TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Prior to this season the biggest contribution that Blake Sims made to the University of Alabama football program was being the guy who would help the defense prepare for quarterbacks like the one the Crimson Tide will face Saturday.

Sims not only ran the scout team, but was told to be unpredictable and improvise as well.

“These are the most difficult guys to try and play against when you’re taking about quarterbacks who have this type of ability, to be a dual-threat runner, with quarterback-run plays, as well as scramble, as well as be a passer,” Coach Nick Saban said before adding about Sims’ practice replacement: “Cooper Bateman is very athletic, very fast, probably runs less than a 4.6 and does a really, really good job.”

But he’s not Dak Prescott, who will have the Southeastern Conference’s best shot of winning the Heisman Trophy if Mississippi State can find a way to beat Alabama (3:30 p.m., ET, CBS).

This is nothing new. When Johnny Manziel won at Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2012 he went on to win the award. Same goes for Cam Newton following Auburn’s dramatic comeback in 2010.

Perhaps the Heisman will again be decided here as two of this year’s top candidates, Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper being the other, will provide voters with some perspective. Mississippi State could also all but lock up the SEC West, and with the selection committee ranking the Bulldogs first and the Crimson Tide fifth the game will have huge playoff implications.

But there may be no bigger test in college football than facing a Saban defense, especially one that’s beginning to hit its stride and will have the advantage of playing at home.

Check out its last four games:

At Arkansas it took over in the third quarter. After Alabama took the lead, the Razorbacks went three-and-out, three-and-out, four-and-out with a stop on fourth-and-1, three-and-out and then junior safety Landon Collins essentially sealed the victory with an interception.

It completely shut out Texas A&M, which leads the league in total offensive yards and touchdowns, barely edging MSU in both categories.

Tennessee, which took the redshirt off a quarterback the Crimson Tide really wasn’t prepared to face, only moved the ball after being down 27-0.

Physical LSU ran the ball 56 times, but for an average of 3.27 per carry, with the longest gain 15 yards.

“That’s how we fight,” Collins said “We don’t give up. We don’t like any team scoring on us and if they do, they have to throw it in the air. We don’t let anyone run in the end zone. That’s what Coach Saban wants to be done.”

For a defense that essentially has seven new starters this season, things are coming together. Reggie Ragland has emerged at linebacker and the secondary has come a long way. Senior safety Nick Perry made a big play in overtime and it took a perfect throw and one-handed catch for LSU to score a touchdown past week.

“I just think we are progressing as the weeks get deeper into the season,” junior cornerback Cyrus Jones said.

Yet the key to Alabama’s national title hopes may lie with the defensive line, which is beginning to dominate like coaches hoped. Sophomore end Jonathan Allen has had a breakthrough season, A’Shawn Robinson has steadily looked better after sustaining a sprained knee during training camp and junior-college transfer Jarran Reed was in on 15 tackles last week.

There’s also Brandon Ivory, D.J. Pettway and Dalvin Tomlinson, and pass-rushers like Xzavier Dickson, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams.

No group is more important both this week and when Alabama hosts Nick Marshall and Auburn on 29.

“It’s kind of mixing it up, a little bit like pitching,” Saban said his defensive approach against dual-threat quarterbacks. “Hopefully you’ve got a fastball and you’ve got some kind of cutter or change-up or something that a quarterback’s not going to know exactly what to do, the front does a good job in pass rush lanes.

“This past week when the quarterback ran the ball, two of the times he ran we did not do what we were supposed to do up front. On the last play of the game, he could have ran again because we didn’t do what we were supposed to do up front. I think what’s really critical in games like this is guys want to get sacks so bad and that’s why sacks have nothing to do with being successful as a defense to me. It’s pushing the pocket and making the quarterback throw in the pocket when you press the pocket up against him so he can’t step up and attack the middle of the field or step up and run.”

Overall, Alabama leads the SEC in total defense and run defense, is second in scoring defense, and third in pass-efficiency defense. It’s yielded just two rushing touchdowns and since Saban arrived in 2007 has allowed an FBS-low nine players to rush for 100-plus yards.

None were quarterbacks. Not Tim Tebow – who Saban has been comparing Prescott to this week as both were coached by Dan Mullen – or Manziel, who both lost their second time against the Crimson Tide.

Prescott has only played briefly against Alabama, in 2012, but the Crimson Tide has faced dual-threat quarterbacks almost exclusively this season as its grown and matured.

“The focus. The mental toughness that we have. The determination that we want to be the defense that we want to become,” Collins said is the difference. “Just looking back on the past (Alabama) defenses that have played here and how they played and dominated offenses and made them quit. That’s the same defense we want to become.”

It’s just another thing that will be on the line Saturday.