"We knew that they were going to come out really believing they could win the game," he said. "That's when we knew we had to come out and play hard in the beginning." The Tide scored touchdowns on its first three possessions on its way to a 24-0 halftime lead. "We felt like we really started fast, which was something we talked about all week," Jones said. "We sort of took away their hope early."
"We didn't just believe," Mullen said. "I think our guys expected us to win." That's what made Saturday's result so hard to swallow for the previously unbeaten Bulldogs. "Now we're going to see how we handle the adversity of failure this week, and that's a good challenge, you know, a great challenge," Mullen said. "It's going to be a great challenge for me and our staff and the leadership of our team to come back. "There is a lot of football left to be played this season. It's far from over for us."
OK, maybe Alabama’s defense isn’t dripping with the kind of talent it was a year ago. Four of the starters on the Crimson Tide’s 2011 national championship defense were taken among the top 35 picks in April's NFL draft. That’s the kind of talent you simply don’t replace overnight. At least, not in the SEC. But try telling that to the guys on this Alabama defense. They grew tiresome of hearing all offseason about what they weren’t going to have this season and all the players who were no longer around. "We did lose a lot of great players, but we also had a lot of players coming back who were hungry," Alabama junior linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "We’re not as good as we were last year in some spots, and in some spots, we’re better. "The main thing is that we want to make our own mark. We want to create our own identity, and that’s what we go out there to do every week."
In more ways than one, Mississippi State thought it was different than the first seven victims on Alabama's 2012 schedule. The Bulldogs didn't just believe they could knock off the nation's top-ranked team in its own ballpark, their defensive brain trust must have felt their personnel was physically superior to what the Alabama offense had seen in the Crimson Tide's first seven games of the season. How else do you explain State playing the UA running game straight up early in the contest, offering nothing in the way of stunts, slants and/or blitzes? With Alabama's offensive line and tight end Michael Williams working against a teed up MSU front seven, the Crimson Tide's opening drive was little more than batting practice, with Lacy and Yeldon combining to average 7.2 yards per carry on a drive that culminated with Yeldon waltzing 11 yards into the end zone. When it comes to slowing down the UA rushing attack, belief will only get you so far. Teams not named LSU have no choice but to load the box, even when Alabama has three wide receivers on the field, as the Crimson Tide did for much of the night. State elected not to do that early in the game and was gashed for its troubles.
Nick Saban roamed the sideline like a lion stalking a wildebeest. He looked furious. His defense had just given up a touchdown. Now his offense couldn't run the play quite perfectly. So he fumed. Alabama led Mississippi State, which had entered Saturday unbeaten and ranked No. 11 in the BCS standings, by a score of 38-7. The Crimson Tide offense, composed entirely of backups, was taking a knee to run out the clock. Before anyone could even ask him afterward, Saban brought up his late-game displeasure. "I know everybody's probably going to say, 'Well, you got upset with the backup players.' I got upset with the backup players because they're better than that," Saban said. "They know they're better than that. They need to play with poise and confidence when they go in the game and compete just like everybody else competes. That's about being able to execute and do your job. It's not about shutting anybody out. It's not about any of that. We're trying to get our players to play their best in every regard." Welcome to Alabama, where even the blowouts aren't good enough.
"We're not working to be better than other teams," says Alabama center Barrett Jones. "We’re working against ourselves." If that wasn’t clear before, you better believe it is now. That was Saban, veins popping out of his neck, screaming at backups late in another rout in the toughest conference in college football. It wasn’t about giving up a shutout. It was about giving up on yourself. "They’re better than that," Saban said. "It’s about playing the best you can play in every regard."
"We felt like we had something to prove, because they felt like they could come in our house and beat us," Tide linebacker CJ Mosley said. "As a defense we did a great job of stopping the run and making them try to beat us with the pass." Point made. The Tide (8-0, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) quickly turned the meeting of unbeaten SEC West teams into a mismatch with a 21-0 lead barely a minute into the second quarter. "We certainly had a lot of respect for Mississippi State," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "You don't get to be 7-0 by accident. I think it was important for us to get off to a fast start in this game, preparing yourself to fight a 15-round fight, knowing that you're going to have to take the fight to them in the early rounds. "You can't necessarily win the fight in the first round, but you can certainly lose it. I think we had the right amount of energy and the right physical energy to play in the game."
And while the game ends whatever dreams Mississippi State had of a truly magical season, it helps to bring into focus what the Bulldogs are: A very good team that's almost certainly not going to win the SEC West. But one that will battle Texas A&M next week for the title of third best team in the SEC West, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
"We did a good job of watching film during the week, practicing and knowing they were a good defense," said Christion Jones, the Crimson Tide's sophomore wide receiver. "They lead our conference in turnovers. Their secondary leads our conference in interceptions, so we knew what we were coming into the game against. I thought we did a great job of executing."
Of all the Heisman candidates, McCarron might be the most under the radar. He has attempted only 18 fourth-quarter passes all season, so his 18 total passing touchdowns doesn't leap off the page. His efficiency does. He's No. 1 in the country in that category, but is he Heisman worthy? "Right now, we don't really focus on that," said UA wide receiver Christion Jones, flashing a knowing smile after the game. "We keep it game by game. Whatever happens, happens in that respect." Alabama tight end Michael Williams wouldn't say whether McCarron is the best quarterback in the country, but there's little doubt he's the best signal-caller for the Crimson Tide. "He's our leader," Williams said. "We're going to follow our leader."
