MSU preview: Bama looks to avoid a second helping of disappointment

 

Let’s just be blunt about it: Alabama fans never find a loss to either Mississippi-based team to be acceptable.

That’s just how it is. No beating around the bush, no obfuscation. Ole Miss and Mississippi State are both viewed as filler material in the SEC West, teams the contenders utilize to bolster the win column on their way to national success.

It’s one reason why losses to either team become so ingrained in the memories of Bama fans. LSU and Auburn win often enough in their respective series that recalling those losses requires some qualifying information. Meanwhile, ask Alabama fans what “Mississippi State 2007” means and they can tell you all about a 103-yard interception return for a touchdown that sealed the game for the Bulldogs.

This year’s iteration of Bulldog football has been disappointing, from a Starkville perspective. Mississippi State comes into the game 4-5, with a one-dimensional offense, troubled defense and a head coach that is either on the hot seat or a hot candidate for other jobs, depending on who you ask and when. But Alabama comes into this game wounded from a poor defensive showing against LSU, and could be without the full services of QB Tua Tagovailoa. And a second loss in a row, in addition to killing whatever playoff hopes Alabama has left, would mark the beginning of some deep soul-searching for the Crimson Tide program.

OFFENSE

When Joe Moorhead was brought in to follow Dan Mullen head coach, most assumed Mississippi State’s offense would cease to be a run-heavy, almost plodding affair rooted in the spread-option. At times, however, it’s almost as if Moorhead has doubled down on the concept. Mississippi State ranks 22nd in rushing offense but only 103rd in passing offense. Playcalling, at times, has been significantly less imaginative than expected. Alabama, on the other hand, has been very dynamic, ranking 8th overall (MSU is 67th) and scoring the third-most points per game of any team in the country (MSU ranks 69th). The question is what will the two teams look like at quarterback for this game.

QUARTERBACKS
Given Tua Tagovailoa threw for 400-plus yards against LSU and lit up the Tigers consistently, especially in the second half, there’s a good bet most Bama fans coming out of that game expected Tua to be back, fully, for the balance of the season. That may not be the case, however. Mac Jones, who started against Arkansas, seems to have gotten more of the work in practice than usual this week, and given that Tagovailoa is still just a couple of weeks removed from ankle surgery, Jones might get more than his usual share of the load against both Mississippi State and Western Carolina next week. Tagovailoa is still on most Heisman Trophy watchlists, but admittedly trails LSU’s Joe Burrow now by a significant margin. Sitting against either MSU or Western Carolina probably ends his candidacy. But the season-ending game against Auburn, plus any postseason arrangements that follow, are more important. For Mississippi State, there is no doubt the Bulldogs are better with Penn State graduate transfer Tommy Stevens at quarterback. He’s not the runner Garrett Shrader is, but he’s a much better passer and he’s far more dynamic. Stevens went 12-of-18 for 172 yards, 2 touchdowns and 74 rushing yards last week against Arkansas after missing the prior two games with injury. For the season, he’s completed 63% of his passes while Shrader has completed only 55%. Shrader is, however, the Bulldogs’ second-leading rusher, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Stevens is a load at 6’5”, 235 and his arm strength is sound. He’s the best quarterback Alabama has left to face in the regular season. If Tua is good to go for the whole game, though, this still isn’t much of a contest. Put Jones atop Alabama’s depth chart and things could change. Advantage: Alabama

RUNNING BACKS
Mississippi State frequently employs platoons at the tailback position, but not this year. Kylin Hill has claimed the job outright, and he’s already popped the 1,000-yard mark for rushing on the season. Nick Gibson and Lee Witherspoon are the only other running backs to carry the ball this year for the Bulldogs, and Witherspoon might not get a carry this week. Gibson has just 213 yards as Hill’s backup. Alabama’s Najee Harris proved last week his durability, power and game-changing ability. While he is still shy of 800 yards rushing on the year, that’s really a product of the playcalling. Brian Robinson Jr. and Keilan Robinson should both see time in this game. Hill has been productive, but Harris is better and Alabama is far deeper at the position. Advantage: Alabama

