While we might be right in criticizing Oregon's (currently No. 3 in the BCS standings) strength of schedule, we should probably do the same with Alabama. After all, Tide opponents have combined to go just 18-25 against FBS opposition (18-18 against teams not named Alabama). Michigan is solid, and Western Kentucky, Ole Miss and Tennessee are at least decent, but really, Nick Saban's squad has yet to face a real test. I have long suggested, of course, that it doesn't matter who you play -- you can prove yourself against anybody by simply comparing output to expected output. And on a play-for-play basis, Alabama has been as good as anybody in the 7-plus seasons for which I have examined play-by-play data. The offense is on the borderline between very good and elite, and the defense has been spectacular. I have no reason to assume that the Tide's current level of dominance (average score of an Alabama game thus far: Bama 41.0, Opponent 8.3) will digress when the competition goes up a bit. But to say Alabama's yet to be tested suggests that Mississippi State is that test. Is that true?
Alabama coach Nick Saban isn't surprised by Russell's success. The Tide recruited him when he was a prep star in Meridian, Miss., and Saban said the same traits that made him an elite recruit have turned him into one of the SEC's best. "There's not really anything he doesn't do well in my opinion," Saban said. "He's very aware, very instinctive. They've got a very good scheme in the passing game. They can throw the ball vertically down the field, but they've got a lot of short screens, bubbles, and they've got some guys who can catch the ball and run with it as well, which complements the running game."
Dating back to 2010, Mississippi State is 20-1 when averaging at least four yards per carry (3-9 in all other games). However, the Bulldogs face perhaps their biggest challenge to reach that threshold this weekend. No FBS team has averaged at least four yards per rush against the Crimson Tide since the start of the 2011 season. Last year against Alabama, Mississippi State managed just 12 yards on 29 carries, the fewest rushing yards for the school since the 2008 season.
No, games aren't played on paper. Yes, they play the games for a reason. I'm just here to tell you that I see no hidden edge in Mississippi State's favor. I can't find some special thing to key on to give some kind of hope in the Bulldogs' favor. Believe me, I've tried. All I can say to Dan Mullen is, get some turnovers, win the field position game, and don't commit stupid penalties. That's almost all anyone can say, though, besides maybe "good luck".
Despite a perfect 7-0 record and a No. 11 ranking, according to the latest BCS poll, the Bulldogs, who are 3-0 against SEC teams, are huge underdogs against the Crimson Tide. After being listed by most online gambling websites as a 21.5-point favorite two weeks ago against the Missouri Tigers and a 20-point favorite against the Tennessee Volunteers last week, Alabama opened up as a 24-point favorite against MSU, a number that surprised many people and angered a large portion of State’s fan base. Although MSU is receiving minimal respect from Las Vegas websites and the national media, Mullen said being a substantial underdog will not play a role in Saturday’s game. "I don’t know what it affects, because I’ve never set any odds for any games," Mullen said. "It really has no effect to me on the course of the game."
On Saturday night, Amari Cooper is going to stare in the eyes of a defensive back that doesn't care who the University of Alabama freshman wide receiver is or what he's done. On the defensive side of the ball, Mississippi State University senior cornerback Johnthan Banks has done it all before. "I don't think it matters who we're playing, every week he wants to go prove himself," MSU head coach Dan Mullen said. "He's the leader of our team and we need him to be. I don't know if he looks at this game any different than other games." Along with that, Banks is the most difficult challenge the youthful Cooper has seen in the 2012 season as Banks is a midseason All-American by six different media outlets. "Defensively, they are one of the most difficult teams to score on in the country," Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. "They have two really good corners. They are physical upfront; they play with a lot of toughness. This is, no doubt, the best team we've played to this point in the season."
MSU’s players and coaches know the implications of a win and have pondered the possibilities. "It’s gonna be huge. We’ll be 8-0, we’ll be excited," senior linebacker Cam Lawrence said. "We’ll enjoy the win, but we’ll get ready for Texas A&M right after that."
