It doesn’t happen too often, but Alabama enters this week’s game in search of a way to atone for a regular-season loss.
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One hundred consecutive wins against unranked opponents: That’s what Alabama saw come to an end last week against a Texas A&M team that finally found its passing game after sputtering along all year as a one-dimensional running team. This week, Alabama wants to start a new winning streak, and it hopes to do so against a one-dimensional passing team. Whether a passing offense proves easier to defend than a rushing offense, that’s yet to be seen.
Mississippi State enters this game with a 3-2 record. Its last win? Texas A&M, two weeks ago, by a 26-22 score. That immediately becomes the Bulldogs’ best win of the year, to go along with victories over Louisiana Tech and North Carolina State in the first two weeks of the season. In between, MSU lost consecutive games to Memphis and LSU.
MSU head coach Mike Leach is one of the most colorful head coaches in the business today, and he doesn’t even pretend to try to run the football. Mississippi State has no tight end on its roster; why have one when you don’t need a blocker that can sometimes slip out into the pass patterns? But make no mistake, Leach is innovative, and to underestimate him is to invite yet another upset.
Alabama can’t afford such if it intends to rebound and eventually play for a national championship. This game might come down to Alabama’s mindset, and whether Nick Saban can refocus his team rather than watching it poor-mouth itself into a second loss.
Mississippi State is full-on Air Raid offense. Four wide receivers on every play, sometimes five. Running backs that are little more than window dressing, and a quarterback whose job it is to get the ball out as quickly as possible. The Bulldogs rank 5th in the nation in passing offense, but just 50th in total offense, because they also rank 130th in rushing offense – dead last. Alabama will use a far more traditional pro-style, multiple attack that is starting to rely more and more on the running game.
MSU’s Will Rogers looked like a liability for much of 2020; this season, whatever Leach is teaching him has finally taken hold. Rogers is 215-of-284 (75.7%) for 1,862 yards, 14 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions, and that last stat is nothing short of incredible given how often the Bulldogs throw the ball. Rogers is better-than-average athlete at the quarterback position, but the biggest improvement year-over-year for him has been in the mental game. He has proven to be able to make quicker decisions and fewer mistakes. Rogers has good running ability, but hasn’t shown it, carrying only 19 times for minus-6 yards on the year, which includes yardage lost to sacks.
No backup quarterback has yet played for Mississippi State; South Alabama graduate transfer Chance Lovertich pushed Rogers for the job in fall camp before settling in as the backup. He’s short and small and seen as an overachiever at the spot, not nearly the physical specimen that the sophomore Rogers is.
Alabama will start Bryce Young, whose stat line (136 of 196, 69.4%, 1,734 yards, 20 TD, 3 INT) isn’t that far off Rogers’. Young is a good scrambler when he wants to be one, which isn’t often.
Alabama’s backups, Paul Tyson and Jalen Milroe, don’t have the game experience Lovertich brought with him from USA, but they’re better prospects. Because of the massive difference in offensive systems, comparing Young to Rogers straight up is difficult; if they were on the same team, Young would almost certainly be the starter no matter the system. That, and Bama’s advantage in depth, give the Tide the modest edge here. Advantage: Alabama
MSU will use two, Jo’quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson, almost in a straight split of the position. Both players have 201 yards receiving each; Johnson leads Marks in rushing offense 149 to 145. Marks has more playing time, but Johnson is the bigger physical specimen. Both players are actually a bit larger than most of Leach’s Texas Tech and Washington State running backs were. While neither player is a frontline talent at running back, they both do their jobs well and are well-suited for this offense.
Alabama by far has the more impressive starter in Brian Robinson Jr., who has had two consecutive weeks where he was clearly the best back on the field and possibly in the entire conference. The problem is a lack of depth. With Jase McClellan out, Roydell Williams couldn’t step into the third-down back role effectively against Texas A&M due to the difference in blitz pickup abilities. Williams has talent as a runner and receiver, but he needs polish on plays in which he doesn’t carry the ball in some way. Trey Sanders didn’t see time against Texas A&M but may get more opportunities this week.
If Alabama goes any further down the depth chart line, it will likely be to converted wide receiver Christian Leary, converted linebacker Demouy Kennedy, or potentially walk-on Jonathan Bennett. Because of Alabama’s injury issues, this one actually gets decently close. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama’s wideouts bore a large part of the on-field blame for the loss to Texas A&M thanks to untimely drops. It’s unclear if the playing rotation will be adjusted in some way, but if Alabama continues to move more toward a ground-based game, Kendall Randolph may wind up being the starting in-line tight end. It would be inaccurate to say starting H-back Jahleel Billingsley completely disappeared against the Aggies, because he was very visible on an interception in the end zone that may have come as the result of a mis-run route, and then dropped a catch near the end of the game that would have extended a drive. Cameron Latu also dropped a sure touchdown pass that hit him in the gut.
Alabama has been better with Randolph up front lately anyway because of what he brings to the running game as a blocker, so this position bears watching. Robbie Ouzts might also get more time. As for wide receiver, the emergence of Jameson Williams as Alabama’s chief downfield threat has been offset by the failure of John Metchie III to take the next step forward in his development and be the unit’s alpha. The slot receiver combination of Slade Bolden and JoJo Earle has been solid, however, and Earle also has some value as an outside receiver, so it will be interesting to see whether Metchie’s snap counts stay the same. Traeshon Holden has emerged as the fifth receiver in the group, with a big gap back to whoever is in the sixth position this week.
For Mississippi State, again the offensive style plays a part in this evaluation, as there are no tight ends in Starkville – anywhere. Across the board, Mississippi State doesn’t average a lot of yards per carry – all four starters have per-catch averages below the lowest of Alabama’s starters, Metchie – but the Bulldogs have been able to put together consistent results across the four positions. Malik Heath, Cal transfer Makai Polk and Austin Williams give Mississippi State three receivers at 6’3”, while Washington State transfer Jamire Calvin gives the Bulldogs a smaller, shiftier option. Lideatrick Griffin and Jaden Walley are solid options off the bench.
The best receiver on either team is Alabama’s Williams, and if Billingsley comes ready to play, he’s a weapon Mississippi State lacks. But the Bulldogs have shown more consistency across the board and have better depth. Advantage: Mississippi State
Alabama’s line had a tough evening against Texas A&M, especially in pass protection. Alabama finds itself ranked 78th in the nation in sacks allowed, and is also 73rd in tackles for loss allowed. That’s subpar across the board. Alabama was able to make good use of LT Evan Neal and LG Javion Cohen against Texas A&M, and those two have been consistent for most of the season.
Alabama needs better play out of RG Emil Ekiyor Jr. and RT Chris Owens. Darrian Dalcourt probably had his best game of the year against the Aggies and needs to build off it. There has been some speculation that either Damien George Jr. or J.C. Latham might start getting work at right tackle, but Saban has been tight-lipped about any personnel changes. Kendall Randolph was also in the mix there before a fall camp injury held him back and he resettled into his old role as a blocking specialist at tight end.
Mississippi State isn’t doing much better in regards to sack prevention – the Bulldogs rank 62nd there – but the Bulldogs rank 6th in tackles for loss allowed. Again, offensive style must be accounted for, because the Bulldogs don’t run the ball that much. Alabama transfer Scott Lashley starts at right tackle, with Charles Cross at left tackle. Kameron Jones and Kwatrivous Johnson are the guards, and LaQuinston Sharp will start at center.
There’s little doubt Alabama has more potential – the reason Lashley is at Mississippi State is he couldn’t crack the lineup at Alabama – but Mississippi State has also been more consistent. This is a tough call. Advantage: Mississippi State
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