WIDE RECEIVERS
Six MSU receivers have double-digit catch totals on the year, and the Bulldogs are good at spreading the ball around. But there is very little playmaking ability here. The most dangerous State receiver, Stephen Guidry, has just 19 catches on the year, a recurring theme for him over the course of his career. Deddrick Thomas and Osirus Mitchell are decent but nothing special. Isaiah Zuber provides depth. The Bulldogs do hold a slight edge at tight end, where Farrod Green and Dontea Jones bring plenty of experience to the table. For Alabama, the tight end group last week was led by an offensive lineman, Kendall Randolph, while Major Tennison and true freshman Jahleel Billingsley got most of the other snaps. Chris Owens and Giles Amos are also available, but the main question is whether Randolph or Tennison will get the most snaps at Y. Alabama’s offense seemed to function much better with Randolph on the field. Instead of splitting hairs over tight ends, though, Alabama runs away with this category the moment the discussion turns to receiver. DeVonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle continue to terrorize defenses. It’s not even worth discussing the size of the lead Alabama holds here. Advantage: Alabama

OFFENSIVE LINE
MSU has done a reasonable job of keeping defenders off its running backs, ranking 38th in tackles for loss allowed, but the Bulldogs rank 90th in sacks allowed. The real question is who’s going to start at left guard. Stewart Reese is listed as questionable for this game for undisclosed reasons, which may or may not be connected to an academic scandal that has triggered rolling suspensions for several members of the team over certain weeks. The school is citing FERPA as a reason for not discussing the situation in detail, publicly. Reese has missed the last two games. Reserve tackle Kwatrivious Johnson is also listed as “questionable – undisclosed,” and he had missed earlier action in the season as well. If Reese is out, LaQuinston Sharp or Michael Story will get the call opposite Dareuan Parker. Darryl Williams starts at center, and Tyre Phillips and Greg Eiland at the tackles, although Tommy Champion continues to push Eiland. This is already a group that is sort of on the edge against a team with the DL talent of Alabama, and any missed time for starters won’t help. Alabama will start Landon Dickerson at center, with Evan Neal and Deonte Brown at the guards and Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills at the tackles. Alabama showed better run blocking against LSU than it had been earlier in the year, and pass protection has been top-notch. This is not particularly close. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSE

As has been the custom for most of the past two decades or so, Mississippi State will base from a four-man front, either in a 4-3 or a 4-2-5 nickel alignment. Unlike prior years, though, the Bulldogs have issues. They rank just 60th in total defense, split fairly evenly between 69th in rushing and 66th in raw pass defense. The Bulldogs are a terrible 94th in pass efficiency defense. Alabama’s defense got rolled by LSU’s offense last week, but the rankings are still reasonable for the season as a whole: 30th in total defense, 33rd in rushing defense, 38th in raw pass defense and 25th in pass efficiency defense out of the base 3-4 over/under scheme.

DEFENSIVE LINE
Lee Autry is listed as a potential starter for this game, and he has been very productive in the three games he’s played so far this year. He’s also one previously listed under the “questionable – undisclosed” banner, so we’ll have to wait and see. If he can’t go, Jaden Crumedy will start in his place, and he has been far less dynamic. Fabian Lovett, the other interior tackle, also has production issues. James Jackson and Kendell Jones offer depth, but Autry is the only player here with any kind of star power, and Jackson has been hit with the dreaded “questionable – undisclosed” tag this week. Outside, Chauncey Rivers and Marquiss Spencer have been decent but not overpowering. Mississippi State ranks just 109th in sacks and 115th in tackles for loss; production has been an issue all year. Alabama will counter with D.J. Dale and Christian Barmore at tackle, with Raekwon Davis, Justin Eboigbe and Byron Young at the ends. Tevita Musika will offer depth inside, while Phidarian Mathis can work inside or outside. LaBryan Ray is still out of action. Alabama had a rough go against LSU last week, but there has been some flashes of production, especially from Barmore, and consistency is generally good enough across the board to give the Tide a comfortable edge here. Advantage: Alabama