"We can’t control what they do, we can’t control what they’re trying to prove," said Saban, who has won two BCS national titles at Alabama. "We don’t have any control over that. We have control over how we think, what we do, how we do it, how we compete in the game and I think that’s the most important thing for our team. "Now, we respect them tremendously as a program and a team. Make no mistake about that. I think this is the best team we’ve played to this point and they compete hard, they play hard. I have a tremendous amount of respect for their coach, their program and everything that they’ve done. We think we’ll get their very best game, no doubt. But, saying all that, what’s that got to do with how we play? We should be trying to play the best that we can play because of what we have at stake and what we want to accomplish, what we want to do, what’s important to us."
The conditions were never more ripe for the 2012 class to believe it had "arrived" before it had literally arrived at Alabama. It just never happened, senior center Barrett Jones said. "From the day they walked on campus we could really tell that there was a lot of maturity in this class," Jones said. "I think it’s pretty easy to tell when you’re older and looking down at the freshmen, there’s just a lot of mature kids who understood why they were here." That kind of maturity from a freshman class couldn’t have occurred at a better time for Alabama. The Crimson Tide has needed steady contributions from nearly half of the 2012 class throughout its dominant 7-0 start. "This is probably the most guys we've had," coach Nick Saban said. "We like the class. We think there's a lot of good players."
Does Alabama’s junior quarterback belong in the Heisman Trophy conversation? Of course. He’s making plays. Better than that, he’s not making mistakes. He’s piling up victories more than yards and touchdown passes, and he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with college football’s brightest stars. But the Heisman is supposed to go to the nation’s most outstanding player, and McCarron isn’t even the most outstanding player on his team. That player is senior center Barrett Jones, perhaps a future Hall of Famer who someday might considered one of the all-time greats to play at Alabama.
Alabama is in the midst of the most dominant college football campaign since Tom Osborne’s 1995 Nebraska team. Washington State came the closest to beating the Cornhuskers that year but still fell by two touchdowns. Thus far in 2012, Alabama’s slimmest margin of victory was 19 against Ole Miss. Within that team, AJ McCarron is undoubtedly the most valuable player. If you feel differently, just think back to what you were thinking when the Mobile native hit the turf holding his knee two weeks ago in Missouri.
"I think (I'm) maybe just throwing the ball a little bit more, knowing when to throw it away and having another down to live for the next play," McCarron said. "Other than that, my teammates are doing a great job making plays for me. Those guys deserve all the credit in the world, receivers going up and making plays, catching short passes and taking them a long ways. "The offensive line is doing a great job giving me time and the backs are doing a really good job getting out of the backfield when they're not used up for protection and giving me an escape route."
With help from Schlabach, Saban noted that 40 or so teams have averaged more than 80 plays per game in recent years, but only two have gone to a BCS bowl game. - "If you run 80-some plays in a game, that means you're making the game longer, so that means the other team is running a lot of plays. If you don't have a good defensive team, you're enhancing the chances that they might get exposed. That's why you see some of these high-scoring games right now. I do agree that if you get a good bunch of skill players, a bunch of fast guys and a good quarterback, you can be very competitive in the spread-type offense, but I don't know exactly how far you can go if you don't have a good defensive team."
Lacy has seemingly gotten better with every passing game. After shaking off the rust incurred by multiple preseason injuries, Lacy has found a groove as one half of Alabama's two-headed monster of a running game with freshman T.J. Yeldon. After rushing for 79 yards against the Vols, the junior sits with a team-high 570 yards and seven touchdowns through seven games. "It’s all positive," Lacy said. "You last longer throughout the year, you don’t bang your body up as much. Whoever’s coming in, the next person, they’re just going to pick up where you left off. So it just keeps the offense balanced."
Part of the attraction of Mississippi junior colleges to SEC schools is the competition those teams face every week. In the latest NJCAA football poll, five Mississippi junior colleges are ranked in the top 20. "You are getting a guy (from Mississippi junior colleges] that is a little more mature, a guy that has played at a little bit better level of competition, especially if you can get him to come at midyear and they have a better chance to learn your system," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. For players, the biggest selling point is instant playing time at a high profile school. Former EMCC standout Quinton Dial, a 6-6, 304-pound defensive lineman, has been one of those impact defensive players for Alabama this season. He has eight tackles and one and a half tackles for loss in seven games as a third-down multi-use lineman. Dial had three tackles and one for a loss last season in a 24-7 victory against MSU in Starkville. "I think where you have a need, the most important thing about recruiting junior college guys to me is that they want to go someplace they can play," Saban said. "If you have a need for them at that position, it is good for them and it is good for you. I think that it can really compliment the players that you have on your team."
