MSU Preview: Bulldogs again make Bama’s post-LSU life uncomfortable

Nov 5, 2015; Columbia, MO, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs quarterback Dak Prescott (15) in the game against the Missouri Tigers during the first half at Faurot Field. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 5, 2015; Columbia, MO, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs quarterback Dak Prescott (15) in the game against the Missouri Tigers during the first half at Faurot Field. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

By Jess Nicholas
TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Nov. 11, 2015

With national pundits looking for anything at all they can find to rid the world of so-called “Zombie Alabama,” they seem to have settled on Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott as the best bet to kill the reanimated Crimson Tide.

Alabama has made an art form lately out of losing a regular-season game, then finding some way to get back into the national title discussion. But the one thing Alabama has failed to do on several occasions over the past few years is shut down a hot quarterback – particularly one that is mobile and who can improvise on the fly.

Mississippi State’s Prescott is perhaps at the top of the list of quarterbacks who can do such. He has amassed 2,351 yards passing and has thrown 18 touchdowns to only 1 interception. He is the team’s leading rusher, gaining almost twice as many yards as the guy in second place, who happens to start at tailback. He has leadership skills that are simply overflowing. And he led a furious near-comeback against Alabama last year in Bryant-Denny Stadium.

But this is not last year’s Bulldog team by any stretch. Including specialists, State returned only 8 starters out of 24 from a year ago. The defense got a lot more pedestrian in regards to athleticism. No running threat has stepped up. The offensive line makes fewer big blocks. And the Bulldog kicking game is shaky.

On the other hand, the game is in Starkville, and head coach Dan Mullen has quietly grown into one of the top three or four coaches in the SEC. Alabama is coming off an emotional win over LSU, and needs to avoid the post-Tiger hangover if at all possible. Dak Prescott is capable of beating Alabama almost by himself if the Crimson Tide isn’t careful.

OFFENSE

Mississippi State runs a pure spread-option offense, which makes sense given that Mullen had a hand in designing the system alongside Urban Meyer. The Bulldogs play three wideouts on nearly every snap. While Mullen typically prefers to run the ball, the Bulldogs rank just 94th in the category but 20th in passing offense for a total offense ranking of 36th. This is thanks to the presence of Prescott, and once he’s gone from campus, things will be back to normal, at least strategically. Alabama counters with its multiple pro-style attack that has come to lean heavily on the run. The Crimson Tide ranks 47th in total offense, 36th in rushing and 65th in passing.

QUARTERBACKS
Dak Prescott is responsible for 69.4% of Mississippi State’s total offensive output. He’s completed two-thirds of his passes and has an efficiency rating of 151.6, a good part of the reason why the Bulldogs rank 16th in the country nationally as a team. Prescott’s 418 yards on 86 carries (4.9 avg.) and 7 touchdowns are unusual for an SEC quarterback. To put it lightly, Alabama will be in for a fight here if it wants to contain the physical Prescott, whose size alone (6’3”, 235) makes him a significant concern for the Bama defense. Backing up Prescott will be redshirt freshmen Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley. Fitzgerald has a QB rating of 327.5 and has been sharp in every appearance for the Bulldogs.

Alabama counters with Jake Coker as its starter, with Cooper Bateman coming off the bench in relief if necessary. Coker is knocking on the door of the 2,000-yard club and has played well in big games. He isn’t going to make a lot of star-quality plays but he responds well to pressure and is a better runner than many ever thought he’d turn out to be. However, Prescott is so far ahead of Coker that he can’t turn around and still see him. That’s not to say Prescott couldn’t have a bad day against Alabama – most quarterbacks do – but the raw talent is certainly there. And depth may also favor the Bulldogs. Advantage: Mississippi State

RUNNING BACKS
Neither Ashton Shumpert nor Brandon Holloway are the answer. Holloway has 220 yards on the season, just over half Dak Prescott’s total and good for second place on the team. Shumpert is averaging 3.5 yards per carry. Together, he and Holloway have scored exactly 1 touchdown on the ground. The Bulldogs have experimented with redshirt freshmen Dontavian Lee and Aeris Williams recently, and both look like better options in the long run. The operative question this week is whether the Bulldogs go with the experience of Holloway and Shumpert, or opt for the unknown players. Another issue facing Holloway is his size: He’s 5’8”, 175 pounds and can’t take the pounding Alabama can deliver inside. The Bulldogs use no fullback.

