By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 9, 2018
Alabama head coach Nick Saban was asked about Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald this week in a post-practice interview, and to most Alabama fans, Saban’s response was just coachspeak.
Saban talked about the matchup problems Fitzgerald offered, and pointed out his recent resurgence as a passer and not just a runner. Again, coachspeak, right?
Not really. A week after Alabama – as predicted – beat LSU soundly, the Crimson Tide probably will face its toughest test of the regular season when the Bulldogs come to town. This is a physical football team with a quarterback who at least has the potential to do big things. On top of that, Alabama is coming into this game fresh off its annual slugfest with LSU, and the physical pounding both teams usually take in that matchup explains greatly some of Alabama’s struggles with Mississippi State and LSU’s struggles with Arkansas. Those little things just matter.
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Mississippi State isn’t all that likely to beat Alabama, but Tua Tagovailoa making a second consecutive fourth-quarter appearance isn’t just a possibility; we think it’s all but assured. With Auburn a bad matchup for what Alabama is capable of doing with its defensive front, the game against the Bulldogs of Starkville, Miss., may end up being Alabama’s biggest challenge of the 2018 regular season.
Mississippi State’s offense is unique; it began with Dan Mullen’s spread-option attack, but new head coach Joe Moorhead seemed determined to open it up a bit and widen its scope. For whatever reason, the changes have been slow to take, so Mississippi State has essentially brought back Mullen’s approach, simplified the playbook, and the offense is more or less a full-time Wildcat now with the primary runner (the quarterback) able to throw the ball. The stat that jumps off the page is passing offense: 105th in the country. And now, throw it out. MSU has become much better balanced since the reversion to the spread-option look. The Bulldogs also rank 20th in rushing offense, and if the passing attack continues to come around, that kind of balance is something Alabama hasn’t seen yet. Alabama continues to lead the nation in total offense, scoring offense, third-down offense and passing efficiency, and ranks 5th in passing offense and 25th in rushing. There’s no question which is better, but the question is whether MSU is tough enough to create issues.
Nick Fitzgerald is one of the most interesting cases at quarterback in the country. He is not accurate (50.8%), throws too many interceptions (7 this year against just 10 touchdowns) and his QB rating (113.8) doesn’t scare anyone. But he has also rushed 155 times for 839 yards (5.4 avg.), which includes yardage lost to sacks, and 9 touchdowns. Most notably, he is prone to extended cold and hot streaks, and Alabama is hoping for the former this Saturday and not the latter. MSU will use him exactly as it used Dak Prescott against the Tide in the past.
Fitzgerald’s performance against Alabama last year is also still fresh in most people’s minds. Backup Keytaon Thompson is cut from similar cloth, and if Fitzgerald gets hurt the offense isn’t going to change a lick. Thompson, for that matter, is averaging nearly 11 yards per rush this year.
Alabama will start Tua Tagovailoa, but Jalen Hurts is apparently an emergency option only for the second consecutive week. Tagovailoa’s performance against LSU just kept adding to his legend, but his knees are a moment-to-moment consideration right now and without the security blanket of Hurts, Alabama must continue to be cautious. Mac Jones will back up Tagovailoa unless Hurts finds the Fountain of Youth under the overpass in Alberta City this week. This category belongs to Bama but the spread might not be as much as it would originally appear. Advantage: Alabama
Because so much of the offense runs through the QB position, MSU’s 1-2 punch at tailback, Kylin Hill and Aeris Williams, have just 127 carries between them. Both are averaging more than 6.5 yards per carry. Hill and Williams both have good bulk and can run anywhere between the tackles, or outside. Alabama is going to get a challenge here, especially with Fitzgerald always being an option to keep the ball. Nick Gibson and Dontavian Lee provide depth. As of mid-week, Hill was listed as questionable with an undisclosed injury, but we expect him to play, and if he doesn’t, it won’t be a huge loss due to good depth and restricted usage of Williams.
Alabama has its own injury issue to worry about, as Najee Harris left the LSU game with what looked, at the time, like a particularly nasty ankle sprain. While it apparently looked worse than it really was, expecting him to be 100 percent for this game is a bit unreasonable. Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs will likely split most of the carries in this one, and Brian Robinson Jr. is as likely to be the third back as Najee Harris is. Alabama enjoys a comfortable edge either way, but MSU has quality players here. Advantage: Alabama
This is Mississippi State’s primary weakness on either side of the ball. Steven Guidry has a lot of potential, and good height, but hasn’t shown enough consistency. He has just 15 catches on the year but they usually go for big chunks. Osirus Mitchell, the team’s leading receiver with 20 catches, is listed as questionable with an undisclosed injury. He’s the only receiver possessing both good height and enough bulk to fight through press coverage. Slot receiver Dedrick Thomas has good quickness, but lacks size and can get redirected off his routes.
MSU has to cut down on the drops this game, but with the quality of Alabama’s cornerbacks, wrapping up the ball won’t be the only issue. If Mitchell is out, either Austin Williams or Jesse Jackson will start in his place, and neither player is more than a borderline SEC player at best. The tight end combo of Farrod Green and Justin Johnson keep this unit from being completely a washout; Johnson can create matchup problems for all but the best linebackers and safeties.
There’s really no comparison here unless you feel the nagging injuries to DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III will keep both out of the game. Smith played against LSU last week, but clearly wasn’t ready to return. Ruggs suffered a bruised leg but should be fine. Even if both were completely unavailable, Jerry Jeudy and Jaylen Waddle are far better than any State receiver. Derek Kief should get some real playing time this week, with Terrell Shavers and Xavian Marks also available.
The play of tight end Irv Smith Jr. has opened up the Bama offense in many ways, and as good as Johnson and Green can be for State, Smith is a much better option than either. Hale Hentges has developed into a reliable second tight end, mostly for his blocking ability. This one isn’t close, even with Bama’s injuries. Advantage: Alabama
MSU is 55th in sacks allowed and 18th in tackles for loss allowed, good numbers given how much of the offense rolls through the quarterback as the A-option. This is a veteran unit, with Elgton Jenkins starting at center, Darryl Williams and Deion Calhoun at the guards and Greg Eiland and Stewart Reese at the tackles. The only concern is depth, not necessarily the number of available reserves but more so their quality.
The starting unit, though, compares favorably to Alabama’s group of Ross Pierschbacher in the middle, Deonte Brown and Alex Leatherwood at guard and Jonah Williams and Jedrick Wills at tackle. This is probably the biggest change from last week to this week, as MSU’s line is substantially better than was LSU’s. The question is whether it will be enough, because Alabama’s group played the game of the year last week and if Alabama can continue to display that level of consistency, the sky’s the limit. It’s a Bama edge, but like the running back group, it’s not like Mississippi State is chopped liver. Advantage: Alabama
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