The shocker of the year in the SEC is that Mississippi State leads the conference in total defense and ranks 15th nationally. The Bulldogs base from a 3-3-5 set and have put up good numbers against both the run (15th) and pass (27th). It has managed to do this despite middling numbers in red zone defense (57th) but good numbers on both third down (18th) and fourth down (15th) have mitigated the problem. Now the question is whether the Bulldogs can do it against an offense playing as well as Alabama’s is.
Alabama put up a much better effort against Tennessee last week, showing improvement at linebacker and taking a look at some new personnel on the defensive line that seemed to make a difference. Total defense is still 64th, however, and it’s clear this is going to be a long, steady road to improvement if it comes. MSU is probably salivating over Alabama’s rankings of 80th in raw pass defense and 55th in pass efficiency defense. The real question is what the Crimson Tide’s 3-4 over/under will look like in the back end this week, with all the extra receivers to cover.
The starting line of nosetackle Jaden Crumedy and ends Marquiss Spencer and Kobe Jones have average size, nothing overwhelming, but they get penetration – especially Spencer, for whom 5.5 of his 16 tackles have come for loss. The Bulldogs rank 18th nationally in sacks, but are low in tackles for loss, coming in at 75th despite doing a good job initally disrupting plays at or behind the line.
Nathan Pickering, who Alabama recruited heavily, has been a quality interior reserve, but the backup ends – Jack Harris and Aaron Odom – haven’t made a mark yet. Alabama comes into this game with superior depth even though it appears LaBryan Ray will continue to be sidelined with an elbow injury.
Alabama started D.J. Dale, Phidarian Mathis and Justin Eboigbe last week, but the real improvement came when true freshman Tim Smith started getting more reps in relief of Dale. It will be interesting to see whether Smith continues to get more of Dale’s snaps this week. Byron Young has developed into a fine reserve end, although his slimmer build this year does have an effect on the total number of snaps he can log. Christian Barmore continues to be a mismatch problem for a lot of offensive linemen. With Ray out, Jamil Burroughs and Stephon Wynn Jr. also got action against Tennessee.
Basically, Alabama needs to be mindful of Spencer, and the presence of Pickering off the bench means MSU ought to be a legit test in the A-gaps for the entire game, no matter who is manning them. But overall, Alabama is starting to reach its potential along the line, and is deeper. Advantage: Alabama
This has probably been the secret of Mississippi State’s success. It’s a veteran group led by MLB Erroll Thompson, one of those guys who played high school football in Alabama (Florence) that Alabama probably shouldn’t have let get out of state. Outside backers Aaron Brule and, to a lesser extent, Tyrus Wheat and Jordan Davis have been solid contributors. Thompson is averaging about 10 tackles a game and knows how to fill a hole. Nathaniel Watson is a capable backup at MLB.
Alabama got its best game of the year at inside linebacker last week, as both Christian Harris and Dylan Moses set high-water marks for 2020. What Alabama needs is more consistency, especially in the pass rush. Neither Will Anderson Jr. nor Christopher Allen did much in that regard against Tennessee, and frequently lost containment when the quarterback moved from the pocket.
If Alabama brings its Tennessee effort to this game, the Crimson Tide could certainly make a case for taking this category, but we’re taking the Bulldogs until Alabama can prove able to bring the same effort for a second week in a row. Advantage: Mississippi State
Mississippi State took a huge hit when safety Fred Peters, perhaps the best defensive back the Bulldogs had, was lost for the year with injury. One of his primary backups, Dylan Lawrence, appears to also have been lost, but Leach is secretive with injury information and getting confirmation on Lawrence’s absence has been tough. As of now, it appears Collin Duncan or Shawn Preston will have to take Peters’ place, with the other serving as the dime safety.
Londyn Craft and Marcus Murphy hold the other two starting safety spots in Mississippi State’s 3-3-5, while Martin Emerson and Esaias Furdge will start at the corners. Emerson and Furdge are bigger corners, especially Emerson, and have shown potential despite coming into the year without long track records. Not having to face Jaylen Waddle surely will help, but the only truly dynamic offense Mississippi State has seen – LSU – gave the Bulldogs problems, and that was before the personnel losses.
Alabama has an interesting assignment ahead of it: play zone and pick off passes. That’s where MSU is weak, and how Alabama is able to exploit that vulnerability may make the difference between a blowout and an uncomfortably close game for the Tide. As it stands, we expect Alabama to have six DBs on the field for practically every down. Right now that would be Josh Jobe and Patrick Surtain II on the edges, with the safety group of Malachi Moore, Jordan Battle, Daniel Wright and probably Brian Branch. While DeMarcco Hellams has played a good bit this year, his lack of top-end coverage speed isn’t a good fit here.
Alabama also gets back Ronald Williams Jr. this week; he’s a JUCO corner/safety combo player who was in the running to start at Star over Malachi Moore at one point in fall camp. He’s returning from a broken arm. Given the makeup of MSU’s wide receiver group, Alabama might choose to insert another pure cornerback into the mix, most likely Jalyn Armour-Davis.
Even though Alabama has given up more passing yards, the two teams are fairly even in efficiency defense, and with MSU losing personnel and Alabama getting players back, we’ll err on the side of athletic ability. Advantage: Alabama
Charlie Scott was promoted late last week to the starting punter, but two kicks against Tennessee neither impressed nor provided enough material on which to judge him going forward. Will Reichard continues to be a reliable placekicker, and appears to have taken over kickoff duties from Chase Allen. The real question now is how to replace Jaylen Waddle at punt returner. Slade Bolden appears to have that assignment for now, but there has been no word on the new backup.
Alabama may also have to replace Brian Robinson Jr. on kickoffs due to the injury he sustained against Tennessee. Trey Sanders and DeVonta Smith appear to be the choices there. Mississippi State has gotten good gross punting numbers from Tucker Day and Reed Bowman (44.4 yards per punt), but rank 58th in net punting, thanks largely to poor punt return defense. Brandon Ruiz is 3-of-4 on field goal attempts, including 1-of-2 from beyond 40. MSU has good depth at that position if needed.
The Bulldogs are almost in the dead middle of the pack in both punt returns and kickoff returns, and while they don’t defend punts well, they are ranked fairly high (17th) in kickoff return defense. If Alabama still had Waddle, we’d probably give the Crimson Tide the edge due to the matchup of Waddle versus MSU’s punt return defense, but we haven’t seen enough of Bolden yet to know what to expect, plus punting is still an issue. Advantage: Mississippi State
Alabama leads in six categories and Mississippi State in two, although linebacker, defensive line and the secondary could all flip between the two teams depending on your personal take. As for the OL-DL cross-matchups, though, Alabama gets a strong edge in both.
Normally, that would be where the difference lies, but Mississippi State’s offense is so oddball that it does create certain problems relating to scheme. Alabama knows going in that it basically has to stop three pass plays in a row, every drive, to hold the Bulldogs. The Alabama secondary hasn’t been fantastic in its stops, either – and while we gave the defensive back category to Bama by a slim margin, it’s not hard to conjure thoughts of how that could all go sideways.
Alabama needs to get to Costello, needs to continue to do a good job breaking up passes at the line of scrimmage, and must play disciplined football in the secondary. If it does so, the Bulldogs simply won’t have the weapons to keep pace.
Mississippi St. 21
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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