With it's 24-15 win over LSU, Alabama officially clinched a berth in the SEC Championship Game when the first week of December rolls around. The divisional race is over, and the Tide will get its long awaited rematch with the Gators in Atlanta. Of course, though, with three games left on the regular season slate, Alabama still needs to win out to ensure itself that a trip to Pasadena will be on the line once we square off against Florida. Even with the SEC West in the bag, 'Bama still has everything to lose with one misstep.
Mississippi State, on the other hand, has been one of the surprises of the conference in 2009. They were widely expected to be very bad in Dan Mullen's debut campaign, but in fact they have been very competitive. They currently sit at 4-5 with hopes still alive of making a bowl game, and to date their biggest problem has been a ridiculously tough schedule that has forced them to face five top fifteen caliber teams in their first ten games.
Let's take a closer look at the match-ups.
Alabama Offense v. Mississippi State Defense
With his performance against LSU, if nothing else, Greg McElroy -- and the Alabama offense as a whole -- took a step in the right direction. Things are far from perfect to be sure. McElroy still made a lot of mistakes, the red zone inefficiencies continued, untimely penalties remained, and we only scored two touchdowns. Even so, for the first time since Arkansas left town, the Alabama offense clearly showed signs of improvement over its previous performance. We moved the football all afternoon, hit a couple of big plays, and Mark Ingram remained his usual dominant self. Moreover, both Julio Jones and Marquis Maze looked to healthy again, a big addition to the offense.
Exactly what Alabama does in this game is hard to say. The performance against LSU was promising of greater offensive production to come, but there were still enough mistakes made to cause someone to be legitimately concerned at the prospect of regression. Of course we all hope that the offensive juggernaut is close to returning, but no one can definitively claim that to be the case.
Making matters even more difficult to project is that we really do not know how we will attack this weekend. In the first half against LSU we spread the field, went with an empty backfield a relatively high percentage of the time, and threw 25 passes. In the second half, though, we significantly altered our offensive attack. Even when you factor out the three kneel downs to end the game, we nevertheless ran the football on 22 of the 33 offensive snaps in the second half, throwing only nine passes in the process (one of which was a trick play out of the Wildcat). In short, we went pass happy in the first half, but after getting little success via the air (only approximately 140 passing yards on 25 passing attempts), we flipped poles and went run heavy in the second half. Which end of the spectrum will Alabama be on this weekend? No one really knows.
The good news is that the Mississippi State defense looks to be the easiest we've faced since Arkansas headed back to Fayetteville. It's not necessarily a bad unit, mind you, but it has been far from impenetrable. The pass defense has been fairly decent, but the run defense has struggled and they have been unable to consistently rush the quarterback. Defensive coordinator Carl Torbush -- 'Bama fans will remember him as Franchione's defensive coordinator in 2001 and 2002 -- has done a good job of putting together a functional defense despite having the terrible triage of inexperience, a lack of top-end talent, and a lack of quality depth.
The strength of this Mississippi State defense is clearly in the linebacker corps. Starting middle linebacker Jamar Cheney is probably the best defensive player in the conference that you've never heard of, and K.J. Wright is a great athlete. Chris White rounds out the group, and he's a solid player in his own right. The quality depth isn't there, but it's no mistake that the top three tacklers on this defense all reside at linebacker, and if nothing else the frontline guys are generally very good.
The problem is that in the trenches and in the defensive backfield, the horses just aren't there. JUCO transfer Pernell McPhee -- a prospect 'Bama coaches were very high on -- has been great at defensive end, but the rest of the line has been fairly ineffective. It's basically a hodgepodge of middling players, mixed with some guys playing out of position and some kids barely removed from high school. Largely the same story goes for the defensive backfield as well. The secondary had a good bit in talent in 2008, but graduation has forced almost a total rebuild and while Torbush has done a pretty good job with those guys, it's far from an outstanding unit.
All told, for all of the good work that Torbush has done to date in Starkvegas, again this is still the weakest defensive unit we've faced since Arkansas. Depending on how our offense performs this Saturday, Mississippi State has enough shortcomings to present us with some opportunities. If we play relatively well on offense and continue to improve, we ought to score more than our fair share of points.
Alabama Defense v. Mississippi State Offense
The real advantage for the Tide, however, comes when our defense takes the field. Dan Mullen will eventually run the spread option in Starkvegas, but he just doesn't have the kind of players he is looking for right now. He did a good job in recruiting some talented players in his first recruiting class, and the early returns are relatively positive, but this is a unit that still has a long way to go. The Alabama defense, on the other hand, has practically been an immovable object for most of the season, and few teams have been able to muster any real amount of success.
