Alabama should beware of potential trap game vs. Mississippi State
Looking at the 2016 Alabama schedule, no other game more perfectly fits the trap game definition than Saturday’s home contest against a resurgent Mississippi State team.
For one thing, Alabama’s last three games will be played in the comfort of home, Bryant-Denny Stadium. Alabama’s toughest games of the season, and consequently the strongest performances of the season, all came on the road (toughest: LSU, Ole Miss; strongest: Arkansas, Tennessee).
Home games have been neither great, nor terrible. The team picked up a tough win against A&M at home, but it wasn’t the team’s strongest outing of the season, and A&M just lost to this week’s opponent, Mississippi State.
Also worth considering: game time is set for 11 a.m. CT. This may not be a factor at all, but it is worth mentioning since Alabama has played mostly afternoon and evening games this season. The team did play at the exact same time and place earlier this season, but the opponent was Kent State, quite different in talent than Hail State.
“We are excited to be back home and playing this game here at Bryant-Denny Stadium,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said at his press conference on Monday. “I think it’s always a challenge for us to respond in the right way. It’s a different kind of team. They have played better and better each and every week, but they are probably playing their best football of the season right now. It’s pretty obvious with their win over Texas A&M how good they are playing right now.”
Mississippi State’s biggest win of the season came last week in Starkville in a 35-28 victory against Texas A&M. The team also defeated South Carolina earlier in the season. Four of the Bulldogs’ five losses this season were by a combined 13 points. This is a team that lost at Tiger Stadium by a field goal.
Following three highly publicized opponents in Tennessee, Texas A&M and LSU, it might be easy for Alabama to overlook Mississippi State, especially with a potentially enormous Iron Bowl looming on the horizon. However, the Crimson Tide would be foolish to overlook the Bulldogs, as the Aggies so perfectly illustrated last week.
MSU does sport a less-than-intimidating 4-5 overall record, but as Saban stated, the team has looked progressively better over the course of the season. First-year starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald continues to look more comfortable running the offense, especially in the last two games against Samford and Texas A&M.
In those two contests, Fitzgerald has racked up 927 yards of total offense and 11 touchdowns (7 passing, 4 rushing). The sophomore is averaging 93.2 rushing yards per game, which ranks fifth in the SEC.
Furthermore, Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen is acutely aware of the challenge Alabama poses, specifically the talent gap between Alabama and other teams. As he put it, Alabama has players redshirting and sitting on the bench, when they could easily be starting at other programs. Avoiding mistakes against a talented team will be paramount for the Bulldogs.
“You’ve got to come out, you’ve got to play a very, very clean game,” Mullen said at his press conference on Monday. “Obviously, they’re very well-coached with a lot of talented players that don’t make a lot of mistakes. They execute very well at a high level. If you make a mistake, it will end up being extremely costly.”
Alabama has reeled off eight straight wins against Mississippi State, the last home loss coming back in 2006. So Saban and his players have never lost to the Bulldogs at home while a part of the Crimson Tide program. In 2007, Saban’s first year at the program, the Crimson Tide did lose to the Bulldogs in Starkville, 17-12.
It’s difficult to see the Fitzgerald-led spread offense doing much against this Alabama defense, not after Alabama held Dak Prescott’s offense last season to just two field goals.
That said, part of what makes this season’s game intriguing is that it represents the perfect trap game for Alabama: on the heels of a tough, physical win against LSU in Baton Rouge, returning to the friendly confines at home and facing a team with a pedestrian 4-5 record that happens to be playing its best football of the season right now.