By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 12, 2016
It might take a while to process how complete a victory this was for Alabama on Mississippi State, but if there was any clearer indication of just how much stronger the Alabama program is than just about everyone else in the SEC, here it was.
A Mississippi State team that a week before had beaten a young, growing, but still very talented Texas A&M team got outright embarrassed at Bryant-Denny Stadium. What Alabama did to the Bulldogs is considered cruelty to animals in all 50 states.
It wasn’t that Mississippi State played badly, either. It was Alabama making MSU look bad. There’s a difference between looking bad because you’re sloppy, and looking bad because you’re the Yugo trying to drag race against a hemi Barracuda. You can be the best little Yugo in the world but it’s not going to help you much when the lights turn green.
Alabama went up 30-0 by halftime, even while settling for three field goals. This could have easily turned into the Auburn game of 2008, but that Auburn team had quit on its season and this Mississippi State team had not. The Bulldogs under Dan Mullen have had their lean years, but they rarely quit, and they didn’t quit today – although QB Nick Fitzgerald probably should have quit for the good of the program, as Alabama’s defense turned him into a tackling dummy. No, those stars that appeared to be floating above Fitzgerald’s helmet weren’t for big plays – they were there to count the kill shots.
Mississippi State’s defense is rebuilding, not to mention changing from a pure 4-3 base to a three-man front, and as profiled before the game, in the SEC, that kind of system change usually brings with it some ugly losses while the personnel is getting accustomed to its new roles. As such, the Bulldogs defended Alabama QB Jalen Hurts about as well as going naked in the woods serves as a defense for poison ivy. It was fitting that on a day Alabama’s stadium control played video tributes to its original dual-threat quarterback, Harry Gilmer, Hurts would shred the Bulldog defense like they had been transported en masse from the 1940s era and dropped into the middle of a modern game.
Alabama rolled up 615 total yards of offense, including 397 through the air. Alabama has passed for similar yardage before, but certain programs have certain identities and Alabama’s is running the football. Historically, when Alabama has thrown for a ton of yardage, the record hasn’t been very good, as those high throwing numbers indicated Alabama was in a shootout.
This game was a shootout, too. Except Mississippi State was using slingshots and Alabama was strapped to the nines with Tommy guns.
And just after Alabama put the ’Dogs to sleep, the SEC’s other Dogs – or Dawgs – eliminated rival Auburn from SEC West contention. Alabama is now the SEC West champion, regardless of what it does against Auburn in two weeks. A trip to Atlanta awaits.
Alabama first must face UT-Chattanooga next week, which will likely be a continuation of the whipping Alabama started against Mississippi State. Auburn is always potentially dangerous against Alabama, but unless the Tigers get healthy in the offensive backfield, it’s hard to imagine them upsetting Alabama with a playoff berth potentially on the line.
It isn’t impossible, however, which is why Alabama must continue to improve. But if you asked Mississippi State about it, the Bulldogs would probably tell you Alabama was plenty improved as it is.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Mississippi State:
1. Averett has solidified an already excellent secondary. Anthony Averett did a little bit of everything today, from good run discipline to breaking up a pair of passes to saving Alabama’s hide on a kickoff return that nearly broke through for a State touchdown. The only negative play attributed to Averett was a borderline-at-best pass interference call that came at the end of a sequence of arguments between Nick Saban and officials Matt Loeffler and Bobby Ables over another borderline call on Ronnie Harrison that eventually led to MSU’s only score. By that time, the game’s outcome was no longer in doubt and the infraction didn’t matter. Prior to that play, it had been obvious that Mississippi State intended to pick on Averett in one-on-one coverage, but he turned back pass attempts to Donald Gray and Fred Ross time and again.
Alabama’s secondary came into the game already highly ranked, and while Averett has been solid all year, he hasn’t really had a spotlight moment. This entire game turned into a spotlight moment for him. And that “uh-oh” you just heard came from the offensive coordinators remaining on Alabama’s schedule.
