Mississippi State moved from a pure 4-3 defense over the off-season to what most mimics a 3-3-5, with a hybrid defensive end and a hybrid safety/linebacker both in the base formation. The stats, as expected, have taken a hit while the team adjusts. Mississippi State ranks 49th in rushing defense, 75th in total defense, 77th in pass efficiency defense, 82nd in scoring defense and 104th in raw pass defense. Alabama’s numbers for the same categories: 1st, 2nd, 14th, 2nd and 19th. Alabama’s familiar 3-4 over/under scheme will be mostly in nickel and dime sets against three-wide MSU this week.
The Bulldogs aren’t lacking for bulk up front, but the production hasn’t been there. In a front that is primarily three-man, Cory Thomas and Nelson Adams are charged with keeping things bottled up inside, and they largely haven’t been up to the task. The two have combined for only 6 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and 2.5 sacks. A.J. Jefferson, who was a fine 4-3 end, has been asked to take on more inside responsibilities. By himself, he has been more impactful on negative plays (10 TFL, 4 sacks for a loss of a whopping 34 yards), but he has just 27 total stops in 9 games.
Mississippi State would like to use Johnathan Calvin in a Jack linebacker role (called the “Viper” in MSU nomenclature), and so far he’s been the most productive of the lot. Calvin is on his way to what could be an all-SEC season: 48 tackles, 9 TFL, 5 sacks, and a handful of minor statistics. The limitation here is that Calvin is 6’2”, 275, which sorts him into a role mostly as a dedicated end rather than a rover. His ability to set the edge is quite good, however. Torrey Dale and Nick James offer senior experience off the bench at tackle, while Fletcher Adams will back up Jefferson outside. Marquiss Spencer, Calvin’s backup, has shown flashes of ability, and he’s just a freshman.
Alabama will counter with Da’Ron Payne at nosetackle, with Dalvin Tomlinson and Jonathan Allen starting at end. All three have established themselves as playmakers, and Payne provided the highlight of the week against LSU for linemen across the country when he steamrolled Tiger guard Josh Boutte on a QB pressure. Da’Shawn Hand, Dakota Ball and Joshua Frazier add depth. Mississippi State actually has more depth than Alabama, but there is little comparison between the playmaking ability of the two starting groups. Advantage: Alabama
Richie Brown and Leo Lewis are both competent linebackers, and Lewis has some potential star ability for the future. They’re 1-2 on the Bulldogs’ tackle list, but at this stage they’re more consistent than they are game-changing. J.T. Gray and DeAndre Ward play the Star position, which despite the similar name to Alabama’s nickel safety slot, is more of a linebacker in this defense. As a group, they vary somewhere between average to better than average, but Lewis hasn’t developed yet and Brown’s playmaking ability is somewhat inconsistent.
Alabama will play Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton inside, with Rashaan Evans backing up, while the outside spots will be manned by Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson, Anfernee Jennings, Terrell Hall and Christian Miller. In general, Alabama is just stronger as a group, but the advantage is really seen on the outside, where Williams and Anderson have been nothing short of dynamic. Mississippi State’s competency inside isn’t enough to cover, or even counter Foster and Hamilton. Advantage: Alabama
Cornerbacks Jamoral Graham and Cedric Jiles have been quiet in 2016; they’ve combined for just 1 interception and Jiles has just 1 PBU. Safeties Kivon Coman and Brandon Bryant need more consistency, especially Coman and in his case in particular, against the run. Nickel safety Mark McLaurin has arguably been the most effective defensive back on a per-snap basis and is the team’s best ballhawk. Jamal Peters offers depth at corner while Lashard Durr is the extra safety, but depth is a big issue here and after McLaurin, the quality drops off.
Alabama didn’t appear to skip a beat last week with Minkah Fitzpatrick stepping in for the injured Eddie Jackson and Tony Brown taking over for Fitzpatrick at Star. It’s a testament to Alabama’s impressive depth as well as the amount of improvement this group has made since the Ole Miss game. Marlon Humphrey and Anthony Averett will start at corner, with Ronnie Harrison at safety next to Fitzpatrick. Expect to see more of Laurence Jones at dime safety this week. If Alabama goes any further down the depth chart, Deionte Thompson is the next safety and walk-on Levi Wallace the next cornerback up. Alabama has been better all year than Mississippi State – and is continuing to improve. Advantage: Alabama
Mississippi State was thought to have some of the best special teams units in the conference in the preseason, but the Bulldogs have imploded all over the place. Starting punter Logan Cooke is averaging less than 40 yards per kick. Placekicker Westin Graves is at 60 percent on field goal tries. The Bulldogs are 98th in net punting, 114th in punt returns, 69th in kickoff returns and punt return defense ranks 123rd. Only kickoff return defense, where the Bullies rank 47th, rises to the level of mediocre. Alabama has had its own issues with field goal percentage (64.7%), but the Crimson Tide has arguably the best punter in the nation in J.K. Scott and is 6th nationally in punt returns. The other categories don’t outpace Mississippi State by much, but it’s by enough to give Alabama this one hands-down. Advantage: Alabama
It’s another straight eight for Alabama, and the Crimson Tide also has a comfortable edge in both OL-DL matchups, especially the matchup of the Tide defensive line against the Bulldog offensive line. There’s a reason Vegas likes Bama by four touchdowns.
There is some room for discussion here – most notably quarterback and wide receiver – but even if Mississippi State was awarded those two categories by slim margins, it doesn’t make up for the fact that Alabama is significantly better everywhere else. If Mississippi State wins this game, it will be an upset on the level of 1980 all over again.
The only real question here is how much of State’s upset of Texas A&M was due to the Bulldogs improving and how much of it was due to Texas A&M still being a team suffering growing pains of its own while it transitions from a finesse offense to something with more oomph. Fortunately for Alabama, the Crimson Tide won’t have to answer this question with a roster depleted by injury post-LSU, as aside from Scarbrough’s knee tweak, Alabama made it out of Baton Rouge in surprisingly good health compared to some previous seasons.
Alabama can’t completely whiff on the preparation for this week, but if this game is close it may point to some larger, hidden problems that could bite Alabama against better teams like Auburn, or whoever Alabama might face in the College Football Playoff. Keep Fitzgerald reasonably under control in this game, and a win should come without much fuss.
Mississippi St. 17
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