Alabama counters with Derrick Henry (218 carries, 1,254 yards, 5.8 avg., 17 TD), who may have pulled even with or perhaps even moved ahead of LSU’s Leonard Fournette in the Heisman race. Henry is a massive player and a massive talent besides, and can dominate a game almost by himself. Kenyan Drake took a big step forward last week as Henry’s backup, but suffered what appeared to be a head injury in the game and he may be limited this week. If so, freshmen Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough could get their first significant action in a game that’s still on the line. Fullback Michael Nysewander had a coming-out party of sorts, both on offense and special teams, and it would surprise no one if he got a bigger role this week. Given that the Bulldogs’ only viable option thus far has been their quarterback, Alabama takes this one easily. Advantage: Alabama

Oct 17, 2015; Starkville, MS, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs wide receiver De'Runnya Wilson (1) catches the ball over Louisiana Tech Bulldogs safety Lloyd Grogan (11) during the first half at Davis Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 17, 2015; Starkville, MS, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs wide receiver De’Runnya Wilson (1) catches the ball over Louisiana Tech Bulldogs safety Lloyd Grogan (11) during the first half at Davis Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

WIDE RECEIVERS
De’Runnya Wilson and his 6’5”, 225-pound frame will be a tough matchup for Alabama’s defensive backs. Wilson has caught 37 passes for 626 yards (16.9 avg.) and 8 touchdowns, and he is a physical presence with the ball in the air. Wilson is a poor man’s Julio Jones and has a future at the next level. Somewhat surprisingly, the Bulldogs have developed outstanding depth around Wilson. Fred Ross and Fred Brown have combined for 71 catches, 4 touchdowns and nearly 900 yards. Donald Gray and Malik Dear are also legitimate options, as is running back Brandon Holloway. Tight ends Darrion Hutcherson and Gus Walley have also been included in the mix, and Hutcherson is one of the team’s best blockers at any position. Gabe Myles and Joe Morrow round out the mix.

For Alabama, Calvin Ridley continues to develop into a dangerous outside receiver, both quick in confined spaces and fast once he gets moving. ArDarius Stewart continues to improve, and Richard Mullaney is an important option in the slot. But the depth ends there. Against LSU, only Cameron Sims played from the bench, and his knee injury still limits him. Chris Black and Derek Kief are also available but neither figure to be a major factor in the game plan. Tight end O.J. Howard, though, has emerged as probably the best receiver at the position in the SEC outside of Arkansas’ Hunter Henry. Brandon Greene, Hale Hentges and Dakota Ball give Alabama good depth there, along with Ty Flournoy-Smith. Alabama’s unit continues to improve as the season goes along, but Mississippi State has much better depth, and Wilson’s presence as a physical outside threat also gives the Bulldogs the best overall player of the two teams. Advantage: Mississippi State

OFFENSIVE LINE
The Bulldog offensive line ranks a respectable 31st in sacks allowed and in the top 25 (23rd) in fewest tackles for loss yielded. But there could be an issue for this game. Left tackle Rufus Warren, a senior, was injured against Missouri. If he plays in this game, he won’t be 100 percent. An absence from Warren would leave freshman Elgton Jenkins the next man up, and with Alabama’s defensive line playing at such a high level, this would represent a liability for the Bulldogs. Elsewhere, Jamaal Clayborn starts at center, with Justin Malone and Devon Desper at the guard spots and Justin Senior at right tackle. Senior has also been nicked up at times this year. Cole Carter gives Mississippi State some experience off the bench at tackle, while Damien Robinson is a veteran presence inside.

