While the top of the SEC race features such traditional mainstays as Alabama, Florida, LSU, and Georgia, typically left unmentioned in the battle for southeastern supremacy is an undefeated team in control of its own destiny: Mississippi State. The Bulldogs probably consider themselves the Rodney Dangerfields of college football at this point -- an SEC West team that is 7-0 yet not ranked in the top ten nationally and 24 point underdogs against Alabama -- but such is the inevitable response to an unbeaten record comprised of wins over 1-6 Auburn, 1-7 Kentucky, 3-4 Tennessee (at home), and four scrumptious non-conference cupcakes, especially when two of the victories were close and two more featured somewhat pedestrian performances. Given the foregoing, Mississippi State comes to Tuscaloosa tomorrow night looking to stake its claim against top-ranked Alabama, and while most MSU supporters feel slighted by the lack of respect, they will have ample opportunity to prove its worth over the next three weeks, with 'Bama, Texas A&M, and LSU to follow.
Quality of competition aside, though, 7-0 does not come about by accident, and in fairness this looks to be the best team Dan Mullen has fielded to date in Starkville. The biggest difference through seven games has been the productive play of the offense, where Dan Mullen has finally fielded a formidable unit. After two shaky seasons, junior quarterback Tyler Russell has played commensurate with his prep billing, completing 60% of his passes while averaging 7.75 yards per attempt and throwing 15 touchdowns against only one interception, and perhaps by no coincidence the wide receiver corps has been impressive to boot. The triumvirate of Chad Bumphis, Chris Smith, and Arceto Smith lead the way outside, and while none of the three are particularly big, all are seniors who are fundamentally sound and Bumphis in particular has legitimate playmaking ability, averaging almost 17 yards per reception. Mixed with senior tight end Marcus Green, the MSU passing game, which has consistently been a black hole in Starkville since the days of Derrick Taite and Eric Moulds, has actually become a threat.
The running game has been more of a complimentary option than normal in Starkville, though tailback LaDarius Perkins has had no problems stepping into the shoes of Vick Ballard, who is now in the NFL. Perkins is a bit of a strange player, and one who plays bigger than his listed size, but he has been effective to date. Offensive line play, however, is more of a mixed bag, and could be a potential liability. The play from the guards has been fine, but Dillon Day has been more respectable than impressive at center, and while the tackles, Blaine Clausell and Charles Siddoway. have great length, both have relatively little starting experience and many believe that both can be taken advantage of by quality pass rushers.
Despite a couple of potential liabilities on the offensive line, however, overall offensive performance has been much better this season for State. Of course, the caveat that comes with the on-field improvement is the quality of the opposition to date, which is a constant theme coming into this weekend. Yes, the MSU offense has looked much better, but the best defense it has faced in the first seven weeks is arguably, unbelievably enough, Auburn. Can they replicate their early success against better competition? Consider that part of the unknown heading into tomorrow night.
Defensively, meanwhile, Mississippi State effectively plays back to front. The Bulldog secondary is led by senior cornerbacks Johnthan Banks, who will almost assuredly a first round draft pick, and Corey Broomfield, who should also play on Sunday. Safety play is not quite as strong, but Darius Slay and Nickoe Whitley are quality players in their own right, and Slay in particular can be a difference-maker at times, producing four interceptions on the season. Quality depth can also be found further down the two-deep, either with promising underclassmen or experienced veterans. On the whole the secondary is arguably the best in the conference, and it is no accident that two weeks ago MSU held Tyler Bray to a mere 13-24 for 148 yards while limiting Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter to a pair of catches each.
The issue defensively for State is that they get progressively weaker the closer you move to the line of scrimmage. The linebacker corps has held up well enough against the lesser competition, and while it's not the most athletic group, size is good and there is experience at outside linebacker with Cameron Lawrence and Deontae Skinner. The key to date, however, has been redshirt freshman middle linebacker Bernardrick McKinney, who tips the scales at 6'5 and 235 pounds and who leads the team with tackles. But again, can they hold up against a quality opponent, and in particular will Doug Nussmeier be able to exploit the relative lack of athleticism, especially in the short passing game?