2. Hurts was dominant, but his progress was also attributable to OL play and WR dispersion. Hurts’ stats – 28-of-37 passing, 75.7%, 347 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT, 11 carries for 101 yards, 9.2 avg., 1 TD – need no modifiers to express just how dominating his performance was, but there were two key developments that led to his success, one within his control and one without. The outside assistance was provided by an offensive line that allowed just one sack and provided Hurts with a clean pocket for much of the day.
While Hurts still has a tendency not to see receivers open downfield – Calvin Ridley could have given ArDarius Stewart a run for his money in regards to receiving yardage had there been a lit arrow over his head pointing downward – having longer STAT times made Hurts tougher to defend. And as the long pass attempt to O.J. Howard at the pylon showed, arm strength isn’t a concern for Hurts.
Even better than the attempt to Howard, which fell incompletely mostly because Howard slowed up a bit on the route, Hurts hammered in multiple throws between defensive backs when he had to have the extra zip. Hurts’ other major plus today was the way he utilized more of his receiver group than in recent games. Hurts threw to 8 different receivers, including names like Cameron Sims and Miller Forristall. Howard ended up with 6 catches overall, which combined with the 3 that went to Forristall, meant Alabama hit the tight end group 9 times on the day. Spreading the wealth allowed Stewart to catch 8 passes for 156 yards and 3 touchdowns, as he didn’t have to continually shake off double teams. And with Joshua Jacobs emerging as a receiving threat out of the backfield, the rich just get richer.
3. Speaking of Jacobs… The freshman ended up with 89 yards on 9 carries (9.9 avg) and added another 34 yards receiving on 3 catches, for a total of 123 all-purpose yards. Moreover, he showed the cutting ability, vision and elusiveness that he failed to show at LSU. Jacobs has drawn a host of comparisons to former star Mark Ingram, but his ability to pick running lanes may be even better than that of Alabama’s first Heisman Trophy winner. Jacobs left multiple Bulldog defenders tackling air Saturday, and it was clear after the third or fourth touch that continuing to play Jacobs would have run up the score further than it had already gone. When Jacobs finally puts everything together, he’ll be an elite SEC back.
4. Offensive line continues to be a work in progress, battles are ongoing. Some TideFans.com readers have asked why we continue to question the offensive line’s overall strength, and one of the best examples of that decision is the fact Alabama is still trying to figure out the right guard position. Alphonse Taylor continues to be absent thanks to a concussion that has now proven itself to apparently have been particularly nasty. Lester Cotton also has suffered a concussion, complicating the process of moving over from left guard, where he started the year, to right guard.
Against Mississippi State, Alabama alternated Korren Kirven, normally a tackle, and Josh Casher. Neither have played much this year, but both players did well against the Bulldogs. Kirven has better pass-blocking skills, while Casher has the build of a wild boar and a roughly similar temperament. The real issue here is the season is 10 games old and Alabama still doesn’t have a regular starting five. It may end up not being an issue into the playoffs – or it might. There isn’t enough data yet, and Chattanooga likely won’t yield any honest feedback.
5. Coaches almost waited too late to work on building depth. This is not an uncommon complaint for this column, but Alabama yet again was playing the first-team defense late into the game, with the results already well in hand, and it nearly bit them. Jonathan Allen appeared to tweak something on a sack attempt late in the game that Fitzgerald spun out of, with the lead at 41 points in the fourth quarter. Had he been lost there, Alabama’s championship hopes would have taken a significant hit. Reuben Foster was already out of the game, walking with a slight limp.
The question is just how much of a lead is necessary, and how much of a concern it is to keep the opponent out of the end zone when a comeback is impossible due to time constraints. This has been Nick Saban’s blind spot ever since he arrived at Alabama. The Crimson Tide finally subbed in (mostly) the second-team defense after Mississippi State pulled its starting quarterback, but certain key players never did rotate out – Rashaan Evans and Da’Shawn Hand, to name two. This is the biggest concern for the Chattanooga game, too, as Alabama has had awful luck at times in recent years in regards to losing key contributors against lower-division opponents.
Given that Alabama is already going to completely skip a day of practice this week to rest up, here’s hoping the coaches take a similar posture to the game itself, and leave starters on both sides in no longer than is absolutely necessary.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN