By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 16, 2014
Given that top-ranked Mississippi State was an underdog in Saturday’s game, it would be incorrect to call this Alabama win an upset.
It would, however, be appropriate for college football’s new Playoff Committee to finally acknowledge what the oddsmakers were trying to tell them beforehand: Alabama is probably the best, most complete team in college football right now.
Oregon will probably claim its high-flying offense makes it the most dangerous; Florida State can point to Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and its undefeated record and claim it’s the best team in the land. But Alabama is beginning to win games with defense, sort of an anachronism in today’s college football world, and as de rigueur as high-powered offenses are at the moment, a strong defense beats a strong offense most of time, as much as that might chafe those in an around the sport that have become addicted to points.
Alabama’s road to a berth in the final four isn’t cleared, but Mississippi State was the biggest domino standing among the teams Alabama has left. Auburn flat-out quit against Georgia, and the Tigers would have to fix some internal problems in order to give Alabama much of a game at this point. Presuming Alabama beats Auburn, the Crimson Tide will get either Missouri or Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, and while both teams have their dangerous aspects, neither is anywhere near as complete as Alabama is, as a team.
Alabama’s victory over Mississippi State was a true, three-phase win. While the Tide didn’t run up gobs of yardage, the offense did help stake Alabama to a 19-3 lead in the first half, then scored a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter to ice the game. Special teams – namely, the punting unit and the kickoff coverage team – pinned Mississippi State deep all day, and set up the game-opening safety.
And the defense? Almost too many contributions to mention. MSU quarterback Dak Prescott finished with 290 yards passing, but 93 of those yards came on State’s final two drives. One ended in an interception in Alabama territory; the other ended in a touchdown, but Alabama’s defense forced all but 15 seconds to come off the clock during the drive, leaving Mississippi State without any options even if the Bulldogs had recovered an onside kick. In the previous three quarters, Alabama’s defensive line had completely stuffed up the inside of the formation; RB Josh Robinson, who was averaging 109.2 yards per game prior to Saturday, got only 42 yards on 12 carries (3.1 avg.). While Robinson was a force in the passing game, collecting 69 yards on 6 catches, the fact Alabama was able to take away the threat of him running the football made defending MSU’s spread-option attack much easier.
Alabama shouldn’t be thinking about the end game just yet. Alabama can start thinking about championships once it has formally been picked for the final four. But it’s probably OK to sneak in a single observation that perhaps this team is actually overachieving right now, that this wasn’t supposed to be a true championship-chasing season, and somehow Alabama has still made it work. This could turn out to be Nick Saban’s finest coaching effort since landing in Tuscaloosa, as the Crimson Tide was seen as vulnerable at quarterback, linebacker and defensive back heading into the year.
With that being said, Saturday’s win over Mississippi State could end up being the crown-jewel win of the year, at least of the pre-final-four portion of the schedule. The domination of the first half and the fourth-quarter drive to secure the game point to a team that believes in its own strength, which is the first and most important building block of a championship season.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Mississippi State:
1. Safeties can be important. A safety counts just two points and a lost possession for an offense – which, in this case, turned into a five-point error on Mississippi State’s part – but sometimes, the effects go a lot deeper. In Mississippi State’s case, Alabama stopped Josh Robinson in the end zone on the Bulldogs’ second possession on a play snapped from the 5-yard line. The Bulldogs seemed to deflate a bit immediately, and Alabama grabbed the momentum and kept it for the remainder of the first half. Safeties come in many varieties, some flukish and some not. This one wasn’t some accidental occurrence like a blocked punt or a shotgun snap out of the back of the end zone; this was simply Alabama’s defense blowing up a regular running play, something that has happened very infrequently to MSU this year. The Bulldogs simply didn’t know how to handle it.
2. The J.K. Scott effect. The aforementioned safety began with a punt from Scott, who executed a perfect pooch punt from the Bulldog 38-yard line. For the game, Scott punted seven times for a 45.6-yard average and put five of those kicks inside the MSU 20. Scott has been a weapon from the outset of the 2014 season, but nowhere was it more on display – or more prominently on display – than Saturday in Tuscaloosa. Scott’s ability to flip field position is uncommon even for a veteran punter, and he’s probably had fewer than five sub-optimal punts all year. Alabama’s special teams as a whole have been horribly erratic, but Scott is almost good enough by himself to lift the profile of the entire unit by several degrees.
3. Defensive line has allowed Saban, Smart to build a strong foundation. There’s a lot of truth to the axiom that the team that wins the trenches, wins the game. The most important development on Alabama’s defense in 2014 has been the emergence of the defensive line as a force. Alabama’s personnel alignment against spread teams – primarily A’Shawn Robinson in the middle, with Jarran Reed, Jonathan Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson and D.J. Pettway rotating at the ends – has been a huge improvement over last year, where Alabama tried to force-fit Brandon Ivory into the nose slot against smaller offenses. The Reed-Allen-Tomlinson-Pettway rotation has also been more effective than Jeoffrey Pagan and Ed Stinson were, and the sum of this improvement has been that Nick Saban and Kirby Smart have been allowed more freedom in what to do with the Tide’s linebackers and safeties. Many times against Mississippi State, Alabama was able to keep containment on both Prescott and Robinson with just a four-man front, giving Alabama the effect of having an extra defender somewhere else on the field. Give Nick Saban 12 defensive players and it’s not a fair game any longer.
4. Comebacks under the spread-option system aren’t easy, and Saban knew this. Nick Saban wasn’t particularly upset that Mississippi State scored the final touchdown to draw the game to 25-20. That’s because it took the Bulldogs 3:03 out of an available 3:18 to do it. Every offense has a weakness, and the Meyer-Mullen spread-option’s weakness is that it can’t make up large deficits in a short amount of time. By playing a prevent defense and forcing Mississippi State to run something that wasn’t much different from its base offense, Alabama gladly yielded the touchdown in exchange for getting all of the clock. The spread-option is a great offense for building a lead and controlling the clock, but Mississippi State needs to introduce a few wrinkles to deal with comeback situations. Also, Alabama exposed the lack of quality depth in the Bulldog receiver corps, which basically stops after Jameon Lewis and De’Runnya Wilson.
5. Defensive backfield gets better with every game. For those looking for the primary reason the Bulldogs lost the game, it’s obviously the turnover battle, which Alabama won 3-0. All three turnovers came via the interception route, with Nick Perry, Cyrus Jones and Landon Collins each getting a pick. Everyone knew Collins was one of the league’s best safeties coming into the season, but the emergence of Nick Perry as more than just a run-stop safety has probably been the second-biggest factor in the back seven’s development, exceeded only by LB Reggie Ragland. Against Mississippi State, Geno Smith made news for … not making news. Smith was in the pocket of his assigned man all night, recording a quiet 5 tackles on the evening – much of it because Prescott wouldn’t go at him. At cornerback, Jones and Eddie Jackson have become more and more effective as the season has gone along, and with Tony Brown a capable backup, Alabama is set on the edge for a few seasons to come. Add in role players like Jarrick Williams and Jabriel Washington, and the Crimson Tide’s secondary has enough weapons to torpedo just about any offense.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN