in an emergency. Michael Nysewander would be the fullback if Fowler moves over. Having Fowler as a capable dual-role player is definitely a plus, but State has better depth and is much healthier at the moment. Advantage: Mississippi State
Both teams are led by a specific, go-to receiver. For Alabama, it’s Amari Cooper, who has caught 79 passes for 1,215 yards (15.4 avg.) and 10 touchdowns. For Mississippi State, it’s Alabama native De’Runnya Wilson, who has caught 22 passes for 367 yards (16.7 avg.) and 6 scores. Cooper’s statistical domination may be misleading here, because Wilson, despite not being known for his speed, is able to use his size and want-to ability to be a tough matchup for most any defense. In support of Wilson are names like Fred Ross, Fred Brown, Jameon Lewis, Gabe Myles, Joe Morrow and Robert Johnson. Depth is easily a Mississippi State edge, especially once the tight end position is added in, which brings in Malcolm Johnson to the discussion. For Alabama, DeAndrew White continues to be an excellent second option for Tide quarterbacks, and Christion Jones’ performance against LSU suggests he might be slowly getting back into the swing of things. Depth for Alabama doesn’t go far, however, with ArDarius Stewart, Cameron Sims and Chris Black getting only sporadic playing time. Tight end Brian Vogler still isn’t healthy, and will be backed up in this game by Brandon Greene, Dakota Ball and perhaps Malcolm Faciane. O.J. Howard has started to be more consistent as a receiving threat. This is a tough category to call, because Jameon Lewis has been largely overshadowed by Wilson, and one has to wonder if he’ll pick this game to emerge. Almost against logic, we’ll go with Alabama here due to Cooper’s heroics, White’s utility and the emergence of Howard at tight end. But it’s close. Advantage: Alabama
Mississippi State’s line has put together a solid season, particularly in light of the fact that Gabe Jackson is in the NFL at the moment. Except for a one-game suspension center Dillon Day endured for stomping on a player after the play and one game missed by guard Justin Malone, the Bulldogs have started the same five players every game. Day will be flanked by Malone and Ben Beckwith at guard in this game, provided Malone is back from whatever injury caused him to miss UT-Martin last week. If Malone is out, Devon Desper will start in his place. Justin Senior and Blaine Clausell, the latter a NFL prospect, are the tackles. In addition to Desper, State has good depth with Archie Muniz at center and Rufus Warren and Cole Carter at the tackles. Alabama will counter with Ryan Kelly at center, flanked by guards Arie Kouandjio and Leon Brown and tackles Cam Robinson and Austin Shepherd. Bradley Bozeman will be the primary backup inside while Grant Hill and Dominick Jackson add depth outside. The one area Alabama probably has an edge is in pass blocking; Mississippi State is ranked 41st in sacks despite the Bulldogs running an option offense without a lot of called drop-backs. The Bulldogs are healthier than Alabama, but Alabama’s depth is probably a bit more stout than is Mississippi State’s. Another close call here, with Alabama leading. Advantage: Alabama
The Bulldogs base from a 4-3 defense, and the difference in effectiveness against the run compared to the pass would make someone swear this unit is coordinated by Harvey Dent. Mississippi State is 22nd in the country in rush defense, but ranks 120th against the pass – and it was 124th until the Bulldogs played lower-division UT-Martin. The Bulldogs do much better in pass efficiency defense (36th) and scoring defense (16th), but rank just 88th in total defense. What’s saving them is their performance in the red zone, where they’re 1st overall in the country. Alabama brings its 3-4 over/under scheme into the game, and the Crimson Tide is 2nd in scoring defense, 3rd in rushing defense, 4th in total defense, 13th in pass efficiency defense and 15th in raw pass defense. Consistency has been the name of the game for Alabama.
