MSU preview: After early success, State struggling under a pirate flag

There was no one more surprised at Mississippi State’s transformation from almost a veer offense under Joe Moorhead to the air raid attack of than LSU and its fans, who were forced to endure a Week 1 nightmare that may have ended the Tigers’ national title defense hopes before they could even get started.

But what a difference one week makes. Between the first game and the second game – just long enough for several national media members to bite on the fake and declare Mississippi State the surprise team in the SEC – the Mike Leach pirate ship ran aground. Once there was film on Mississippi State’s personnel to be had, it didn’t take long for SEC defensive coordinators to develop an effective containment strategy.

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Mississippi State scored 44 points in the opener against LSU; in the next three games combined, the Bulldogs have scored 30. The offense was completely shut out by Kentucky, with MSU falling 24-2.

The bigger problem Mississippi State has at the moment is the pirate-loving Leach, who is not known for his patience or his tact, openly stated that the roster needed to be purged of some players who were either proving to be difficult to coach, or who didn’t fit his system. Since then, the parade of outbound players has begun in earnest, and between injuries, opt-outs and potential transfers, the Bulldogs may come into this game short around 10 players from its touchstone LSU win.

Leach is nothing if not entertaining. But the Bulldog pirate ship will be paddling upstream against a team like Alabama.

OFFENSE

Mississippi State’s offense is the Dreamland BBQ of the SEC: There ain’t nothing like ’em nowhere (else). There’s nothing particularly deceptive about the Bulldog offense; MSU simply lines up with four wide receivers on basically every play and throws the ball to the open man. Leach used to get attention for his approach to offensive line gap spacing and some other technical elements, but in time some of those have been adopted by the sport at large and are no longer specific to his program.

Despite struggling mightily the last three weeks, MSU still ranks 5th nationally in passing offense, but is 101st against the run, 60th in total offense and 88th in scoring offense. This is more in line with what people were expecting at the beginning of the year, but the LSU game skewed the stats. Alabama will use its multiple, pro-style spread attack that might get a bit more conservative now that isn’t around to make plays. But don’t look for much to change in regards to efficiency, as Alabama knows its bread is buttered on the offensive side of the ball in .

QUARTERBACKS
When Leach recruited Stanford transfer to come to Starkville, there was a ton of excitement given Costello’s track record. He was, by any measure, one of the top 10, maybe even top five quarterbacks in Stanford history. But the transition has not been smooth. Despite throwing for 1,267 yards over four games, Costello has thrown a whopping 10 interceptions already compared to just 6 touchdowns.

It got bad enough that , Costello’s true freshman backup, has been playing more and since it’s Leach calling the shots, either player could start this game. Rogers’ completion percentage on the season is a gaudy 72.7%, but he has throwing a pair of interceptions against just 1 touchdown so far. The MSU system doesn’t demand quarterbacks run much, but if it comes down to it, Costello and Rogers aren’t bad athletes and can move when needed. With the porous nature of the Bulldogs’ pass protection, though, both Costello and Rogers are in the negative yardage totals for the season due to sack yardage lost.

Alabama will start , who has developed into perhaps the best quarterback in the SEC and is pushing the 2,000-yard mark already. Jones’ ability to read defenses and deliver passes accurately is unmatched by most others, perhaps by anyone at the college level. got some meaningful time against Tennessee and Alabama hopes to utilize him again this week. Costello certainly has the resume, but with his struggles over the last three weeks and Jones ascendance happening at the same time, Alabama takes this. Costello is more than capable of putting up big numbers, however. Advantage: Alabama

RUNNING BACKS
, who was expected to give Mississippi State a solid running game to complement its dangerous passing game, got banged up and may have decided to opt out of the season and prepare for the NFL Draft. If he hasn’t opted out officially yet – there has been speculation both ways this week coming out of Starkville – he’s also injured and wasn’t expected to play against Alabama anyway. Hill wasn’t nearly as effective in Leach’s scheme, anyway, but his departure leaves the position to one of two freshmen, Jo’quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson.

Sophomore Lee Witherspoon moves up to third on the depth chart but hasn’t carried the ball yet. Marks was a good prospect coming out of high school, sort of a tweener in size but more than good enough to act as a changeup in this offense. Johnson was more of a mid-level recruit; neither has been explosive in any way in 2020, and Johnson has the running attack’s lone touchdown. The longest run from scrimmage of any MSU runner was 12 yards by Hill.

Alabama will start at the position, but he may have a different backup. received a minor, unspecified injury against Tennessee and is listed as questionable for the game. Trey Sanders took over for Robinson against Tennessee and had his best career effort so far by a long shot. Jace McClellan and Roydell Williams have each had brief auditions as the fourth back. Harris is playing solid at the moment and has already scored 14 touchdowns on the ground, so whether Robinson is available or not is practically immaterial to the discussion of the running back units.

