Position-by-position edge: Mississippi State-Alabama
Taking a position-by-position look at Mississippi State at Alabama, here’s what to watch for in Saturday’s showdown between the Bulldogs and the Crimson Tide:
QUARTERBACK — Mississippi State: Not only is Dak Prescott the best QB in the SEC this year, he is among the conference’s best all time. For starters, his touchdown-to-interception ratio this season is 18 to 1, and he’s also the Bulldogs’ leading rusher with 418 yards and 7 TDs on 86 carries. Prescott is the greatest player in Mississippi State history, so it’s unfair to compare him to Jacob Coker, but the Alabama signal-caller has done OK for himself. He is 8-0 in his first season as a starter, and he’s been his best over his last four games, completing 75 percent of his passes as the Tide has reasserted itself as the best team in the SEC. Still, Prescott and the Bulldogs have a clear-cut edge at this spot.
RUNNING BACKS — Alabama: If you thought the disparity at QB was big, take a look at this category. Heisman Trophy favorite Derrick Henry has outgained all of Mississippi State’s running backs combined. The 6-foot-3, 242-pounder from Yulee, Fla. has rushed 218 times for 1,254 yards and an SEC-best 17 TDs. His MSU counterparts have collectively rushed for 906 yards and 8 TDs on 195 carries. Brandon Holloway (48 carries, 220 yards) and Ashton Shumpert (50, 174, 1 TD) have been Mississippi State’s top runners not named Prescott. It’s the Crimson Tide in a runaway here.
WIDE RECEIVERS, TIGHT END — Mississippi State: De’Runnya Wilson is 2nd in the SEC and leads the Bulldogs with 8 TD catches to go along with a team-leading 626 receiving yards. Fred Ross leads Mississippi State with 51 catches and has added 548 yards and 2 scores. Fred Brown has chipped in with 20 receptions for 313 yards and 2 TDs while Donald Gray is averaging a team-leading 19.2 yards on 14 catches. Tight ends Darrion Hutcherson (10 catches, 116 yards, 1 TD) and Gus Walley (15, 109, 1) have been solid for the Bulldogs, who boast 10 players with at least 100 receiving yards. Calvin Ridley (52 receptions, 576 yards, 3 TDs) is giving Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk a run for his money as the SEC’s top freshman wideout, and Ardarius Stewart (34, 378, 2) has been a productive No.2. O.J. Howard is 2nd among SEC tight ends with 28 catches while senior wideout Richard Mullaney has made 27 grabs for 258 yards and 3 TDs. Mississippi State gets the edge here based on its depth.
OFFENSIVE LINE — Even: Mississippi State’s blockers have helped their ball carriers average 4.7 yards a carry, which is 5th in the SEC. Alabama is 7th in the conference in that category at 4.5 yards per attempt. The Tide is tied for 3rd in the SEC with 20 rushing TDs, while the Bulldogs are 9th with 15. In terms of sacks allowed, Mississippi State has surrendered 13, and Alabama has yielded 16. Both teams have played nine games. The Bulldogs have the slightly better numbers here, but they are better because of Prescott’s elusiveness and ability to make plays on the run, making this spot a wash.
DEFENSIVE LINE — Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s performance last week, when it held Leonard Fournette and LSU to just 54 yards on 26 carries, has vaulted Alabama to No. 2 in the country in rushing defense, allowing just 75.8 yards a game to lead the SEC. The Bulldogs are only 10th in the conference in rush defense, surrendering 167.7 yards per contest. Meanwhile, the Crimson Tide is averaging 3.2 sacks per game to lead the SEC, and Mississippi State is 4th at 2.8 per matchup. MSU’s A.J. Jefferson is tied for 4th in the SEC with 12.5 tackles for loss, and he, Ryan Brown (2.5) and Chris Jones (2.5) have combined for 10 of the Bulldogs’ 25 sacks. Johnathan Calvin (5.5 tackles for loss, 3 QB hurries) has chipped in for the Bulldogs. Johnathan Allen leads Alabama in sacks (6) and tackles for loss (8.5). A’Shawn Robinson (29 total tackles, 8 QB hurries) has been a force, and Jarran Reed leads all of Bama’s interior linemen with 44 tackles.
LINEBACKERS — Even: Reggie Ragland (4 pass breakups, 3 QB hurries, 2 forced fumbles) is tied for 7th in the SEC with 74 tackles, but Mississippi State’s Richie Brown (5.5 sacks, 1 pass breakup) is right behind him with 73. Brown has gotten help from Beniquez Brown (59 total tackles, 2 sacks, 2 pass breakups), J.T. Gray (45 total tackles) and Gerri Green (41 total tackles). Denzel Devall has contributed 17 total tackles and 5 QB hurries from the Jack spot for Alabama, while Ryan Anderson (19 total tackles, 4 QB hurries) has been a reliable backup. Reuben Foster (40 tackles, 5 pass breakups) is having a good junior season while Shaun Dion Hamilton (18 total tackles), Dillon Lee (15), Rashaan Evans (14) and Tim Williams (5.5 tackles for loss) round out Bama’s solid linebacking corps.
SECONDARY — Alabama: The Crimson Tide defense leads the SEC in the following categories: Opponent completion percentage (50.2), passer rating (100.2) and interceptions (13). The Bulldogs have allowed an SEC-low 5 passing TDs, while Bama has surrendered 11, which is tied for 8th in the conference. The Crimson Tide is 5th in the SEC in passing defense, allowing 189.6 yards per game, while Mississippi State is right behind them at 6th (201.7). Alabama strong safety Eddie Jackson is tied for the league lead in interceptions (5) and pick-sixes (2). Geno Matias-Smith leads the Crimson Tide’s secondary with 41 total tackles while teammate Cyrus Jones (19 total tackles, 4 pass breakups) has provided senior leadership. But freshmen have stood out for Alabama. Minkah Fitzpatrick (33 total tackles, 7 pass breakups, 2 sacks) also has two pick-sixes, while redshirt Marlon Humphrey (26 total tackles, 7 pass breakups) and Ronnie Harrison (11 total tackles, 4 pass breakups) have also been major contributors. Junior Kivon Coman leads Mississippi State’s secondary with 52 total tackles while senior Taveze Calhoun (26 total tackles, 5 pass breakups) shares the team led with 2 INTs, and junior Deontay Evans has added 28 total tackles. Alabama’s impressive freshmen give the Tide the edge.