The bigger concern for State, however, is the defensive line, where MSU has been unable to fully replace former standout defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who was the anchor of the defensive front a year ago. The current group is led by Josh Boyd and Denico Autrey, but the results have been someone lukewarm. Despite the weak schedule, MSU is only 47th in the nation against the run, with opponents averaging over 4.0 yards per carry and nearly 140 yards per game on the ground. Much of the same largely applies to the pass rush as well. Back-up defensive end Preston Smith has provided a boost off of the bench, posting 3.5 sacks in a limited role, but in general rushing the passer has been a real problem for this unit, which has generated only 11 sacks this season on 233 passing attempts.
On the whole, this is simply a very hard team to meaningfully evaluate. Regardless of opponent, 7-0 entails at least some degree of deference, and admittedly this is an experienced team with legitimate talent at several positions. Having said that, there are reasons to be somewhat suspicious, and performance at times has been unimpressive against struggling opponents. Troy, for example, at 4-3 in the Sun Belt with losses to Louisiana-Lafayette and Western Kentucky, took State down to the final minutes, losing 30-24 after being unable to force a stop late in the fourth quarter. In the same vein, wins over 2-5 South Alabama and 1-7 Kentucky were workmanlike-at-best. The win over Tennessee is easily the most impressive to date, but even that was a reasonably close victory, at home, in what was very much a competitive game until the closing minutes. Could State be a legitimate contender who has just played a weak schedule? Certainly, but it could just as easily be argued, perhaps even more convincingly, that the Bulldogs are more of a middling team whose record has been inflated by a cupcake schedule.
In the meantime, Alabama is coming off its most impressive performance of the season, a 44-13 crushing of Tennessee in Knoxville, a quality opponent that by all accounts matched up particularly well against the Tide. 'Bama seems to be hitting its stride at the right time, and fortunately so because now is not the time for complacency and stagnation. While the Alabama schedule has been weak in its own right to date for the Crimson Tide, that short-term luxury will very much change over the next five weeks, and for the Tide the battle has only just begun. A number one ranking and a 7-0 record is nice, but the four critical games that will determine if the Tide earns a trip to Miami have all yet to be played and the overall story of the season has yet to be written. The pass defense, for example, proved its muster last weekend against the Volunteers, but they will be tested again tomorrow night, and on the whole the overall difficulty of the slate ramps up exponentially in the following three weeks.
Just as was the case a weekend ago in Knoxville, the Alabama offense could be the key tomorrow night, and in particular the 'Bama running game. As described above, State has been a bit soft against the run this season, even though they have not faced a potent rushing game, and the most certain path to victory entails having Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon produce another standout performance on the ground. If all goes to plan, 'Bama will control the MSU front seven at the point of attack, and avoid having to throw the football down the field and into the heart of the State defense. AJ McCarron has had a strong season to date, but given the strength of the Mississippi State defensive backfield, throwing the football tomorrow night could be a real struggle, and the talent is certainly present for the Bullies to generate key turnovers in the passing game, so 'Bama will likely want to avoid relying on the passing game any more than necessary.
The good news for Alabama is that, unlike the past four years, 'Bama does not draw Mississippi State immediately following the annual slugfest against LSU. The Bullies have been somewhat pesky for the Tide in recent years -- State was, in fact, Alabama's closest game in 2011 with the exception of the November 5th loss to LSU -- and it is probably no mere coincidence that has taken place while 'Bama has been trying to mentally and physically recover on short notice following the most grueling game on the regular season schedule. Texas A&M receives that bonus this season, and perhaps that can work as an added benefit to the Tide tomorrow night.
Alabama supporters certainly have good reason to be bullish after the overall result of the first half of the season and the thumping of Tennessee in particular. Nevertheless, even if Alabama can successfully defend its national championship, the Crimson Tide will be tested and harshly so at some point in the stretch run, and that could very well come tomorrow night. Moreover, given the talent and experience on this MSU team, if Dan Mullen is to ever take down a Nick Saban-led Alabama, this is probably his best chance.
Could Mississippi State take down 'Bama? Yes, if either State is as good as the raw 7-0 record indicates, and/or if 'Bama underwhelms tomorrow night (something it has made a bad habit of doing of late in home games). For better or for worse, though, making a meaningful evaluation of Mississippi State is very difficult, and even eight weeks into the college football season this team has to be considered a major unknown. Are the Bulldogs a legitimate contender or the same ol' Mississippi State? Either way, we will find out tomorrow night in Tuscaloosa.
Hope for the best.