Dan Mullen often says players come to Mississippi State for the opportunity to compete against the best teams in the nation week in and week out. If that’s the case, his guys are about to receive the opportunity of a lifetime.
An angry Alabama Crimson Tide rolls into Starkville this weekend, fresh of a heartbreaking loss to top ranked LSU last Saturday in Tuscaloosa. In what was billed as “the game of the century”, Nick Saban’s team fell to the Tigers in overtime by a final score of 9-6.
For Alabama, though, all hope for a national title is not lost. With a strong finish to the season and a stumble by Oklahoma State and Stanford, Saban’s squad could set themselves up for a rematch with the Bayou Bengals in the BCS championship game.
The first obstacle on their road to redemption? Mullen’s Bulldogs. And that could spell bad news for the boys in maroon.
Offensively, Bama is lead by one of the top running backs in the country. Trent Richardson, who is sure to a Heisman finalist, is averaging 6.3 yards per carry and has picked up 1078 total yards so far this season. He’s also accounted for 17 touchdowns. Overall, the Tide ranks 22nd nationally in rushing offense, averaging 214 yards per game, and 23rd in scoring offense, at 35.7 points per game.
On the flip side, Bama brings to town one of the top defenses in all of college football, giving up an average of just 7 points per game. That ranks best in the country. The most points allowed by Kirby Smart’s defense all season, 14, came via Arkansas’ high flying offense in week four.
In other words, the Bulldogs will be in elite company if they can find the endzone more than once. Of course, LSU never found the endzone last week and still managed to pull off a victory.
So…Could there be a chance?
State’s defense is definitely not in the same category as John Chavis’, but this unit has improved tremendously throughout the course of the season. First year defensive coordinator Chris Wilson currently has his guys playing very solid football, allowing just 18.7 points per game. That’s good enough for 16th in the national rankings. The Dawgs also held LSU to 19 points back on September 15, when the Tigers visited Starkville. Until last weeks contest, that was the lowest output of the year for Les Miles and company.
For MSU to have a chance in this one, the defensive front must slow down Bama’s rushing attack and force first year quarterback A.J. McCarron to throw the ball. That’s much easier said than done, but it will be critical to the Bulldogs’s chances of pulling the upset. In order to accomplish this, powerhouses Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd must have a big night on the defensive line. Cox and Boyd, both juniors, have combined for 71 tackles and 7.5 sacks so far this season.
Once the ball is in the air, State’s secondary has the capability to make big plays. Junior defensive back Johnthan Banks, who has 5 interceptions on the year, has wreaked havoc on many SEC quarterbacks during his three seasons as a starter. Banks is joined by Corey Broomfield, Charles Mitchell and the hard hitting Nickoe Whitley as guys who’ll go toe-to-toe with a very talented Marquis Maze, Bama’s leading receiver.
If Wilson’s “bend but don’t break” defense can hold the Tide to field goal tries, MSU’s offense will carry the burden of manufacturing enough points to grab a win. While that task is daunting, to say the least, it isn’t impossible.
Since a bye week after the UAB game, Mullen’s two-quarterback system has worked pretty well. Starter Tyler Russell and former starter Chris Relf shared duties very effectively at Kentucky, completing a combined 15 of 21 passes for 264 yards. The pair also led their team to a 55-17 homecoming victory over Tennessee-Martin last weekend, with Relf looking especially sharp in the passing department. The performance of receiving duo Arceto Clark and Chad Bumphis will go a long way towards determining the offense’s success on Saturday, also.
Senior running back Vick Ballard, while no Richardson, is plenty capable of picking up some tough yards on the ground. The key to MSU’s rushing game will be the ability of a battered offensive line to stay healthy and compete at a new level of intensity. Though this unit has recovered nicely from an injury plagued start to the season, the Bama defense will present challenges not faced since that September matchup with LSU.
The kicking game can be crucial in a tight contest, as we all were reminded of last week in Tuscaloosa. If the Bulldog defense can limit Bama’s production in the red-zone, the hopes and dreams of the cowbell nation could very well ride on the shoulders of kicker Derek DePasquale. The senior from Texas has made 9 of 14 field goals this season, but has only knocked in 2 of 5 from beyond 40 yards. Every kicker envisions his moment in the spotlight, so DePasquale had better bring his “A” game if he hopes to be the hero on Saturday.
The Bottom Line: Regardless of how unlikely an MSU victory may seem, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities. The Tide will come into this game angry and determined to dominate their remaining opponents, but let’s not forget that these guys played a very physically and mentally demanding game last week. Don’t rule out an LSU induced hangover.
If the defense can continue to play well and the offense can avoid turnovers, the Bulldogs will have a chance to shock the world this weekend. Vegas has Bama as a 17 point favorite, but don’t look for a blowout in this one.
Will the home team pull it off? Well, in the end, that’s probably asking for too much.
Prediction: Alabama 24 – Mississippi State 13