The Crimson Tide will travel to Starkville to take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs at 11:30 this Saturday, in what will be the 92nd meeting in what has turned into a mini-rivalry. It's nowhere near a true rivalry given the current and historical disparities between the two schools, but the schools are geographically close and the ties between the two programs run deep. State's best coach of all was arguably Jackie Sherrill, a Bryant pupil who starred on national championship teams as a player in Tuscaloosa. The same goes for current Bulldog coach Sylvester Croom. Moreover, Alabama frequently goes into Mississippi and takes away several top players, and that only further fuels the rivalry.
The upcoming match-up is not one without implications, either. The Bulldogs were expected to be terrible yet again this season, and looked that way early on, but have fought hard and are currently just one win away from becoming bowl eligible, and at this point it seems like they'll get it. A win against Alabama would likely, at the very least, secure them a trip to Shreveport. Alabama, on the other hand, is already bowl eligible, but it's still an important game for the Tide. An absolute collapse for the Tide (somewhere in the neighborhood of 7-5) would likely end up in Nashville, but if the Tide wins out it could land up in the Cotton Bowl or something similar. Obviously, both sides have a lot to play for.
And you should expect both teams to likely come out playing hard. Mississippi State is fresh off of a bye week, and the game remains extremely important to Croom. Even though Shula is gone, Alabama is still Croom's alma mater, and despite all he may say about maroon, the man bleeds crimson and white and wanted the Alabama job desperately. The mere fact that he did not get it, and apparently will never get it, must haunt him considering how close he was, and it would mean a lot to him, and by extension to his players, to knock off the Tide. Alabama, on the other hand, remains haunted by the embarrassing loss at home to the Bulldogs. The loss stung at the time, and still does. For better or for worse, that loss is what directly led to Shula's dismissal, and to be quite frank it was the defining moment of his career at Alabama. No other game summed up the underlying problems of the Shula regime than the 2006 MSU game. Alabama players would likely like little more than to remove that game from their psyche once and for all with a dominating win.
Though not the sexiest match-up on the 2007 slate, it's a very meaningful game for both sides.
Alabama Offense v. Mississippi State Defense
With little doubt, the Bulldog defense is the strength of their squad, and its one of the better defenses in the conference. To be sure, they've had some struggles at times -- Tennessee and South Carolina both had good days against them, and West Virginia made them look pathetic -- but as a whole this is a good defense that limits what you can do. They gave LSU trouble in the opener, and completely shut down Auburn and Kentucky. They haven't been the most consistent bunch around, but it's a good unit.
And the key to this Mississippi State defense is turnovers. If you look at their raw rankings, they aren't particularly good. They are tied for eighth in the conference in scoring defense, fifth in pass defense, and eighth in rushing defense. The key has largely been turnovers, and when at its best, this unit has created them in bunches. They forced five turnovers against Auburn, and then six against Kentucky. It was that led them to their ultimate victory in both games.
The defense is led by defensive end Titus Brown. Most would argue that Brown -- a native of Tuscaloosa, who went to Tuscaloosa's Central High, literally three blocks away from Bryant-Denny Stadium -- is the best defensive end in the conference, and it's not hard to make a convincing case. He's tied for the league lead in sacks, and he's just all over the field. Some teams have found ways to slow him this year, but he's just one of the best around, no two ways about it.
The key to Alabama on the offensive side of the ball will be protecting the football. You can run against this team, and you should be able to throw against them as long as we can hold up fairly well against Brown. We definitely have an advantage in skill players. However, Brown will be very tough to block -- especially considering he's likely to be lined up over Mike Johnson -- and the Bulldogs will pressure the quarterback and try to create turnovers. And unfortunately, John Parker Wilson has been about as adept at protecting the football as the Fat One has been at sticking to diet plans. The harsh truth is that it's not either's strong point.
Again, all in all, 'Bama should be able to move the football relatively well against the Bulldogs, and should be able to score some points. But the Bulldogs can force turnovers and they do so in droves. If we cannot protect the football against them -- like Auburn and Kentucky could not -- it's going to be a long day. It will limit the possessions to the point where we don't score many points, and it will put the Bulldogs in position to score easy points. You do the math on that one. Don't forget, the back-breaker in Tuscaloosa a year ago was a John Parker Wilson interception that was returned for a touchdown by Quinton Culbertson when the Tide was driving for a game-tying score just before halftime.
