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MSU Preview: Bama’s biggest challenge is to bounce back and find its identity again

No king rules forever. It was inevitable that at some point, Alabama's win streak over Tennessee would end, and the fact it stretched out to 15 games was quite the accomplishment.

Now comes the hard part: Moving on from it.

Alabama can choose one of two paths here. It can choose to either stick a foot in the dirt, say “no more” to the kind of undisciplined play that reached epidemic levels last Saturday in . Or, it can allow its confidence to erode to the point that a solid, yet unspectacular State could find itself in a position to upset Alabama in Stadium.

A lot is going on this week in the lead-up to this game, and unfortunately, some of it is more serious than any team should have to endure. Mississippi State OL Sam Westmoreland was found dead earlier this week. No cause of death has been released as of this writing. It would be impossible, not to mention insensitive, to analyze any part of that event or the effect on the Bulldog team heading into the game; a tragedy needs no framing in such terms.

Getting back to things we can talk about and analyze, there is a lingering worry among some close to the Alabama program that this team lacks the ability to bounce back from an emotional loss as quickly as would like to see it done. Mississippi State is good enough to beat Alabama, although Alabama seems to be one of the few programs that have consistently throttled Mike Leach's high-powered passing offenses.

If Alabama wants to make a run at the SEC West title – which will likely mean winning all three of its toughest games down the stretch: this game, at LSU and at Ole Miss – then it needs to get up off the canvas early in this game, and stay off it.


Mike Leach was once considered among the premier offensive innovators in football. Now, critics wonder if he's grown stale. Mississippi State is an Air Raid team – no tight ends on the roster, no fullbacks, at least four wideouts on every snap. The Bulldogs run only when they have to. They rank just 54th in total offense, and while the passing offense comes in 8th, the rushing offense (123rd) is so poor that it drags down the overall metrics. Alabama put up plenty of points and yards against Tennessee out of its pro-style spread attack; the issue is not output for Alabama, but rather flow, and coming up with big plays in big moments.


When Leach took over in Starkville, he inherited as a quarterback. At the time, few thought Rogers would develop into the passer he's become, but Leach has made a habit out of turning limited-ability throwers into effective quarterbacks now for decades. Rogers is even now a fringe Heisman candidate, although probably not to the extent he was prior to the loss to Kentucky last week. Rogers has completed 228 of 320 passes (71.3%) for 2,324 yards and 23 touchdowns, with 4 interceptions. Rogers has good footwork in the pocket but isn't a scrambler. He is strong and can be tough to knock down with a glancing blow, so Alabama will have to be on-point with its pressures.

The backup is redshirt freshman Sawyer Robinson, but he has thrown for only 18 yards on the year. Alabama's Bryce Young proved against Tennessee that if he isn't 100 percent healthy again, it probably doesn't matter much. Young stood up well to punishment in the pocket and has a higher yards-per-attempt average than does Rogers as well as a higher QB rating. Young's scrambling ability is eons better than that of Rogers. Alabama holds a nice edge there; it expands greatly when backups are discussed. Jalen Milroe and Ty Simpson both bring something to the table MSU doesn't have. Advantage: Alabama


Mississippi State will use two backs, Dillon Johnson and Jo'quavious Marks. Johnson has surpassed Marks in production this year, but Marks will likely still be the starter this game. Johnson leads Marks in all stats other than touchdowns. They're built similarly, although neither seems to be the kind of power back one tends to find at SEC schools. Johnson has a bit more beef than does Marks. They'll be used as changeups rather than as featured performers, but Johnson is averaging more than 6 yards per carry, so Alabama can't just ignore them.

Alabama's has established himself as a two-way terror from the running back position, but a costly drop against Tennessee was one of the many mistakes that directly led to Bama's loss in that game. Jase McClellan, Roydell Williams and Trey Sanders provide superior depth. Gibbs has almost as many yards rushing as Johnson and Marks have combined, and then Alabama throws in the rest of its backfield. Not really a close one here. Advantage: Alabama


Eufaula's Rara Thomas has developed into a consistent downfield threat for Mississippi State, which is something the Bulldogs were previously lacking under Leach. The rest of the wide receiver unit looks like a familiar Leach group, averaging just at 10 yards per catch or less. This is a function of the Leach route tree, which uses passes as extended handoffs, and the Bulldogs' plan is to march downfield six and seven yards at a time on quick throws. Thomas gives them a homerun hitter when they need it; he has caught 22 passes for 383 yards on the season, a 17.4-yard average. He only has 3 touchdowns, however, as the Bulldogs tend to use other players around the goal line. Caleb Ducking leads the team with 7 TD receptions, and at 6'5” can be a matchup problem in the red zone. Rufus Harvey, Austin Williams and Lideatrick Griffin are the other main receivers for this team, but only Griffin has shown any kind of consistency in getting separation.

The main problem for MSU's wideouts is that they lack the burst quickness, as well as the fast-twitch ability to create space in compressed windows, which is what this offense requires to be its most successful. Jaden Walley, Justin Robinson and Jamire Calvin fill out the depth chart.

Alabama may finally break in Tyler Harrell this week, and with dropped passes continuing to be an issue against Tennessee, it's not clear what Harrell's arrival will do to the depth chart. There's also the issue of a postgame physical altercation that Jermaine Burton allegedly got into with a Tennessee fan, and there may be some kind of punishment that stems from that event. Ordinarily, we'd expect Burton, Traeshon Holden and Kobe Prentice to be the starters, with JoJo Earle, Ja'Corey Brooks and Isaiah Bond to be the primary backups. Harrell's arrival would seem to hurt Holden the most, as he's been the receiver most prone to drops.

At tight end, Cameron Latu will start, and Alabama will primarily use Kendall Randolph as an extra blocker and Amari Niblack as an extra receiver when the play calls for it. If everyone was available for both teams, we'd probably take Alabama due to the edge in athleticism, but Harrell won't be 100 percent even if he plays and the Burton situation is still playing out. Rara Thomas' emergence gives us the excuse to choose State and not feel bad about it. Advantage: Mississippi State


The loss of Westmoreland will certainly be felt throughout the Mississippi State team, but to answer the question a lot of Alabama , unfamiliar with the MSU depth chart, will have: No, he was not part of the playing rotation. MSU has a team that, by class year, is a veteran unit, but that's a bit misleading given the Bulldogs are breaking in two new tackles this year. Also misleading are the OL statistical metrics.

The Bulldogs rank 38th in sacks allowed, but a lot of that is due to the quick-hitting nature of the passing routes. They rank 14th in tackles for loss allowed, but they also don't run the ball much between the tackles, and almost never on downhill run calls; it's mostly all draw plays and delayed handoffs. Four positions are locked in: guards Nick Jones and Cole Smith, right tackle Kameron Jones, and center LaQuinston Sharp. The fifth spot is unsettled; Kwatrivous Johnson is listed as the starter there, but reserve center Steven Losoya has 3 starts on the year and Johnson missed three games in the middle of the schedule.

Alabama is also probably down a lineman this week; center Seth McLaughlin suffered a leg injury against Tennessee and his status remains unclear. If he can't go, Darrian Dalcourt will return to the starting center job after he, too, lost it once this year due to injury. The backup center would either be James Brockermeyer, or Ekiyor, Tyler Booker and Javion Cohen will rotate at the guard slots, while and Tyler Steen will start at the tackles. It's hard to accurately compare these two units given the limited scope of work Leach-coached offensive linemen are typically asked to perform. We'll take Alabama simply due to raw talent level, as well as the improvement of Bama's group from Week 1 until now. Advantage: Alabama

Mississippi State uses a 3-1-3 Jack-split front that leads into a 3-3-5 base, not an uncommon alignment in modern football. Statistically, this hasn't been the best of years for the Bulldogs, especially up front. They rank 65th in total defense, largely due to a ranking of 79th against the run. MSU ranks 56th against the pass, but has very good pass efficiency defense numbers (24th), which leads to a scoring defense that ranks 35th, not bad at all. Alabama was in the top ten in most categories until the Tennessee debacle, but is still ahead of the Bulldogs in all categories.


Alabama's line played one of its worst games in years last week, and needs to bounce back here more than anywhere else. The loss of Justin Eboigbe is beginning to be felt from a depth standpoint. Byron Young has stepped forward to become clearly Alabama's best lineman; he'll start next to Jaheim Oatis. It wouldn't be surprising to see Alabama in a 2-4-5 or 2-3-6 sub front for most of this game due to Mississippi State being in four-wide at all times.

If or when Alabama uses another lineman, look for D.J. Dale and to get almost all of those snaps. It's doubtful Alabama gets down to Jamil Burroughs or Jah-Marien Latham this week. For the Bulldogs, Cameron Young, Randy Charlton and Nathan Pickering will rotate at the tackles; one report this week had Jaden Crumedy set to return to the team for his first action of the year, but it was an isolated report. There's nothing particularly special about the main trio, nor is there anything to write home about concerning DE Jordan Davis, although Pickering and Charlton can both get into the backfield if Bama's OL isn't focused.

