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By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 9, 2017
Prior to Mississippi State’s 34-23 win over UMass last week, the Bulldogs hadn’t played a single game this year that didn’t end in a blowout.
The Bulldogs had six wins, the closest margin of which was 21 points in a thumping of Texas A&M. The Bulldogs also had two losses, which came by 28 and 39 points.
Even Alabama has endured a closer challenge, winning by just 8 points over Texas A&M. It’s rare for any team to get this deep into a season without playing at least one close one, if not a few close ones. But Mississippi State is coming into this game 7-2 and confident, and with neither team really having to worry about the chips being down (Alabama’s 8-point win over A&M wasn’t close until the last possession), how well each team responds to pressure will probably determine the outcome. Alabama is also dealing with massive injuries on its defense, which could cause problems as the Crimson Tide attempts to defend probably the most dangerous quarterback it has faced all season.
Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen was one of the architects of the spread-option offense, and the Bulldogs stay true to its roots, especially now that the Bulldogs have their own injury issues to deal with in the wide receiver group. The Bulldogs rank 11th in rushing offense but 109th in passing, for a total offense ranking of 43rd. Everything runs through the quarterback, and the Bulldogs will attempt to spread Alabama’s defense out to open up inside running lanes. Alabama has similar split rankings this year – 9th in rushing, 86th in passing – but a much higher total offense ranking, 17th. Alabama is more multiple and will base its attack from a pro-style spread.
MSU’s Nick Fitzgerald doesn’t rank highly in terms of pure passing among SEC quarterbacks – he was in the bottom third of the conference a couple of weeks ago – but to dismiss him is to open oneself up to being hurt by the big play. Fitzgerald has completed just 56.8 percent of his passes this year, and has thrown 10 interceptions against 13 touchdowns. He has a flair for the big play, however, and it’s his rushing skills (116 carries, 801 yards, 6.9 avg., 12 TD) that really scare people. Fitzgerald is probably the best all-around quarterback Alabama has faced thus far this year, and certainly is atop the intersection of ability and experience.
Alabama’s Jalen Hurts has been more productive; he’s thrown for just 53 fewer yards despite throwing a whopping 59 fewer times. Hurts also has just one turnover compared to Fitzgerald’s generous spreading of the ball among opposing defenders. In regards to a comparison of backups, there’s no comparison; Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa has far superior numbers to State’s Keytaon Thompson. If needed, Mac Jones may be back for Alabama this week; he sat out the LSU game after a DUI arrest and was replaced by walk-on senior Austin Johnson for a week. Alabama’s strong edge in depth helps make the case for the Tide leading the entire category, because the straight-up comparison of Hurts to Fitzgerald is closer than many people think. Advantage: Alabama
Aeris Williams has 776 rushing yards this year, while Alabama’s Damien Harris has totaled 730. The difference here is that Harris has amassed his yardage on 90 carries, while it has taken Williams 163 to get his. As demonstrated in the quarterbacks’ passing numbers above, Alabama’s offense has just been overwhelmingly efficient this year. Williams is a good mix of speed and power, as is his backup, true freshman Kylin Hill, who has shown big promise for the future. Nick Gibson and Dontavian Lee give Mississippi State uncommon depth. There is no true fullback, but either Lee or Alec Murphy are big enough to serve as a lead blocker if needed.
Alabama will use Bo Scarbrough as Harris’ main backup. He hasn’t been as explosive as he was toward the end of the 2016 season, but Scarbrough is probably the best pure power runner in the league and rarely gets stoned at the line. Najee Harris and Brian Robinson provide depth, while Joshua Jacobs has taken on a Swiss army knife-type role in Alabama’s offense, lining up at tailback, fullback, wide receiver and H-back.
Depth here is actually a wash, given that Alabama has more or less removed Robinson and Najee Harris from the primary rotation. But while Aeris Williams is an important part of the Bulldog offense and has steadily improved, Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough are both a step above already. Advantage: Alabama
LSU’s Ed Orgeron cited Alabama’s receivers as a major reason for the Tigers’ defeat last week. There was a gap between Alabama’s receivers and LSU’s, but due to injuries (or in Alabama’s case, a lack thereof), there’s an even bigger gap here. Mississippi State has four receivers either slowed or out for this game; Malik Dear is out for the year, Keith Mixon is slowed but should play, and Donald Gray and Gabe Myles are listed as doubtful.
Mixon’s loss would be the biggest by far if 2017 stats are any indication. He has caught 17 passes for 255 yards (15.0 avg.) and a touchdown, leading the team in receiving yardage and being one of the few consistent big-play threats MSU has through the air. Gray and Myles have combined for 5 touchdowns, but they’ve also combined for less than 10 yards per catch and don’t make many downfield plays. Jesse Jackson, another sub-10-yard receiver, will play a lot but isn’t considered a threat.
Deddrick Thomas and Jamal Couch are both healthy; Couch has been the opposite of Gray and Jackson, racking up a few big plays but not displaying enough consistency. Thomas is solid, not spectacular. Tight end Farrod Green has just 7 catches this year and has basically been effective only as a pseudo-trick-play option. Justin Johnson, his backup, has a few short catches. Given what Alabama’s secondary looks like, holding Mississippi State at bay in the passing game seems a doable assignment, and production issues at wide receiver are probably more to blame for Fitzgerald’s subpar passing numbers than anything he’s done himself.
Alabama counters with Calvin Ridley, Robert Foster and Cameron Sims as its starting group, and Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith as the primary backups. Ridley and Sims have looked sharp the last couple of weeks, and while the freshmen are all three ahead of schedule in their development, the LSU game was not their best collective effort. Alabama has to cut down on the dropped passes. At tight end, Hale Hentges and Irv Smith Jr. have been solid but somewhat underutilized as receivers. This one isn’t close. Advantage: Alabama
The Bulldogs had to rebuild this unit coming into the year and boy, did they ever do it. Mississippi State ranks 3rd nationally in fewest sacks allowed and 5th nationally in fewest tackles for loss allowed.
A lot this week depends on whether Martinas Rankin can continue to get back into playing shape after missing three games, then coming back for UMass. He’ll likely start at left tackle, but can also play center. If he can’t go, or is hurt during the game, freshman Greg Eiland started four games in Rankin’s absence and is capable, albeit young. The rest of the line will be Elgton Jenkins, Deion Calhoun, Stewart Reese and Darryl Williams. It’s notable that if Eiland has to start at left tackle, both tackles will be freshmen.
Alabama suddenly has an injury concern of their own, as left tackle Jonah Williams got dinged up against LSU without anyone really noticing until he missed Monday’s practice. While Williams was back at practice Tuesday, his absence would either cause freshman Alex Leatherwood to get his first career start at left tackle, or trigger a shuffling of offensive linemen that would either have Matt Womack go to left tackle and Jedrick Wills step in at right tackle, or would move Bradley Bozeman over from center with J.C. Hassenauer replacing him.
The guards – Lester Cotton on the right, Ross Pierschbacher on the left – will likely be left untouched. LSU gave Alabama trouble, both in regards to the tackles struggling to keep LSU’s quick ends off Jalen Hurts, and a lack of consistent run blocking from the guards. Alabama needs to improve its consistency across the board, whereas Mississippi State has been a pillar of consistency thus far in 2017. Advantage: Mississippi State
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