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MSU preview: Bulldogs are reinventing themselves, but it won’t be a fast process

Mike Leach has already been eulogized by many, including us here at TideFans.com, yet it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with his absence. Not only was Leach among the most colorful of all coaches, he also happened to be an excellent Xs-and-Os coach and the perfect fit for a program like Mississippi State, which tends to need a little something extra from time to time as it goes up against the SEC’s bluebloods.

But Leach is gone, and with him, a lot of the pirate swagger and quite a bit of his philosophy regarding roster building and offensive design. New head coach Zach Arnett was thrust into the head coaching position in Starkville probably several years ahead of his career trajectory, and there was no way to expect him to continue Leach’s legacy without making at least a handful of small changes.

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Projected Depth Chart for Alabama vs. Mississippi State

Had Mississippi State prioritized sticking with Leach’s preferred Air Raid offense, it probably should have looked into hiring someone like MTSU’s Rick Stockstill to take over. The school decided to promote Arnett instead, probably hoping that the young former defensive coordinator was truly head coaching material.

It needs to be said that Alabama never really had a problem with Leach’s brand of football, and that dates back to even before Nick Saban’s time. Leach scored a win over Alabama as part of the Kentucky staff in 1997, but Joe Kines cooked up a masterful plan to shut down Leach’s Texas Tech team in the Cotton Bowl following the 2005 season. Leach came to Starkville in 2020, losing three times to Alabama by lopsided scores. In fact, Leach’s offenses put up only 15 total points in 3 years against Nick Saban-coached Alabama teams, to go along with the 10 points Kines’ defense held him to in the Cotton Bowl.

Maybe it was for that reason that Arnett decided the Air Raid needed more of a ground game. Mississippi State actually added tight ends back to the roster for the first time since 2019, and promised a greater focus on the running game. The Bulldogs opened with wins over Southeastern Louisiana and Arizona, but have since dropped two games to LSU and South Carolina. Alabama comes into this game off a nice win over Ole Miss, a team with a better offense but worse defense than the one the Crimson Tide will face in Starkville.


OFFENSE

Mississippi State will eventually end up with the same kind of multiple, pro-style spread passing attack that Alabama, and a lot of other college teams, prefer. Right now, the Bulldogs are sort of stuck in the middle. The Bulldogs’ best weapons are at quarterback and wide receiver, and they lack the prototypical running backs that make a balanced offense go. MSU ranks 58th in passing offense, but is coming off a game in which the Bulldogs threw for nearly 500 yards against South Carolina.

The running game ranks a paltry 82nd, for a total offense ranking of 73rd and a scoring offense rating of 56th. Still, those numbers look pretty good to some Alabama fans, because the Crimson Tide has had one good offensive performance and a couple that were just so-so. Alabama ranks 88th in total offense, 62nd in rushing and 101st in passing.


QUARTERBACKS
Will Rogers doesn’t have the raw arm strength most college starters have, but he is athletic, mobile and accurate. Rogers has thrown for 979 yards in 4 games, has 6 touchdowns against just 1 interception, and is completing more than 60 percent of his passes. Vanderbilt transfer Mike Wright gives the Bulldogs rare experience off the bench, so if Rogers has to leave the game for any reason, it’s unlikely the Bulldog offense would fall apart. There’s a mountain of experience on State’s side of the field, and the Alabama defense will have trouble getting Rogers to make poor decisions.

Jalen Milroe reestablished himself as the starting quarterback with a solid performance against Ole Miss, and although he’s still prone to throwing interceptions when he doesn’t read the play properly, he also played more confidently and more within himself against Ole Miss than he has in previous outings. Ty Simpson will back him up.

Milroe definitely gives Alabama an edge as a rusher, and even with Rogers able to scramble under pressure, there’s really no comparison between the two there. As a passer, though, Rogers is far Milroe’s superior at the moment.