The best player up front is the hybrid LB/DE , who can be disruptive. Presuming we categorize him as a linebacker, which is the position at which he is listed, it's hard to pick a winner here – because neither team is currently playing well. We're sort of forced to take Alabama by default due to Young. Advantage: Alabama

Tyrus Wheat is MSU's Will Anderson, although it is a very poor man's version of Will Anderson. Jett Johnson and Nathaniel Watson are the inside linebackers. Johnson leads the team in tackles, but there's a lot of tackle-collecting there and not a lot of game-turning stats. Watson has been by far the more dynamic of the two. None of the backups – Sherman Timbs outside, J.P. Purvis and DeShawn Page inside – have made an impact.

Alabama brings Anderson off the edge along with and Chris Braswell, while inside, Henry To'o To'o, Deontae Lawson and Jaylen Moody will handle things. This unit got a lot of criticism – deserved, in our opinion – coming out of the Tennessee game for lack of production and sloppy play, so this week is critical. Again, the stats and the reputation say Alabama here, but the Tide needs to re-prove it. Advantage: Alabama


Emmanuel Forbes leads the SEC in interceptions with a whopping 5 of them, and his counterpart at cornerback, Decamerion Richardson, has also played solidly. Alabama transfer Marcus Banks is the third corner. The safety trio of Collin Duncan, Jalen Green and Jackie Matthews has put up decent numbers, but like Alabama, the strength is on the edges.

Alabama will start Ga'Quincy McKinstry at corner, and beyond that, Alabama may have a new look. leads Eli Ricks and Khyree Jackson at the other corner spot, but Arnold could wind up getting a look inside, where Alabama was exposed against Tennessee. and Brian Branch were the box safeties last week and Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams the high safeties, but Hellams simply couldn't match up in coverage and Alabama can't repeat that this week.

Alabama might end up with Moore moving to Hellams' high safety position and Ricks getting onto the field in some capacity. Jahquez Robinson is the third box safety, but he's a corner by trade and could also see some time. Again, this is such a close call, because the production has been there for Alabama despite last week's struggles. McKinstry is the SEC's best corner even over Forbes, but Forbes has the gaudy stats. We'll take MSU here simply due to the superior continuity in Starkville right now. Advantage: Mississippi State


's miss inside a minute to go is the second consecutive critical miss when the game was on the line. Alabama's special teams played terribly all around against Tennessee. There's no evidence that Alabama is close to making a change at kicker, and despite the communication error that cost Alabama a muffed punt, we still expect Ga'Quincy McKinstry to be the punt returner. Punter James Burnip has put together a consistent year for the most part.

Again, we have a conundrum, because Mississippi State has problems here, too. The Bulldogs have used two kickers (Ben Raybon, Massimo Biscardi) but neither has looked great. The Bulldogs are mediocre in net punting and in punt returns, but are tied for 2nd nationally in kickoff returns. Alabama's ranking of 4th in punt returns cancels that out. Alabama is a little better on return coverage, and is also better on kicking the ball off. Flip the coin already. Advantage: Alabama


Alabama leads in six categories, Mississippi State in two. But so many categories are close calls right now that we can't even single out one or two as possible flips. Almost all of them are flips.

In the OL-DL cross-, it's a push when Mississippi State has the ball. When Alabama has the ball, however, we expect a sizable edge for the 's OL working against the Bulldog DL. That's where we expect this game will turn.

The question for Alabama is, is the Crimson Tide really as close to Mississippi State as a team as this analysis would suggest? We don't think so; a lot of the closeness of the DL, DB and ST categories may be due to bias of the recent. This much is sure, though: If Alabama comes out playing like it did against Tennessee, this is going to be another uncomfortable game.

There has been much talk about Alabama having “anxiety” about playing Tennessee last week. That is an uncommon trait for a Nick Saban team, and is also something hardly ever present on any championship teams. If Alabama has any hope of getting up off the canvas, starting this week, it can't play anxious. It has to play with the same swagger it has displayed every year since approximately mid-2008.

The better question here may be what path do the Bulldogs have to take to win? It's unlikely the Bulldogs can leverage mismatches against Alabama's secondary, even one that was left in tatters by Hendon Hooker. More importantly, we don't feel the Bulldogs can get Alabama's offense off the field if Alabama decides to push the ground game. This actually makes it less imperative that Bryce Young stay in for the whole game.

The off-week follows this game for Alabama, and it can't be coming at a better time. This is a game Alabama first needs to get through, then look for emotional redemption over a week of film study.

Alabama 38
Mississippi St. 21

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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