The name to watch here isn’t necessarily all-world defensive tackle Chris Jones – he doesn’t even start, for that matter – but instead DE Preston Smith. Smith has racked up 7 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss and is a general pill. He’ll work opposite Ryan Brown, while P.J. Jones and Kaleb Eulls man the middle. If there’s a weakness, it’s right up the gut, but calling that a “weakness” might be a bit much. It’s more accurate to say that the Bulldogs take more chances in order to rack up tackles for loss (14th nationally). Chris Jones and Curtis Virges provide plenty of experience and talent off the bench at tackle, while A.J. Jefferson and Nelson Adams provide depth outside. Alabama will probably go back to its anti-spread alignment of A’Shawn Robinson at nosetackle, with Jarran Reed and D.J. Pettway starting at the ends in this game. Jonathan Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson and Da’Shawn Hand will provide depth at end, while Brandon Ivory, Darren Lake and Josh Frazier play the nose. The downside to the advent of the spread is that players like Ivory and Lake, both of whom had stellar games against LSU, might only play in short-yardage in this game due to the Bulldogs’ offensive alignment. This is one of the few opponents Alabama has faced this year that has depth on par with the Tide, but Alabama’s ability to move to different alignments based on the offense’s look gives it a slim edge. Advantage: Alabama
Bernardrick McKinney is one of the best run-stopping middle linebackers in the conference, but his pass coverage skills are a bit lacking. Mississippi State will start a pair of undersized outside linebackers, Matthew Wells and Beniquez Brown. Wells has been a good coverage linebacker when he’s been left on the field, but both he and Brown will rotate off depending on how many receivers Alabama wants to use. Brown and McKinney, overall, probably haven’t performed up to expectations, but they haven’t been bad, either. Brown is listed at 235 pounds, but doesn’t play that big. Christian Holmes, Zach Jackson and Richie Brown will be the backups. Holmes has played enough that he’s the team’s third-leading tackler, but he isn’t active behind the line of scrimmage. Richie Brown is probably the most dynamic of the backups. Alabama will start Reggie Ragland and Trey DePriest inside, with some combination of Xzavier Dickson, Denzel Devall, Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams, Dillon Lee and Rashaan Evans off the edge. Ragland has developed into a force at linebacker and gives the Tide a good presence against spread offenses. Dickson in particular has been tough to deal with off the corner, while DePriest is steady at middle linebacker. Because MSU has better depth inside – Alabama rarely uses Reuben Foster or Shaun Dion Hamilton anymore until the game is out of hand – the Bulldogs win that part of this comparison, but Alabama takes the overall because of the versatility of Ragland. Advantage: Alabama
This is the only comparison on the board that has a wide margin, and Alabama wins it. The Bulldogs’ pass defense has been scattershot at best in 2014, even though this is not a rookie unit. Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun are veteran cornerbacks, but both have had issues and Love, in particular, is struggling. The Bulldogs have also gotten iffy safety play from Justin Cox, Kendrick Market and Jay Hughes. Kivon Coman backs up the safeties, while Will Redmond serves as the third cornerback. Alabama will use Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Tony Brown at corner, and Nick Perry, Landon Collins, Jarrick Williams, Geno Smith, Jabriel Washington and Maurice Smith at safety. Alabama has slowly put together a dominating secondary, particularly with the improvement in corner play by Jones and key contributions from Williams and Washington at safety, not to mention Landon Collins’ steady work. Alabama leads all around – depth, consistency, athleticism. Advantage: Alabama
It’s tempting to rank Alabama ahead in this category, but that’s been a fool’s play over the last few seasons. Just when analysts started pumping up Alabama’s special teams, a bomb would go off. The problem is, Mississippi State has its own set of issues. The Bulldogs have used two different punters and three different kickers this year. Both Devon Bell and Logan Cooke did an acceptable job punting, and the Bulldogs rank 22nd in the category. As for kicking, though, that’s another story. Evan Sobiesk is accurate so long as the kick isn’t over 40 yards. He’s 6-of-6 from 37 yards or less, but missed his only long try. Logan Cooke and Westin Graves are each 0-for-1 from long distance, too. The Bulldogs haven’t had much of a return game, ranking 61st in kickoff returns and dismal 116th in punt returns. Alabama comes into this game leading the nation in net punting, and rank a respectable 35th in kickoff returns and 19th in punt returns. Adam Griffith is just 11-of-16 (68.8%) in field goals, but he hit a clutch one at the end of regulation against LSU and his misses are evenly dispersed among the different yardage ranges. Griffith undeniably has better range than Sobiesk. The Bulldogs cover kicks well enough, while Alabama is always a bit erratic there, but the Crimson Tide does a good job of snuffing punt returns. At the end of the day, as much as we would try to make Mississippi State the leader here, we just can’t. The numbers back up an Alabama edge. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in six categories, Mississippi State in two. But only the defensive back category is a solid edge to Alabama, while most of the rest are actually toss-ups. As for the trench matchups, both teams’ defensive lines get modest edges going against the opposing offensive lines.
That would suggest a close, low-scoring game, but Alabama hasn’t had many of those at home this year. The Crimson Tide is a juggernaut at Bryant-Denny Stadium, but there’s no guarantee Alabama can keep up its performance level from those earlier games. The Bulldogs will be, by far, the best team to visit Tuscaloosa so far in 2014.
The key issue is for Alabama to figure out how to stop what is essentially a dual-running-back offensive attack. Dak Prescott is so dangerous as a runner, Alabama has to treat him like a tailback – a tailback who just happens to be able to throw the ball 60 yards. Emptying the middle of the field, like Alabama did on multiple occasions against LSU, will not work here. Prescott is more than capable of making Alabama pay for it, and the Bulldog running backs are good enough to make Alabama pay if Prescott hands off.
Alabama is likely to be put in a position of having to win the game on offense. Even though both defensive lines are better than the offensive lines they’ll line up against, it’s not always easy to leverage that advantage when a spread team is involved.
This game figures to be close throughout, with Alabama possibly pulling away at the very end.
Mississippi St. 23
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN