A few initial impressions from the early aftermath of Alabama's 38-7 victory over Mississippi State:
If last weekend in Knoxville was a statement game, the performance last night from Alabama was not far behind, if any. With the continued struggles of Michigan, Mississippi State has to be considered the best team Alabama has faced to date, and yet again 'Bama answered the bell with a dominant performance. The road only gets more treacherous from here, but for what it's worth this isn't exactly a team that is barely scraping by each weekend. At 8-0 and number one in the country, I suppose we've reached the point of national-championship-or-bust, but through two months this certainly looks like a team that could be the last one standing in Miami. Watching this team play in recent weeks, you just get the innate feeling that they could accomplish something truly special.
Just as was the case against Tennessee, 'Bama buried another opponent with a quick start right out of the gates. The opening possession of the game began with a big return by Christion Jones and a quick touchdown drive, and with two more touchdowns on the following two possessions, 'Bama jumped out to a 21-0 before Mississippi State even had much of a chance to get their feet wet. Slow starts have been the bane of Alabama several times in recent years, but that has not been the case the past two weekends, and as long as 'Bama keeps racing out to the early big leads, any opponent will be hard-pressed to knock off the Tide.
The path to victory was somewhat different than anticipated, with the Alabama running game starting relatively slow and not taking off until the closing minutes of the game. Mississippi State had struggled somewhat to stop the run in the first seven games of the season, but give them credit for being physical at the point of attack last night, and with the exception of a couple of nice bursts, the Tide rushing attack was largely stymied, posting only around 60 yards of total rushing in the first half. The success of the ground game grew as the second half wore on, but even so Alabama didn't exactly have its way in the trenches with the State defensive line.
Is it time to get T.J. Yeldon more playing time? Many expect true freshmen to be slowing down this time of year, but Yeldon has posted three strong performances in as many weeks, and he outshined Eddie Lacy last night, picking up 84 yards on 10 carries compared to 26 for Lacy on the same number of attempts. Truth be told, the running game has looked much better the past two weeks with Yeldon lined up deep, and whether it is the sequella of lingering injuries or not, Lacy has just looked somewhat slow and soft the past two weekends. With LSU on the horizon next weekend, it might be time for Yeldon to get more touches.
Meanwhile, though the running game was a bit slow, the passing game was stellar once again against arguably the best defensive backfield in the SEC (though at this point that distinction likely goes to the Alabama secondary). The only truly explosive play of the night was when Kenny Bell beat star MSU cornerback Johnthan Banks over the top -- no small feat, mind you -- but even outside of that one big play the passing game was efficient and productive in moving the football down the field, with McCarron going 16-23 for 208 yards and two touchdowns. McCarron got away with one badly thrown pass that should have been intercepted by Darius Slay, but aside from that one snafu and a couple of ugly throws on wide receiver screens it was largely a flawless performance with the ball in the air. The only real complaint in the passing game is that McCarron continues to get hit frequently, and the offensive line play remains spotty in pass protection, which is a big concern with the road trip to Baton Rouge coming up next.
The story of the night was the stellar performance from the Alabama defense. Mississippi State came in featuring a potent offense, but for the second week in a row the 'Bama defense turned potent into pedestrian. LaDarius Perkins had a strong season to date, but he averaged only 2.5 yards per carry on 15 touches last night, and the MSU running game was stopped cold. The run defense has been stout all year, and it showed no signs of retreating last night.
Even more impressive, 'Bama shut down the Mississippi State passing game with seemingly relative ease. Tyler Russell looked impressive at times, but he was pounded heavily all night, and Chad Bumphis was eliminated from the game entirely, picking up only one catch for seven yards on the night (which came on the clock-killing drive to end the first half). In total, Russell went only 15-30 for 169 yards, with one interception and a sack to boot, and outside of a 31-yard completion on a pass which was badly defended by Ha'Sean-Clinton Dix, the MSU passing game was spinning its wheels all night.
The pass defense as a whole has simply played beyond all expectations, shutting down both Tennessee and Mississippi State in recent weeks. Deion Belue has played exceptional opposite DeMarcus Milliner, and while the four safety personnel package would seemingly create some opportunities for opposing passing games, that hasn't proven true with the ball in the air. The secondary as a whole has been physical, fundamentally sound, and moving quickly to the football in zone coverage. Perhaps equally as important, though, the pass rush has been particularly strong in recent weeks as well. 'Bama only sacked Russell one time last night, but nevertheless affected countless throws, hurrying Russell ten times on 30 passes, and hitting him hard on several occasions. Personnel at outside linebacker was mixed up a bit last night, with Xzavier Dickson moving down to the line of scrimmage to rush on passing downs and true freshman Denzel Devall rushing the passer, but as a whole it was highly successful. Even if difficult in execution, pass defense is very simple in theory: Rush the passer and be sound in coverage on the back end, and Alabama has excelled at both the past two weekends.