To be sure, Mississippi State has shown a few signs of improvement offensively this year. Mullen has done a good job of molding his ideal offensive scheme to fit the unique skill sets of the players that he has on hand, and the end result of that is the Bulldogs end up with the look of a traditional I-formation power attack masquerading in a lot of spread option sets. This is still not a very good unit, and one that is still near the bottom of the SEC in both point and yardage production, but it's a clear improvement over a year ago, and it's certainly nowhere near as bad as they have been the past several years.
The strength for the Mississippi State offense is clearly in its backfield, particularly with senior tailback Anthony Dixon. The Jackson native was a highly-touted recruit coming out of high school when he signed with Sylvester Croom, and he could have gone just about anywhere in the country. Eschewing the notion that there is no role for a big tailback in the spread option, Dixon has had a standout senior season. He's already over 1,000 rushing yards on the season, and he's the best power runner that we will face all season. Much like former Bulldog Jerious Norwood, a career in the NFL awaits Mr. Dixon, and he should be respected accordingly. Moreover, Christian Ducre also gets a lot of touches at tailback, and he's a fine back in his own right. His biggest problem is simply the quality of the player in front of him.
And in all fairness, the Mississippi State offensive line is a fairly decent group in its own right. Left tackle Derek Sherrod is a bit raw, but no one doubts his athleticism, and the rest of the group has a decent amount of experience. They are far from world-beaters, but they haven't been the complete liability that many MSU offensive lines were during their darker periods of this decade. It probably says a fair amount about this group that Dixon and Ducre have had the success that they have had, and that they should finish near the top of the SEC in Adjusted Sack Rate.
The real problem for Mississippi State has been at quarterback and wide receiver. Tyson Lee does as good of a job as he can running the spread option, but realistically he's just not the guy they are looking for. He's entirely too small to be a pocket passer in this league, and the arm strength isn't very good either. Moreover, while he's a pretty decent runner, he's nowhere near the kind of quarterback who can get by on his athleticism alone. He's a tough competitor, but he simply hasn't been very productive. He hasn't been able to generate a lot of big plays in the passing game, likewise on the ground, and he turns the ball over entirely too much.
The wide receiver corps is really more of the same. True freshman Chad Bumphis is the best of the group -- and he's yet another one that Saban recruited very hard last year -- but it's rarely ever a good sign when a true freshman is clearly your most productive wide receiver. Brandon McRae, O'Neal Wilder, and Leon Berry are the starters, but none of them have really able to do anything special. It says quite a bit when, through nine games in a season, your most productive wide receiver doesn't even have 300 receiving yards.
All in all, the raw firepower just isn't there for the Bullies. Alabama will certainly have its hands full trying to stop Dixon -- and I imagine he will have his fair share of success -- but if the Alabama defense plays anything like it has throughout the rest of the season, it's hard to see Mississippi State scoring very many points unless we give them a lot of freebies with turnovers or special teams breakdowns. For 'Bama, limiting Dixon likely means bringing the MSU offensive attack to a halt. Even though it's a somewhat better unit than what we have faced from MSU in recent years, none of the Tide's previous four SEC opponents have been able to generate more than 13 points offensively, and the Bulldogs likely won't be able to break that streak either.
Putting It All Together
On paper, Alabama is clearly the better team between these two. We have far more high-end talent than the Bullies, likewise for quality depth, and frankly it's not even close in either category. We're a good bit better than Mississippi State in almost every single capacity regardless of how you analyze things, even on special teams. Based on that, you would say that Alabama ought to win this game in a relative route.
Of course, Dan Mullen and his Bulldogs deserve a lot of credit. These guys do not look particularly formidable on paper, yet somehow they've been able to pull it all together and make things work. As I mentioned earlier, they have played four legitimate top-fifteen caliber teams -- as of right now, those four teams have a combined record of 33-4 -- and have kept it close and competitive in every single contest, even though on paper those games should have been lopsided routes. I really see no reason to expect that they wouldn't do the same thing against Alabama.
Moreover, while the Alabama defense looks to be able to be its usual dominating self, again we really do not know what to expect offensively. Hopefully the juggernaut will return, but if the struggles continue I don't think anyone should be overly surprised. Furthermore, we're probably pretty beat up after a physical game with LSU, and I'm sure Mullen used the off week to his advantage. And finally, for whatever reason, Alabama has historically played sloppy football against Mississippi State.
All in all, I think you have to feel pretty confident about our chances for victory in this game if but for nothing more than our defense. On the other hand, though, a blowout is far from imminent, and this game looks to be a relatively close one. 'Bama probably won't lose, but we probably won't blow MSU out of the water, either. One way or the other, though, this week is just like any other week in the SEC... you play at a high level or you risk defeat. Hopefully the offense will continue to make steps in the right direction, the defense will continue to play at a high level, and that we can leave Starkvegas with the win in hand and a healthy squad heading back to Tuscaloosa.
Hope for the best.