Mississippi State is a two-score dog (+14.5) to Alabama right now, but that’s actually not bad when you consider that no other SEC team has been projected to keep it that close this season.
Saturday’s game should be the Tide’s toughest so far, and here are five reasons backing that up:
1. State is playing at home
Forget about last week’s game against Massachusetts. It’s pretty clear that Mississippi State was looking ahead to Alabama, never thinking that game would be in jeopardy.
Granted, the Bulldogs were wrong — UMass was winning 20-13 at halftime — but no one blames them for devoting their attention to the No. 2 team in the country.
Other than that game last week, the Bulldogs have been dominant at home:
- Charleston Southern: W, 49-0
- LSU: W, 37-7
- BYU: W, 35-10
- Kentucky: W, 45-7
That’s an average victory of 41.5 to 6.
On the other hand, both of State’s losses were blowouts on the road — to Georgia (3-31) and Auburn (10-49).
Alabama has only played two games that weren’t at home or on a neutral field. The 4-5 Vanderbilt Commodores were handled with ease (59-0), but Texas A&M gave the Tide some trouble at Kyle Field (27-19).
2. Bama is coming off a physical game vs. LSU
It’s been awhile since Mississippi State kept it close against Alabama. The Bulldogs have been outscored 82-9 over the last two years, but this year could have a different feel to it.
The game against LSU last week — like it is most years — was a physically draining one for the Tide. It was the typical big-hits, grind-it-out, chippy sort of game that we have come to love in the rivalry.
It was fun to watch and all, but that could end up playing in State’s favor.
3. Nick Fitzgerald’s legs
Last year’s game against Alabama was Fitzgerald’s worst performance of his career — statistically speaking, at least.
He completed only 30.3 percent of his passes for 145 yards, with no touchdowns and an interception. He rushed 11 times for 15 yards — bringing his total yardage to 160.
Against State’s other 12 opponents in 2016, he averaged 303.1 total yards and 3.24 total touchdowns.
Alabama can’t ignore his legs just because of past success, however.
Fitzgerald was second in the SEC in rushing yards last season (1,375) and first in rushing touchdowns (16). This season, he’s fourth in rushing yards so far (801) and tied for second in rushing touchdowns (12).
4. Alabama’s injuries on defense
Following the opening game of the season, the Tide lost their projected two best pass-rushers in Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis.
That hasn’t stopped Alabama’s defense from dominating, but the losses from last Saturday’s game against LSU could make an impact in this week’s matchup.
Alabama lost its top two players at the Mike linebacker position when Shaun Dion Hamilton (knee) and Mack Wilson (foot) went down.
Hamilton is the main concern, however.
Why? Well, the senior is the field general who makes sure everyone is lined up correctly and doing his job.
it’ll be interesting to see how the loss of Hamilton affects Alabama’s defense, especially against a player such as Fitzgerald who can capitalize on defensive mistakes in a variety of ways.
5. State isn’t a slouch in the trenches
State’s sustainable success under Dan Mullen is built from the trenches outward.
The Bulldogs’ offensive line — led by projected first-round talent Martinas Rankin — has been exceptional in pass protection this season. It has only given up five sacks, best in the SEC and third in the nation.
On the other side of the ball, the guys up front also lead the way.
Sophomore defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons is an absolute monster inside. At 6-3 and 301 pounds, he has the power and quickness needed to cause the interior of Alabama’s offensive line trouble.
On the edge, Montez Sweat could be problematic as well. He’s 6-6 and 241 pounds, and his long, athletic frame gives him an advantage getting after the quarterback — he has 6.5 sacks this season.
Alabama’s offensive line hasn’t been playing its best football lately. Will that continue against Mississippi State on the road?