Mississippi State football: Matchups and a prediction for game vs. Alabama
Mississippi State is about a 17-point underdog to No. 5 Alabama on Saturday. Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m. ET at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, with the game broadcast on ESPN.
Why the formality? So I can reasonably set up the following statement: For the first time (in my opinion) since 2014, the Bulldogs could beat the Tide. Without dramatically stringing anyone along, I will convey right now that I do not think the upset will happen. But, it could.
When looking through the matchup, I noticed one common theme from both squads. They can both apply pressure in all 3 phases of the game. That’s not to say that MSU and Alabama have matchup advantages on offense, defense and special teams. That is to say that if you take a play off against them, both teams can make you pay dearly.
On paper, Alabama has better players almost everywhere. However, for the 2nd time in as many weeks and for the 3rd time this year, the Tide’s opponent can match up with them.
Bulldogs on offense
Mississippi State’s air raid offense has yet to score more than 3 touchdowns in SEC matchups against Texas A&M and LSU. However, by design, the air raid can string together time-consuming drives the same way that between-the-tackles, smashmouth football can.
This flies in the face of some of the narratives around the air raid. Just because running isn’t a priority doesn’t mean that some of the benefits of running the ball aren’t present.
Both LSU and TAMU had relative success keeping the Bulldogs in front of them and limiting big plays.
Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers has not completed a pass of 30 yards or longer in SEC play this year. That’s a testament to both how defenses are choosing to play Rogers and to his erring on the side of caution. He has, of course, attempted a few passes that appeared to go for longer than 30 yards, but he has yet to complete one.
In this offense, while it’s always better to complete those throws, it’s still effective to throw incompletions just to show the defense that it still needs to prioritize the deep ball.
Against the Tide, he will need to do that, but be as careful and wise as he has been in some games this year.
From a personnel standpoint, the Bulldogs appear to match up with the Tide at some level nearly everywhere. MSU has elite talent on the offensive line and some shifty ball carriers after the catch. As they have been all year, trust and patience will be the most important aspects for the Bulldogs. They have to make linebackers and defensive backs tired through repetition.
The important matchup in this game for Rogers will be his legs vs. the Alabama pass rush. Should Rogers be able to find a few 4- to 7-yard gains with his legs, the Bulldogs might find themselves able to continue a few more drives and thus apply more pressure to the Tide.
Bulldogs on defense
It’s still a bit unclear to me what Alabama is trying to do under new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien.
Just last year, the Tide used QB Mac Jones to distribute the ball to his 2 big playmaking wide receivers, 1 of whom (DeVonta Smith) won the Heisman. Prior to that, Steve Sarkisian, now at Texas, and Lane Kiffin, now at Ole Miss, instituted offenses that sprinkled in elements of QB runs and scrambles to go with an intense between-the-tackles rushing game.
So far, it appears that freshman quarterback Bryce Young plays a bit more like Jones, but with added arm talent and mobility. Young is, well, young. He is prone to making youthful mistakes and not always trusting what he sees.
Despite Young’s immense talent, the Tide are still capable of mowing down their opponents in the run game. Unlike Florida and Texas A&M, Ole Miss was not capable of stopping the run with its 4 linemen and 2 linebackers, so Alabama was happy to pound the rock over and over again en route to a huge victory.
Mississippi State’s front 7/6 is considerably more talented than that of Ole Miss. The Bulldogs’ front, led by junior Mount Olive native Nathan Pickering, completely stymied the N.C. State rushing attack, which had NFL-caliber talent on the offensive line and in the backfield.
Indeed, the Bulldogs are conceding only 3 yards per carry on the ground and only 56 yards per game. Against Texas A&M, the most recent opponent for both teams, MSU yielded 162 yards rushing, while the Tide allowed just under 100 yards. However, more than half of the Aggies’ rushing total against the Bulldogs came from just 2 carries of 41 and 44 yards.
The Bulldogs can also rush the passer without sending more than 4 or 5 rushers. Through 5 games, 8 Bulldogs have registered a sack, only 1 of whom was a defensive back, Emmanuel Forbes.
Forbes, an elite NFL prospect, can cover any of the Alabama wide receivers. He will have to do just that play after play after play on Saturday night. Taking away 1 receiving target on every play can drastically impact a young quarterback’s ability to make decisions.
Forbes aside, winning up front or even simply neutralizing the Alabama offensive line is the most important 1st step to beating the Tide. If they can consistently run, that defense has no prayer. Furthermore, if a pass rush can’t apply enough pressure against a quarterback like Young and with receivers like the ones with Alabama, it doesn’t matter how well a team covers — they’ll get open eventually.
I think the air raid will infest Nick Saban’s brain and anger him to his core, leading to a loss … eventually. But I don’t think that happens on Saturday.
I think the talent on the Alabama defense will hold Mississippi State to field goals, and the Tide offense wills itself to a few touchdowns. I’ll take the Tide something like 31-9. But the game will feel much, much closer than that.