The depth advantage further sends it State’s way. Advantage: Mississippi State


RUNNING BACKS
We won’t know the status of MSU RB Jo’Quavious Marks until gametime, likely. Marks injured himself against South Carolina, although he did return to the game. He was ineffective against the Gamecocks, however, and had been banged up once this season already before suffering the new injury. Marks has dealt with leg injuries in his past and is being asked to take a huge portion of the snaps this season, especially since backup Simeon Price is also listed as questionable for this game with a leg injury.

If those two can’t go, it leaves Mississippi State in a precarious position, with just true freshman Seth Davis – who is just 5’7” and 180 pounds – on the official depth chart. Jeffery Pittman and Penn State transfer Keyvone Lee, who have combined for 10 carries for 30 yards and no scores in 2023, would be next up.

Alabama got one of Jase McClellan’s best career performances last week against Ole Miss, and Roydell Williams adds important depth. Alabama will be without third-string RB Jamarion Miller for a half, thanks to a targeting call while Miller was serving on kickoff coverage. Justice Haynes will probably make an appearance, with Richard Young and Jonathan Bennett next up. If Marks were 100 percent, there might be something to talk about here, but McClellan and Williams have done a nice job of splitting the position and picking each other up when one is having an off-day.

The health issues for the Bulldogs make it a clear choice. Advantage: Alabama


WIDE RECEIVERS
If you ignore the tight end position, this is the strength of the MSU offense, perhaps even including Will Rogers. Lideatrick Griffin is making a strong case for being a high draft pick next April, as he has already amassed 20 catches for 388 yards (19.4 avg.) and 3 touchdowns. Georgia transfer Justin Robinson, Jaden Walley and Zavion Thomas round out the top group, along with Creed Whittemore.

The problem at tight end is that up until this spring, the Bulldogs didn’t have one – Leach didn’t believe in the position. Another Georgia transfer, Ryland Goede, will start, with undersized true freshman Antonio Harmon his backup. Harmon has 3 catches for 30 yards and a touchdown, but Goede has yet to catch a pass.

Alabama saw true freshman Jalen Hale emerge against Ole Miss, and he’ll join the top rotation that includes Isaiah Bond, Malik Benson, Jermaine Burton, Kendrick Law and Ja’Corey Brooks. The tight end position is a big edge to Bama, as Robbie Ouzts is starting to establish himself as a true contributor at H-back to go along with tight ends Amari Niblack, C.J. Dippre and Danny Lewis Jr.

This has probably been the position group that has been the most pleasant surprise for Alabama, and they’re catching up to the competition quickly, but Griffin and Robinson are more consistent. Advantage: Mississippi State


OFFENSIVE LINE
Neither team’s offensive line has been very good. Mississippi State ranks 91st in sacks allowed and 71st in tackles for loss allowed. Both numbers are better than Alabama’s dismal showing – 124th in sacks allowed and 115th in tackles for loss allowed. LSU transfer Cole Smith will start at center for Mississippi State, with MTSU transfer Steven Losoya and Nick Jones at the guards. Kwatrivous Johnson and Kameron Jones will start at the tackle spots.

The biggest issue for this group is that the guards and tackle are still built for the Air Raid attack, smaller and quicker, an artifact of the time when Leach’s staff prioritized wide OL splits and quickness over bulk.

Alabama may still be tinkering with its starting lineup, but will likely not have Terrence Ferguson available this week off the bench. J.C. Latham will start at right tackle and Tyler Booker at left guard, and Seth McLaughlin will probably start at center. The other two spots, left tackle and right guard, may be a three-man race now, with Kadyn Proctor, Elijah Pritchett and Darrian Dalcourt the names involved. Jaeden Roberts will likely be the reserve at the two guard spots with Ferguson out, and Miles McVay the other backup tackle.

We will see if Alabama can build on an impressive second-half performance from the Ole Miss game, but right now, the numbers are clearly against the Tide. Advantage: Mississippi State

CONTINUE TO DEFENSE PREVIEW

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