The production on the Alabama side of the ball, in both touchdowns and yardage, is dominating in scope. Marks, MSU’s leading runner, has just 89 total yards on the season. Advantage: Alabama

WIDE RECEIVERS
If you were a tight end prior at Mississippi State the day Mike Leach was hired, you either lost weight and became a receiver, moved to defense, or moved zip codes. There isn’t a tight end or fullback to be found on the roster, and the receiver group is mostly receiver-by-committee.

This week, word broke that Alabama transfer Tyrell Shavers, who had landed a significant role in MSU’s offense, would also be opting out of the rest of the season. If he goes, it would actually put Osirus Mitchell into a full-time starting role, but Mitchell is already leading the team in receiving yards and touchdowns. Mitchell is also one of the team’s biggest receivers, at 6’5”, 220.

, Malik Heath and Austin Williams will be the other three starters. Like Mitchell, Heath and Williams are bigger receivers; for that matter, this receiver group has more height as a general rule than what Leach has become accustomed to working with. Jaden Walley and Cameron Gardner become the two primary backups with Shavers out; Gardner is another big, physical receiver. Geor’quarius Spivey, a converted tight end, will probably take Shavers’ spot in the rotation, but he has no catches yet on the year.

Alabama also is dealing with a change in its depth chart, unfortunately spurred by the loss of Jaylen Waddle for the season with a badly broken ankle. took over for Waddle against Tennessee and put up good numbers for the day, although he also had a fumble and a drop.

What hasn’t changed is the duo of and , who continue to terrorize opposing secondaries. With Bolden now a starter, the makeup of the unit changes significantly, as Alabama previously had three players that could play both inside or outside in its scheme. Bolden, though, is not an outside receiver – and that, coupled with him now moving into a starting role, is going to make it necessary to find new backups.

Javon Baker seems to be the name that keeps coming up; he’s a true freshman who has seen only a handful of snaps so far, with no catches, but he was set to grab a key role this fall camp prior to suffering a minor injury. He is regarded as a physical receiver with good hands. Against Tennessee, the next two receivers to play were fellow true freshman Traeshon Holden and walk-on senior Joshua Lanier, a native and UNA transfer who has been playing on kickoff coverage. Others available include Xavier Williams and Thaiu Jones-Bell, but Williams seems to be slipping down the depth chart and Jones-Bell hasn’t played.

Since there are no Mississippi State tight ends to compare against, that part of the receiver category is all Alabama’s by default. Miller Forristall continues to become a major part of the Alabama offense, and certainly will see the potential for involvement go up now that Waddle is out and those catches must be redistributed. Kendall Randolph, Major Tennison and Cameron Latu provide depth primarily at the Y position, while Jahleel Billingsley, who functions as a hybrid H-back and wide receiver, could be the player whose role increases the most. Carl Tucker missed the Tennessee game with an unspecified injury and is still listed as questionable.

There’s no question the loss of Waddle means a lot, but MSU lacks explosiveness throughout its unit, something Alabama still has. And with the loss of Shavers, both teams are trying to replace key cogs. Give it to Alabama based off potential alone. Advantage: Alabama

OFFENSIVE LINE
This has been a point of struggle for Mississippi State. Despite not running the ball much, the Bulldogs rank 42nd in tackles for loss allowed. But it’s the sack totals – 92nd nationally, dead last in the SEC at 14th – that has caused the most problems, helping lead to a turnover margin ranking of 98th out of 101 teams. In addition, opponents have recorded 15 QB hurries. LSU transfer Cole Smith has a lot on his plate at center; he’s not a graduate transfer, but simply came to MSU because he wasn’t seeing playing time with the Tigers.

The two veterans of the unit, Greg Eiland and Dareuan Parker, start at the guard spots. Tackle has been problematic to say the least. Left tackle Charles Cross is a freshman, and Kwatrivous Johnson, a sophomore, had barely played in two seasons before beating out Alabama transfer Scott Lashley for the position in fall camp. Lashley has since been lost for the season due to injury, making Kameron Jones the only other tackle on the active roster. Eiland can play the position in a pinch. MSU has tried other combinations, including using James Jackson and LaQuinston Sharp, but hasn’t found a mix it likes. Freshman Brandon Cunningham is another option inside.

Alabama has no such problems right now. The group of center , guards Deonte Brown and Emil Ekiyor Jr., and tackles and Alex Leatherwood are playing as close to flawless as a unit can play. Even when Deonte Brown was lost for much of the second half of the Tennessee game with a right arm injury – he’s expected to play this week regardless – Alabama rotated in Chris Owens and Kendall Randolph and didn’t miss a beat. This one isn’t close. Advantage: Alabama

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