The gap between Alabama and the rest of the country is widening: It might take an NFL team to stop the Crimson Tide. Alabama feasted on No. 11 Mississippi State Saturday night with its 38-7 win over the Bulldogs. Such is life for opponents that walk into that Crimson buzz saw. Alabama is allowing just 3.5 yards per play and is outscoring opponents by 32 points a game. Oregon has looked great, and is still scoring against Colorado, while Kansas State and Notre Dame look more impressive every week. But Alabama is on a different level. It's the most disciplined team out there and it's getting better. The Tide might not be as flashy or score as many points as Oregon or Kansas State, but it doesn't need to. It's too busy running on cruise control in the second half of games to care about scoring margins.
Key stat: The Crimson Tide forced three Mississippi State turnovers while committing none of their own, which pushes their season turnover margin to plus-17. Alabama scored touchdowns off two of those three turnovers -- a 27-yard screen pass from backup quarterback Phillip Ely to running back Eddie Lacy and a 3-yard touchdown run from third-string running back Kenyan Drake.
Immediately after Alabama scored on the game’s opening drive, State got as close as Alabama’s 14. Dee Milliner blocked Devon Bell’s 31-yard field goal attempt. "We knew coming in they were going to be light at the wing spot," said Milliner, who came from the outside. "I got a great get-off and I got a block. It hit my left hand. It felt kind of hard at the time because it was cold and then it hit my hand. I was numb for a little bit." (ed.- film study y'all.)
"I think there were two really critical plays in the game," Saban said. "They drove the ball right down the field on us, and we get a blocked field goal early in the game, which is a big play. I also think when they drove the ball 90-some yards on us and we got an interception -- both those things we huge."
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron came out of the game after three quarters, giving way to backups Blake Sims and Phillip Ely. The nation’s leader in passing efficiency, McCarron exited to get checked in the locker room after a sack. He returned to the sideline quickly, with his injury diagnosed as a bruised upper back. He wasn’t needed back on the field, and for the night, he completed 16 of 23 passes for 208 yards and a pair of touchdowns. "He’s fine," Saban said. "He could’ve gone back into the game. He’ll be fine for next week’s game."
Before being sidelined, McCarron flashed the form that has made him an emerging Heisman Trophy candidate against a defense stacked to slow UA's running attack. He showed tremendous touch in catching Kenny Bell in stride for a 57-yard touchdown and precision timing on two over-the-shoulder passes to Christion Jones. "All the receivers do a good job at playing fast and getting the timing on when we're going to stick and make our move and AJ does a good job with the ball placement," Jones said. Blake Sims gained 19 yards on three carries as a replacement at quarterback and Phillip Ely threw a hot screen pass to Eddie Lacy for a 27-yard touchdown, showing that there is depth behind McCarron. "It gives us a little different pitch to the defense when he's in the game," Saban said of Sims.
Finally, after two solid months of college football, the week has arrived. Don't ask which week. If you follow college football, you know this one, the one everyone knew would have a huge impact on the race for the BCS championship, whether they liked it or not. Alabama hasn't had a close game yet. Much of the nation remains torn between two possibilities: On the one hand, the hypothesis is that no one on Alabama's schedule has been good enough to push the Crimson Tide, and, on the other, is the theory that no one in college football, on the UA schedule or not, is good enough to do so. This week, the two ideas will be reconciled. LSU is good enough to win. Make no mistake about that. The Tigers are not perfect, due to an offense that is something of a mess. But their defense and special teams and the atmosphere in Tiger Stadium are enough to give them a very good chance against any team - Oregon, Kansas State, Notre Dame or Alabama. That is a fact, and all the revisionism that will accompany an Alabama win, should it happen, doesn't alter that.
UA entered with the top-ranked defensive unit in almost every major statistical category, including total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense. While Mississippi State moved the ball at times, the Bulldogs did nothing to change the prevailing thought that Alabama has the best defense in the nation. Even Saban admitted he didn't expect his defense to jell so soon after losing five members of his 2011 championship defense to the NFL. "For all the young players that we have, if you would have told me we'd be in the position statistically and scoring defense wise that we're in right now, I would have said, 'No way,'" Saban said. "These guys have really set out with an attitude that they want to prove something, and we've had some guys who've really stepped up as playmakers."
Meanwhile, one special teams area that has been a trouble spot for the Crimson Tide in recent weeks - kickoff coverage - had an up-and-down night. MSU had kickoff returns of 39, 37 and 33 yards, but the coverage unit also forced two fumbles - both by Christion Jones - and twice stopped returns inside the MSU 20. "It was a call on our side, middle right, I was hot coming down," Jones said. "Our kickoff team did a great job fitting the wedge. I saw the guy come, and made the tackle." Freshman Reggie Ragland dropped LaDarius Perkins at the MSU 20 on one kickoff, and John Fulton stopped Perkins at the MSU 19 on another. "We're getting better each week," Milliner said. "We had a couple (returns) that broke out, but, fortunately, we were able to get the ball out on a couple of them. That's something we can work on and get better at."
I was a guest on Alabama coach Nick Saban's radio show Thursday night and he brought up a good point when I asked him about conference realignment. Saban said he believed there only needed to be 60 to 70 FBS teams in four or five conferences and they needed to play each other and no one else (meaning no FCS opponents or lower FBS teams). Saban said he believed the changes would improve the product on the field and keep fans coming to stadiums every week. I'm sure fans of Conference USA, SunBelt and WAC schools wouldn't appreciate the change, but it certainly would make major college football much more competitive.