Simply put, protect the football, protect the football, protect the football. If we do those things, we should be okay on offense.
Alabama Defense v. Mississippi State Offense
The State offense, while perhaps a bit better than the past few years, is still not particularly good. They are currently tenth in scoring offense, tenth in rushing offense, and tenth in passer efficiency. You never want to belittle an opponent, but the harsh truth of the matter for the Bulldogs is that their offense will be one of the worst we face all year long.
Wesley Carroll, a true freshman, has taken over at quarterback after injuries to the two players in front of him, and he's done relatively well I suppose. Being brutally frank, though, he hasn't exactly done a whole lot, except one thing. He's completing a low percentage of his passes, and his low yards per completion and attempt indicates that he's throwing a lot of short throws, which of course makes the low completion percentage all the more damning. Moreover, he obviously cannot stretch the field vertically, with only two completions going for more than 22 yards.
What Carroll does, however, is protect the football. And he does a damn good job of that. He's thrown 137 passes this year, and his zero interceptions. That has broken the Mississippi State record. And he doesn't get sacked much either, with a sack rate of only 4.3 per cent. So, he doesn't make very many plays, but on the other hand he doesn't create many negative plays, and that really can create some problems for you. At times, it's amazing how difficult you can make things for your opponent when you simply won't beat yourself, and that is Carroll's specialty.
The Mississippi State offense is really predicated on the running game. Anthony Dixon is the star tailback, and he's a good one. He's a big bruiser (240 pounds), and he's going to pick up consistent amounts of yardage. Though he's not much of a threat on the long run, he's still an effective runner, particularly between the tackles. And that's what Mississippi State will try to do, establish the run with Dixon and then work in play-action in the passing game with Carroll.
Alabama should be in pretty good shape with the MSU attack. With all due respect to Dixon, LSU's Jacob Hester is the most physical runner in the conference, and the Tide did a good job of shutting him down last week. The defensive line has been playing better as of late, and our linebacking corps is very big (averaging over 240 pounds per man), and that will help a lot in stopping a physical rushing attack. Wesley Carroll has done well at not turning the football over, but Alabama will bring possibly the best pass defense he's seen to date, and we're likely to confuse him a bit with some complex looks stemming from our 3-4 scheme.
All in all, it looks like we should be able to have a pretty good day against the Mississippi State offense.
Putting It All Together
The key to this game is likely to be the turnover battle. If you look at how Mississippi State beat Kentucky and Auburn, it was by creating a ton of turnovers (eleven, to be precise), and using those turnovers to generate a few points and limit the opposing offense. If we can limit the turnovers and force the MSU offense to march all the way down the field to score points, we should be in good shape. Neither Auburn or Kentucky could do that, and we all saw the end result in both cases.
All in all, if we win the turnover battle we are likely to win this game. We have more talent than the Dawgs do, plus more depth and better coaching. But the Bulldogs defense has at times done a great job of getting turnovers, and the MSU offense isn't likely to turn it over. Using that formula, they could get a few big turnovers against us, give their offense some easy points, limit us offensively, and then pound away with Dixon and company and be in good shape to get the win.
And honestly, that's a major concern. Protecting the football is easier said than done. Again, Wilson could probably qualify to be the poster child for costly turnovers, and it's likely that Titus Brown will give us some major problems in the passing game.
This is a game that, on paper, we should win. Again, more talent, more depth, and better coaching. You do the math. We should be able to move the ball relatively well, score some points, and give the MSU offense lots of trouble. But our opponent this week is an opportunistic one, and they have feasted upon foes who beat themselves.
If we can protect the football and not beat ourselves, the Tide should win with relative ease. If we cannot do that, however, there is a very good chance that we could suffer our second embarrassing loss in a row to the Dawgs. Rest assured, these guys will come ready to play and lay it all on the line, we'll just have to see if we have the discipline and mental fortitude to put the LSU game behind us and play good, solid football.