On the whole, the defense only had one minor glitch all night, which came on the 97-yard drive by Mississippi State in the middle of the third quarter. 'Bama was unable to get off the field twice on third down in the early stages of the drive, and once MSU moved the ball out from their own end they began to move it with relative ease, though it was aided in the end with an ugly throw to Chris Smith which probably ought to have been intercepted by Deion Belue. In any event, with goal-to-go from inside the Alabama five yard line, the defensive front held strong on two plunges into the line of scrimmage, and on third down redshirt freshman D.J. Pettway made a fine play pressuring Russell as he attempted to escape the pocket in order to set up an easy touchdown toss to the corner of the end zone. Pettway forced the play back inside, which caused the route to be truncated, and when Russell tried to force the ball back into the defensive interior, Robert Lester was there for his second back-breaking interception in as many weekends. Mississippi State was all but beaten at that point anyway, but if there was any doubt remaining then any faint hopes of a comeback were quashed with the goal line stand.
The kicking game ran hold and cold last night, with another strong showing by Cody Mandell but yet more struggles from Cade Foster and the Alabama kick coverage unit. Everything worked right for Mandell last night, who averaged 48 yards per punt on his first four punts with three of them downed inside the MSU 20, and then saw his 19-yard shank in the fourth quarter bounce off of MSU linebacker Deontae Skinner, which led to an Alabama recovery and another Tide touchdown. The same didn't hold true for Foster, however, who averaged only 61.9 yards per kick on seven kick-offs, without recording a single touchback. The constant refrain from many is that the short kicks are by design, but no one should buy that argument even if they have a briefcase full of counterfeit twenty dollar bills. Given the dominant performances by the defense to date, mixed with the continued breakdowns in kick coverage, I would wager the staff preference is a touchback with the opposing offense starting on the 25-yard line, with Foster simply not getting the job done. Either way, it's certainly something that needs to be fixed before next weekend, with field position figuring to be crucial in Baton Rouge.
In other quick hitters, AJ McCarron appears fine after sustaining a back bruise after a second half sack, but as frequently as he has been hit in recent weeks injuries like that are all but inevitable. Big night from senior tight end Michael Williams, who has really been a fine player during his time in Tuscaloosa. Dee Milliner didn't exactly struggle last night, but it wasn't one of his better showings this season after the blocked field goal. Cyrus Jones had another productive night in the return game. Landon Collins had a couple of very nice plays on special teams. Ed Stinson has quietly had one of the best seasons of any player on the defensive side of the ball. Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix badly misplayed what should have been a PBU on the opening drive for Mississippi State, and was fortunate that did not result in a touchdown. Hat tip to Tyler Russell; he had a live arm, could make all the throws, and stood tall in the pocket despite taking a beating. Brandon Ivory played a bit more than normal at back-up nose guard, which could be key because he will be called on next weekend against LSU. The 'Bama student section was bare-bones empty for much of the final two and a half quarters; it's time to start limiting ticket allotments if that persists. Congrats on the touchdown pass, Philip Ely, but rocket balls aren't the best idea on four-yard screen passes to the tailback. Thanks for those thirty free yards, Dan, I'd rather not operate deep out of our own end anyway. And for the love of God take off those goofy wide receiver gloves; you're 40 years old, 5'10 and 230 pounds, you're not going to be called on to run the post route, chief. Judging by postgame comments from MSU players, it sounds like they were hit by a freight train en route on Highway 82. Wide receiver Christion Jones forced two fumbles playing kick return defense.
Finally, with Mississippi State violently dispatched, all attention now turns to LSU, where Alabama can stamp its ticket to Atlanta with a win in Baton Rouge. As mentioned above, though, the road only gets more treacherous from here, and while more than a few are relieved at the prospect of getting Georgia, and not Florida, in the SEC Championship Game, games against LSU and Texas A&M come first, and wins against either will not come easy, if they come at all. LSU will be a slugfest, and getting a good Texas A&M team on the rebound is far from ideal, given that the Aggies may ultimately be the second best team on the regular season schedule, so despite yet another big win there is no time for relaxation in Tuscaloosa. Alabama has been absolutely dominant in the opening eight weeks of the season, but with Oregon, Notre Dame, and Kansas State all remaining unbeaten and looking to run the table, the odds seem high that it will take an undefeated record to reach Miami, with any loss -- no matter how close, no matter the circumstances, and no matter the quality of the opponent -- likely being enough to be summarily dismissed from national championship contention. Nick Saban perhaps said it best last night in his postgame press conference, when he compared the stretch run to the single-elimination format of the NFL playoffs. Undefeated in early November is clearly where you want to be, but no one should kid themselves to the contrary: We are playing one-and-done football this time of year.