For the Bulldogs to establish the rushing game, it starts up front with the offensive line. "We are a good offensive line, but on the opposite end of the spectrum, they are a good defensive line," MSU senior offensive lineman Tobias Smith said. "It's going to be a battle for four quarters." The Bulldog offensive line has come together as of late and been a big reason to their success this season. "They are big and they are physical," Saban said. "They do a great job of run blocking. They have a really good scheme. They are well-coached. They have improved every game this year. We think they are a very good offensive line."
Autry was rated a five-star recruit out of East Mississippi Community College by Scout.com and signed with MSU over Alabama and a host of others in February. No. 13 Mississippi State (7-0, 3-0 SEC) plays at No. 1 Alabama (7-0, 4-0) on Saturday (7:40 p.m., ESPN). "They tried pretty hard," Autry told reporters Tuesday of Alabama’s pursuit on the recruiting trail. "But I guess I didn’t see myself fitting in over there. I’m more, I hate to say it, but I’m more of an underdog guy. I don’t want to just ride with the high dog and all that."
In the end, Alabama has faced some doubt this season. That doubt is their secondary. Other than Tennessee, the Tide hasn't truly been battle-tested with passing. State could definitely be that first big test. But lots of critics say MSU's biggest question mark is their schedule in general. Is State's offense just "good" due to the schedule or is it truly an SEC caliber points machine? Will Tyler Russell find much needed holes in the Alabama secondary? Or will a confident national championship-type squad cause havoc for MSU's offense? Something must give, folks.
"He called me the night I was coaching in the national title game (at Florida) and said, 'Coach, I want to be your quarterback and want to be your leader.'" Mullen said during Wednesday's Southeastern Conference coaches teleconference. "What he understood at that point was that we were going to build something special where players from the state of Mississippi could stay at home and represent their state university and play a championship level football game."
"As a coach you have to be consistent," Mullen said. "Our players know that. We try to be consistent in recruiting in what we tell our guys what our program is going to be like, what our program is and what the expectations are. Those expectations don't change. "Whether I'm sitting in a parent's living room to their freshman year to their senior year our expectations are the same. We expect our guys to be willing to work really hard, be committed to our program, to be willing to sacrifice to be successful. That work ethic is why guys want to come here. "We push them in every aspect of their life. The football part is the easy part to me. We push them in the classroom. We push them in the community. Because we stay very consistent that way with them you see consistent results on the field."
Grant only has 10 players on scholarship, because he signed only one player. He plans to use all 10 and is unlikely to start the same five players regularly. He can go with a big lineup with center Moussa Gueye or Carl Engstrom playing with power forward Nick Jacobs, or he can go with four or even five guards and any combination in between, although Gueye and Engstrom are unlikely to play together. Junior point guard Trevor Releford is likely to lead the team in minutes. Four sophomores who played extensively last season are expected to improve. "We've got a lot of guys on our team that have a variety of skill sets," Grant said. "It's good to have guys that can play multiple positions."
"JaMychal Green’s departure leaves a big void to fill on the interior for us," Grant said. "He did so many things for our team from a scoring standpoint, rebounding, defensively. Those will be some big shoes to fill. On the interior, we’ll probably be extremely inexperienced. As a coach when I look from last year to this year, those are big shoes to fill with JaMychal Green’s departure, Tony Mitchell’s departure. We’ll have to do that by committee."
If there is one thing University of Alabama men's basketball coach Anthony Grant has to offer this season, it is opportunity. The Crimson Tide heads into the 2012-13 season hoping to come out on the winning side of the numbers game, working with only 10 scholarship players (out of a maximum 13). Plenty of teams can win with rotations of just seven or eight players, although Grant says he can "absolutely" see his team developing in a way in which all 10 players (there are also four walk-ons rounding out the UA practice roster) see "significant" playing time. On the other hand, another bumpy ride like last season when UA had injuries and, more harmfully, suspensions could leave the Crimson Tide too thin to compete over the course of what is bound to be a grueling 18-game Southeastern Conference schedule. Grant called the suspensions "part of establishing the kind of program we want to have," and Alabama overcame the multiple-game absences of stars Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green to finish 21-11 and make its first NCAA appearance in six years. But this Crimson Tide team can stand only so much attrition.