Alabama counters with Ryan Kelly at center, flanked by guards Ross Pierschbacher and Alphonse Taylor and Cam Robinson and Dominick Jackson at the tackles. Jackson was supposed to be slowed by an ankle injury last week against LSU, but he didn’t show it. Instead, he and Taylor combined for one of the right side of the line’s finest games. Alabama has better depth up the middle than MSU, but it’s a push at tackle. However, with Warren’s status up in the air and Alabama showing against LSU that it can dominate quality opposition at times, the Crimson Tide gets the edge here. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSE

Mississippi State runs a 4-3 defense coordinated by Manny Diaz, who was rehired after a stint at Texas and Louisiana Tech. Diaz typically prefers opportunistic defenses that create turnovers, but the Bulldogs haven’t done that in 2015, ranking 96th in turnovers gained. Stunningly enough, Mississippi State has recovered only 1 fumble all year. Moreover, the Bulldogs haven’t been particularly effective otherwise; they rank 48th in total defense, 68th in rush defense and 42nd in raw pass defense. But MSU does hold teams to low point totals (11th in scoring defense) and has done a good job managing the big-play capability of opposing passing offenses (20th in pass efficiency defense). Alabama counters with a stifling unit that ranks 3rd in total defense, 2nd in rush defense, 6th in pass efficiency defense and 7th in scoring defense. Only in raw pass defense, where Alabama ranks “only” 26th, has there been any significant uptick across the board. The Crimson Tide will base from a 3-4 over/under scheme, but will spend most of its time in nickel for this game.

DEFENSIVE LINE
Diaz’s influence on the defense has been clearly seen along the line, where the Bulldogs have gotten strong performances out of ends Ryan Brown and A.J. Jefferson and tackle Chris Jones. The Bulldogs rank 23rd in sacks and 8th in tackles for loss and it starts up front. Jefferson leads this group in negative plays with 12.5 tackles for loss and 5 sacks. The other tackle position next to Jones, however, has not lived up to expectations, with Nelson Adams and Nick James splitting the spot due mainly to neither player grabbing it for his own. Reserve end Jonathan Calvin has been pleasingly productive off the bench, but the other two main reserves (E Will Coleman, DT Torrey Dale) are noticeably drop-offs from the starters ahead of them.

Oct 10, 2015; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide defensive lineman D.J. Pettway (57) , defensive back Marlon Humphrey (26) celebrate with linebacker Tim Williams (56) after a play during the game against Arkansas Razorbacks at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Alabama defeated Arkansas 27-14. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 10, 2015; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide defensive lineman D.J. Pettway (57) , defensive back Marlon Humphrey (26) celebrate with linebacker Tim Williams (56) after a play during the game against Arkansas Razorbacks at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Alabama defeated Arkansas 27-14. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the fact Alabama has one less DL position by virtue of it running a three-man front, the Crimson Tide holds a depth advantage. As many as nine players rotate for Alabama. With the Bulldogs running a spread set, look for either A’Shawn Robinson or Jarran Reed to start at nosetackle, with the one that doesn’t start going into the mix at end along with Jonathan Allen, D.J. Pettway, Dalvin Tomlinson and Da’Shawn Hand, while Daron Payne, Darren Lake and Josh Frazier provide depth inside. While Mississippi State’s defensive line isn’t bad, Alabama fields the No. 1 line in college football. Advantage: Alabama

