Welcome to the morning after. The Game of the Century came and passed and for all of the disappointment from a week ago in Tuscaloosa, football continues this week unconcerned with the demons of last Saturday night. The grind commences on ruthless schedule and makes no allowances for losers to wallow in their own miseries, and for Alabama the Crimson Tide must simply pick up the pieces and move forward.
Doing so will be anything but easy. After last weekend 'Bama is undoubtedly spent both physically and emotionally, and the hangover effect simply cannot linger into Starkville. It bears noting that the last two times Alabama faced losses approaching the magnitude of LSU last weekend -- 2005 LSU and 2008 Florida -- the Tide followed up both disappointments with ugly performances. That cannot happen this weekend if Alabama wants to keep its championship hopes alive.
The encouraging news for the Crimson Tide is that this Mississippi State team has nothing on either 2005 Auburn or 2008 Utah, and truth be told this MSU squad has played as poorly as any team in the league through the first nine weeks of the college football season. Bringing a 5-4 overall record into this game, State has only one win over a BCS conference team this season (Kentucky) and those five wins include an overtime victory against Louisiana Tech and a brutally ugly win over UAB in Legion Field. Houston Nutt and his Ole Miss Rebels have gotten the bulk of the attention for their horrendous play, but truth be told things have been little, if any, better in Starkville. And speaking of the Rebels, even a bottom-tier bowl game looks unlikely unless MSU can get by Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl.
Coming into this season most people seemed to have the general understanding that the 9-4 campaign turned in last year by Dan Mullen was over-achievement in action, but even so the precipitous decline in 2011 has been something of a surprise. Chris Relf has probably regressed as a senior, and Chad Bumphis could be the biggest disappointment in the conference. Vick Ballard is a legitimate threat at tailback, but the offensive line in front of him has struggled and clearly State has not been able to find a quality replacement for the now departed Derek Sherrod at left tackle. The vicious cycle of bad quarterback play compounded by a poor offensive line and few legitimate threats outside keeps compounding weekly and the offense has been rendered punchless. Rotating Relf with Tyler Russell in recent weeks has seemingly helped things slightly, but points have still been scarce.
MSU has been better defensively, but even so has struggled to stop the run. The ends have struggled and the linebacker corps has been porous, and the run defense as a whole has been soft aside from one strong showing against Marcus Lattimore. If the Alabama offensive line can hold together at the point of attack -- more on that later -- Trent Richardson and company should have success on the ground.
The strength for the Bullies defensively is in the pass defense, which is clearly what leads this team as a whole. Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd have had success rushing the passer on the defensive interior, and Jonathan Banks and Corey Broomfield are two of the more underrated corners in the league. The safety play from Wade Bonner and Charles Mitchell isn't outstanding, but it's more than sufficient on the whole, and it is no deceptive slight of hand that places MSU in the top twenty nationally in pass defense. It's been a ball-hawk of a unit to date as well with seven interceptions in five conference games, so AJ McCarron would be advised to quickly correct the key mental misfires that largely doomed 'Bama last weekend against LSU.
On the whole Alabama is simply at another level than Mississippi State, and with a reasonable performance should escape Starkville with a victory. Evaluating this game as a matter of sheer overall ability and talent in the cold, hard and objective light results in a lopsided affair, but unfortunately games aren't played in the vacuum of the darkened film room. The harsh reality is that 'Bama is going on the road in SEC action physically and emotionally battered after arguably the most devastating loss in decades.
'Bama is effectively limping into Starkville and injuries look to be a major drag on the Tide this weekend. No less than four starters -- Barrett Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Marquis Maze, Brad Smelley -- are recovering from injuries sustained against LSU, and Eddie Lacy continues to do little throughout the week due to his lingering turf toe injury. Physical, brutal wars like took place in Bryant-Denny Stadium last weekend tend to permeate for days, if not weeks, and bouncing back to full strength in the course of only seven days will be almost impossible.
Barrett Jones, in particular, looks to have no real chance of playing tomorrow night. He was in a boot during the LSU postgame and has done almost nothing of note this week in practice while working in a black no-contact jersey. As of yesterday afternoon he was still limping noticeably. In all likelihood, the target date for Jones' hopeful return is likely the Iron Bowl two weeks from now.
The offensive line will have to be reshuffled in Jones' absence, and throughout the week the first unit has consisted of (from left to right) Alfred McCullough, Chance Warmack, William Vlachos, Anthony Steen, and D.J. Fluker. The Bullies haven't been stout against the run to date, as mentioned earlier, but revamping an offensive line is never an easy task and accordingly AJ McCarron may be forced take on greater responsibilities this weekend seven days after committing crimes against national championship and with his best receiving threat limited.
The 'Bama defense should be able to stifle the typically impotent Mississippi State offense, and that should keep this a very low scoring affair for the Bullies unless special teams woes and turnovers give them easy points. The strength of the defense alone likely means that Alabama should pull out the win this weekend even with an otherwise ugly performance, but as mentioned two days ago style points are at an absolute premium if Alabama is to keep its already razor-thin BCS Championship hopes alive. For national championship purposes, a 21-10 victory tomorrow night is the near equivalent of a loss; Alabama needs to leave Starkville in its wake looking like Nick Saban and company just conducted nuclear testing within city limits.
The big x-factor remains the mental state of the team. All of the players who have been made available to the media this week have all said the right things, but most players usually say the right thing, and that is especially so at Alabama where only the most trusted of players are allowed media access in the first place and where even those players are trained diligently to say what should be said and nothing more. But how much of the manufactured and refined high talk reflects underlying reality on the ground? The loss last weekend had to be devastating and it will take the utmost mental toughness to place it by the wayside and forge ahead into the difficult path that lies ahead, yet that is what 'Bama must do to keep its national championship hopes on life support. On display tomorrow night will be less how Alabama compares to Mississippi State and more how Alabama fares in the introspective battle again its own mental anguish and disappointment.
Hope for the best.