LINEBACKERS
Mississippi State has done a good job developing inside linebackers recently, and Erroll Thompson has been a steadying force in the middle for the Bulldogs in 2019. He leads the team in tackles and is tied for the team lead in QB hurries, although sacks have eluded him. The question is who will start around him. Tim Washington leads the depth chart at strongside linebacker, although like many other teams, Washington is sacrificed for an additional defensive back more often than not. Willie Gay is another player who has just 3 games under his belt this year due to “questionable – undisclosed” status, although he’s listed as in for this one. If he can’t go, Leo Lewis will get most of his snaps. Lewis is probably MSU’s best player at run support. Alabama’s inside linebackers got worked over by LSU; Christian Harris, Shane Lee and Markail Benton all wish they could have had a “take two” on that game. Look for more Harris and Lee this week than Benton, as the coverage responsibilities won’t be so dire and Alabama needs the additional help against the Bulldog running game. Outside, however, Alabama holds a firm edge. Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Lewis have become one of the most feared two-man OLB tandems in college football. Jennings was nicked up against LSU, but there has been no word this week to suggest he’s anything less than 100 percent. Ben Davis and Christopher Allen offer depth. MSU has a better inside situation, Alabama the better outside situation. Because of what Jennings and Lewis bring to the table as pass rushers, take the Tide. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSIVE BACKS
CB Cameron Dantzler, who is tied for the team lead in passes defended and who is second in passes broken up, is among that “questionable – undisclosed” crowd this week. If he can’t go, either Jarrian Jones or Tyler Williams will have to start at corner opposite Martin Emerson. Dantzler has looked, by far, to be the most complete corner on the team, so his absence would be a big loss. The Bulldog secondary as a whole, and the cornerbacks in particular, have been more placeholders than game-changers. The safety trio – C.J. Morgan, Jaquarius Landrews and Brian Cole – have been a mixed bag. Cole has shown major playmaking ability, and would likely start for Alabama. Morgan has flashed at times, while Landrews is sort of filler. Like the DL and LB groups, Alabama’s secondary didn’t exactly draw raves against LSU, especially cornerbacks Trevon Diggs and Patrick Surtain II, who probably played their worst football since coming to Alabama. The safety group – Xavier McKinney, Shyheim Carter, Jared Mayden and Jordan Battle – didn’t fare much better, but their gaffes weren’t as critical, and McKinney did make several stellar individual plays. We’ll choose to believe the struggles of Diggs and Surtain were isolated events, caused by Burrow’s expertise. Advantage: Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS
Mississippi State is the very definition of mediocre across the board, in net punting and all coverage areas. Placekicker Jace Christmann has had a solid year, though, including hitting 3 of 4 field goals from beyond 40 yards out. Alabama is more of a boom/bust proposition. For every Jaylen Waddle touchdown on a punt return, there is a dropped snap, missed PAT or some other incredible fail. Ty Perine has been a revelation at punter – from a distance standpoint, at least. The dropped snap against LSU was a critical error. Placekicker Joseph Bulovas continues to struggle with even the easiest kicks. Coverage and returns are off-the-chart good, but even with Waddle’s touchdown last week, Alabama was a net negative in special teams due to errors. After multiple seasons of seeing this same thing, we’ll take boring consistency. Advantage: Mississippi State

OVERALL

Alabama leads in seven categories, Mississippi State in one. In the OL-DL cross-matchups, Alabama comes out a strong leader in each. Mississippi State’s OL could surprise against Alabama’s defensive line, but it would require everyone being available for the Bulldogs as well as Alabama’s struggles against LSU becoming more of a trend than an anomaly. We expect neither.

The biggest takeaway this week is how far in front of MSU Alabama is on offense, in all facets. Alabama’s skill positions are on a different plane than Mississippi State’s. The Bama offensive line is also significantly better. Defensively, it’s a closer call despite Bama’s superior statistics. Alabama’s defensive line was exposed against LSU and the secondary struggled. This game will tell much about which portion of Alabama’s season was the truth: The first eight games, in which Alabama held its own defensively while the offense ran roughshod over the competition, or LSU, where an elite team forced its will on a not-so-elite Alabama.

Fortunately for the Crimson Tide this week, Mississippi State probably doesn’t have the weapons to exert that kind of pressure. Unless Stevens plays over his head at quarterback for the Bulldogs – while Jones plays most of the game for Alabama, and plays poorly on top of it – Alabama ought to be able to trade early punches with MSU and then pull away in the second half. If the outcome turns out to be a close one, the game two weeks later against Auburn begins to look a lot less fun.

Alabama 45
Mississippi St. 20

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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