LINEBACKERS
This has probably been the surprise unit of the team for the Bulldogs, as only weakside backer Beniquez Brown was given much thought in the preseason. Middle linebacker Richie Brown and strongside backer Zach Jackson have both been useful parts in this defense; Richie Brown is the team’s leading tackler. All three players know how to be disruptive behind the line of scrimmage, which has been a rarity among defenses Alabama has faced this year. The one area Alabama might be able to exploit is that of size, as MSU is on the slightly below-average side of a weight sheet. The Bulldogs also have good depth in the form of J.T. Gray, Gerri Green and DeAndre Ward. Alabama counters with its inside group of Reggie Ragland, Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton, and a deep rotation of outside linebackers that includes Denzel Devall, Dillon Lee, Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams and Rashaan Evans. Look for more of Foster and less of Hamilton and Lee due to Mississippi State’s offensive alignment. While the Bulldogs deserve kudos for overachieving, and Beniquez Brown has some real playmaking ability, Alabama has superior depth and experience, and Reggie Ragland is by far the best player from either unit on the field. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Mississippi State has mixed and matched parts all year and deserves praise for generally making it work. Injuries to S Kendrick Market and CB Will Redmond cost the Bulldogs two potential playmakers in the secondary. For now, Tolando Cleveland and Taveze Calhoun start at corner, with Brandon Bryant, Kivon Coman and Deontay Evans rotating at the safety positions. Jamal Peters has also started a game at safety. Cedric Jiles and Jamoral Graham back up the corner slots. Mississippi State has intercepted 10 passes on the season, so the opportunity exists for the Bulldogs to affect the game in that way, but athleticism that is, on the whole, a tick or two below a typical SEC contender should allow for Alabama’s outside receivers to have opportunities.

Alabama will counter with Cyrus Jones and Marlon Humphrey at the corner slots, with a safety rotation that includes Eddie Jackson, Geno Matias-Smith, Ronnie Harrison, Maurice Smith and Jabriel Washington. There is speed to burn here and, at the moment, Alabama isn’t suffering from too many coverage breakdowns due to mental mistakes. A health advantage just adds to the edge for the Crimson Tide. Advantage: Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS
Mississippi State is finally seeing some stabilization here, as Westin Graves has taken hold of the placekicking position. Graves is 9-of-11 (81.8%) on the year, including 3-of-4 from long range. Devon Bell will handle kickoffs and likely any 50+ yard kick the Bulldogs attempt. He missed his only try from that range this year. The Bulldogs are solid in the return game, ranking 22nd in punt returns and 39th in kickoff returns nationally. Logan Cooke is averaging a respectable 41.1 yards per punt, but the Bulldogs don’t cover well, leading to a net punting ranking of 90th.

Alabama will use Adam Griffith for all placement kicks, and he has rebounded nicely after a tough start. Griffith’s kickoffs now default to touchbacks, while he has hit 13 of his last 15 field goal attempts. J.K. Scott is a weapon at punter. Alabama ranks 50th in punt returns, but Cyrus Jones combines reliability with the potential to break a long one. Kickoff returns, however, are a dismal 100th. Alabama has a big edge in athleticism of its coverage units, which could end up turning this category. Griffith’s hot streak and Scott’s expertise at punter are what give Bama the edge here. Advantage: Alabama

OVERALL

Alabama leads in six categories, Mississippi State in two. Alabama clearly controls the matchup of its defensive line versus the Mississippi State offensive line, but the Bulldogs probably hold a slim edge concerning its DL versus the Tide OL. It’s almost a push, however.

Basically, this game comes down to what Dak Prescott can or can’t do. If Prescott has a career day, Mississippi State could very well win the game. If he has an average day or worse, the Bulldogs stand very little chance of victory. MSU simply doesn’t have the horses on offense to win the game unless Prescott is also playing to the best of his abilities.

The caveat here is that Alabama must take care of the ball on offense. The Bulldogs will likely be taking chances throughout the game to attempt to force Alabama’s hand. It’s a boom-bust strategy but it could work given the right circumstances.

If Alabama is still replaying the LSU victory in its mind, the Bulldogs have an upset opportunity here. But if Alabama sticks to its knitting and contains Dak Prescott, the Crimson Tide will get a comfortable victory in what could be its most difficult game left before the final four playoffs – SEC Championship Game included.

Alabama 31
Mississippi St. 21

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