By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 9, 2016
Somewhat overlooked in the annual hoopla that is the breaking down of yet another smashmouth, blood-and-guts Alabama win over LSU was this score: Mississippi State 35, Texas A&M 28.
Nick Saban may be the only person wearing Alabama colors to get a charge out of that score, because it forces his team and its fans to overlook Mississippi State, which had played poorly for five straight weeks leading up to the upset win over the Aggies, and is a long shot to achieve bowl eligibility.
The Bulldogs resisted accusations the last couple of seasons that they were mostly Dak Prescott and a backing band, but Prescott is gone and it appears the pundits had the Bulldogs pegged correctly. Mississippi State is in the middle of transitioning both its offensive and defensive systems to new looks, and those processes are good for an additional loss or two on the schedule every time a team tries it. Those losses come on top of the fact the Bulldogs are the least-talented team in the SEC West, top to bottom, and lack playmakers at the offensive skill positions.
Alabama opened as a four-touchdown favorite in this game, and with the kickoff at 11 a.m., Mississippi State is hamstrung even further as the road team. Still, Texas A&M was ranked No. 4 in the country, and the Bulldogs slayed them. Alabama can’t treat this game as part one of a two-part walkover leading up to its game against Auburn.
Mississippi State is trying to move a little off its spread-option base that was so successful under Prescott’s leadership. The passing routes have a bit more pro-style tendencies this year, and the running game acts like it would like to focus on the running backs more than the quarterback, although that hasn’t come to pass. When pressured, Dan Mullen will return to his roots, and given the athleticism at Mississippi State’s quarterback position, the Bulldogs are still relying on that one position – some would say too much so – for the majority of its offense’s production. MSU ranks 27th in rushing offense, 79th in passing offense and 44th in total offense, but a disproportionate amount of its production has come against the worst teams on its schedule. Alabama counters with its multiple, pro-style attack that ranks 11th in rushing, 79th in passing (in a tie with MSU) and 30th in total offense, but more importantly has been able to move the ball against better defenses.
The Bulldogs have gotten a recent boost from Nick Fitzgerald, who finally pulled away from Damian Williams in the Bulldogs’ quarterback battle. While Fitzgerald looked unbeatable against Texas A&M, the fact is he’s a mediocre passer even when he’s been able to leverage MSU’s rushing attack as a decoy. Fitzgerald is 142-of-252 (56.3%) for 1,705 yards, 16 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. Like Prescott before him, he’s also Mississippi State’s top ground threat, rushing for 839 yards on 135 carries, an impressive 6.2 yards-per-carry average that includes yardage lost to sacks. He has scored 8 touchdowns on the ground. Williams has remained with the team and gives the Bulldogs an experienced backup. He’s a better runner than thrower but MSU can run its full offense with him in the game.
Alabama counters with Jalen Hurts, coming off what threatened to be his worst game at Alabama prior to his fourth-quarter theatrics in the win over LSU. Hurts’ numbers are comparable to Fitzgerald with some categories better (YPA, completion percentage) and some worse (total TDs, rushing stats). This category threatens to turn on the depth issue, where MSU’s Williams is a better option than Alabama’s Cooper Bateman, but Hurts has consistently been effective against better competition, something Fitzgerald can’t say. Alabama needs to be careful here, because Fitzgerald is better than his raw numbers suggest, but the Crimson Tide wins in a close one. Advantage: Alabama
Each team has a three-back rotation; the difference is Alabama’s running backs have better ability. Mississippi State will use Aeris Williams, Ashton Shumpert and Brandon Holloway in some kind of rotation. In regards to experience, MSU has a strong edge here, as both Shumpert and Holloway are three-letter seniors, while Williams has shown a lot of potential in a year and a half of use. But per-carry averages are milquetoast across the board, and quite frankly, were it not for Fitzgerald’s production from the QB position, the Bulldog running game would be considered a liability. Expect Mississippi State to make liberal use of wide receivers on jet sweeps as a way to loosen up the Alabama defensive front.
For the Crimson Tide, Damien Harris will get the lion’s share of the work, especially with Bo Scarbrough in bad need of a week off to rest a bruised knee. Scarbrough will still likely play in this game – Mississippi State isn’t UT-Chattanooga – but look for the majority of the load to be shouldered by Harris and true freshman Joshua Jacobs. With B.J. Emmons out, walk-on Derrick Gore could wind up playing in this game, especially if Scarbrough is exceptionally limited. The Bulldogs hold the edge in health, but Alabama should be capable with Harris and Jacobs and even Gore is comparable to the Bulldogs’ scholarshipped backs. Advantage: Alabama
This unit has been the biggest positive surprise for Mississippi State in 2016, thanks mostly to the arrival of transfer Donald Gray. Gray has caught 27 passes for 511 yards (18.9 avg.) and 4 touchdowns, and has reliable hands. His presence has made Fred Ross (54 catches, 641, yards, 11.9 avg., 9 TD) that much better. Both are capable deep threats and also skilled possession receivers, and with production levels where they are, Alabama might actually have more of a handful this week than even against LSU’s faster receivers last Saturday. Freshman Keith Mixon provides depth along with Malik Dear; Mixon has all the markings of a future star himself. The Bulldogs took a step back somewhat at tight end this year; Farrod Green, Jordan Thomas and Justin Johnson have all caught passes, but none of them change games.
Alabama counters with Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart and Gehrig Dieter. Ridley’s health is somewhat of a concern after an apparent injury suffered in practice in the off-week leading up to LSU, but he’s expected to play. Stewart has taken over somewhat as the most complete threat for Alabama thanks to his physicality. Alabama needs more from Dieter, as well as reserves Robert Foster, Cameron Sims and Derek Kief. Trayvon Diggs has shown some signs recently that he might be ready to step into a larger role. Where Alabama pulls ahead by a slim margin here is thanks to the tight end position that includes the potentially transcendent O.J. Howard. Hale Hentges, Miller Forristall, Brandon Greene and Irv Smith Jr. give Alabama good depth at the position as well. The Bama receiver corps has not lived up to expectations as a group in 2016, but it is still a solid unit with a lot of potential. If Ridley is 100 percent this week, this margin grows. Advantage: Alabama
Neither team has done well in the category of tackles for loss allowed: Mississippi State is 71st, Alabama 108th. That’s a lot of negative plays to have to counter. Both teams do a good job protecting quarterbacks from sacks, but that’s also a function of the athleticism both teams have at the QB position. Mississippi State simply hasn’t been as good blocking for the running game, especially not at the second level. For that reason, the Bulldogs are still shuffling lineups; seven different players have started, positions have rotated, and 12 different linemen have played in at least 6 games.
The three bulwarks have been Devon Desper at left guard, Jamaal Clayborn at center and Justin Senior at right tackle. Martinas Rankin and Elgton Jenkins are still fighting over left tackle, with Harrison Moon also a possibility there. Deion Calhoun and Michael Story are the possibilities at right guard. Overall athleticism is an issue here; offensive line has long been Mississippi State’s Achilles heel, dating back well before Dan Mullen ever came to Starkville.
Alabama is set at four positions – center Bradley Bozeman, left guard Ross Pierschbacher and tackles Cam Robinson and Jonah Williams. Lester Cotton figures to start at right guard ahead of Alphonse Taylor, but the LSU game may have been Cotton’s worst to date. Taylor is still trying to recover from a concussion. Both teams have issues, but Alabama just seems to have fewer of them. Advantage: Alabama