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Hope For the Best: Mississippi State edition

If Alabama does as its capable of doing, this one should be a walk. It's that "if" that can be the devil in the details...

Dak Prescott holds the Bulldogs' best chance at success...will he play?
Dak Prescott holds the Bulldogs' best chance at success...will he play?
Scott Halleran

"Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." - John Donne

Fresh from a conquest, the warrior takes relief in casting aside his shield and sword in favor of the mantle of comfort, knowing that he has survived another test, bested another champion, and thus secured another day's battle.

Alabama's utter handling of a ferocious foe in LSU was a thing of beauty, a highlight full of highlights, a demonstration of what a properly motivated Crimson Tide team can do when it fully flexes its will. Alabama is juggernaut...Alabama is conqueror...Alabama is the once and future king of college football who has rightfully taken its place on the throne, reigning over their kingdom with a malevolent, controlled siege engine known as The Process©.

Previously, the Aggi raised their swords in rebellion, and they were subsequently smote by a superior Crimson Tide team. Ole Miss rose up in insurrection, claiming a heritage to the championship swagger the Crimson Tide drags like a warhammer across the sands of the SEC. They, too, failed. Miserably. Virginia Tech, Tennessee, Arkansas...they all thought they wanted Bama, but after 60 minutes of play, they stared straight into the face of their previous foolhardy desire and recognized its utter folly.

While Bama may fall to another potential conqueror at some future time, under the right circumstances, for the moment at least, Bama is Optimus Prime, the head honcho, the alpha, a dominant force the likes of which has rarely been seen not just in college football, but in organized sports as a whole. Maybe the Yankees can claim a share of this legacy, and certainly, the Wizard of Westwood had a nearly unmatchable run on the hardwood at UCLA. But few teams have accomplished what now sits before the Crimson Tide. This date with history will cement the team and its fearless leader, Our Dark Lord, amongst those of other legends in the field of sport.

That is, of course, unless some upstart, hair-shirt wearing neophyte with a rock, a sling and an aim that's true should do the unthinkable and raze the army of automatons that do Nick Saban's bidding. Enter the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

Fresh off a thrilling and dominant performance over LSU, some figure Alabama could be ripe for a "trap game" or an emotional let-down akin to the circumstance that led to the Tide's only failing in 2012. In 2012, Bama, drained from the closely-contested, physical battle with LSU, did something it rarely fell behind. From that unfamiliar perch, the Tide mounted a comeback that ultimately came up short, producing a loss to what many considered the inferior team.

The task that awaits the Crimson Tide and Saban this week is a different kind of match-up altogether. The question is not whether Alabama can beat Mississippi State, or whether the "red team" should demolish their maroon-clad opponents from a few miles west of Tuscaloosa. The question is whether Alabama learned a lesson from 2012: did they learn to leave the events of the past in the past, while maintaining their laser-like focus on the next challenge at hand. That is something that, when dealing with 18 to 22 year old men, is easier said than done.

Bama is on the precipice, four games from a return trip to Pasadena. The destination is fitting, as Pasadena is where the Tide kicked off its recent run of dominance, summoning the gravelly-voiced black-and-blue ghosts of championships past at the Capstone. It is apropos that Alabama may get a chance to bring their fateful run full-circle in the Rose Bowl, where many historic moments have transpired over the last 100 years.

But first, they must get past the Bulldogs. Do not scoff at the challenge this Mississippi State team can offer. For in the SEC, it's become a cliché (however accurate) that any team can beat any other team on any given day. Given the dominance of the Tide, and the mediocrity of Coach Dan Mullen's Bulldogs this season, such a postulation seems laughable. But alas, stranger things have happened, hence the term "upset."

Despite the relative confidence harbored by fans of the Tide regarding this weekend's match-up with Mississippi State, there are some things that can further propel the Tide towards destiny...and some that could result in not-so-positive consequences regarding Alabama's apparent third consecutive title run. Let's look at those factors in a little more depth, shall we?...

  • In a word, Dak Prescott. Whether or not Prescott plays will figure heavily into Bully's chances of success in this game. Even with him on the field, beating Bama will be a tall task, simply put. However, the kid is a football player, pure and simple. He is the prototypical quarterback for Mullen's system, as he can run and pass with equal deftness. Look at his stat line for 2013, and you'll see what I mean. He's a physical, "working man's" Johnny Football, though admittedly not nearly as flashy and naturally gifted Manziel. The 6'2" sophomore from Haughton, LA is a load who can truck many average safeties, and he's had success as a hybrid quarterback in six of the Bulldogs' games to date (with pro-style QB Tyler Russell getting the other three starts). In those games, Prescott has posted 1542 yards passing on 128 completions with seven TDs and seven INTs. Rushing, Prescott has been explosive in Mullen's system by quarterback standards, piling up 722 yards on 111 rushes with 10 touchdowns. He is the type of quarterback with whom the Tide has struggled from time to time, though Saban has apparently adapted his defensive style of play and talent to meet the challenges posed by the zone read attack Mullen tends to favor. Prescott is a gritty player, and if the Tide does not maintain its discipline and stay in the lanes on defense, the Bulldogs could have a little success when they have the ball. If Mississippi State is going to have half a chance in this game, they will need Prescott to have a huge day. That would be difficult under many circumstances, but in light of Prescott's injury last week in the Bullies' contest with the Aggi, there's no guarantee he will start the game, let alone have a dominant performance. He's a gritty kid and will go if the physicians let him, but Mullen himself said he was unsure of Prescott's status. That could be gamesmanship on Mullen's part, but even if the situation has been exaggerated, I wouldn't expect Prescott to be at 100 percent. A sub-100 percent Prescott will mean almost certain defeat for CLANGA, as Tyler Russell has proven multiple times that he is not the quarterback to lead his team to victory over the crimson horde.
  • Despite the flicker of hope Bully fans are provided by the MSU offense and its potential explosiveness, on defense, the picture is not nearly as rosy. In a word, the Mississippi State defense has struggled. Mightily. They have SEC caliber talent in some positions, but there is also great youth and inexperience rife amongst the starting 11. While the front seven are stout and have played as such this season, the secondary is a cause for concern for even the most sunshine-pumping Bulldog fans. The secondary is young, as detailed in the piece written this week by my comrade Joe27. They've played as such, allowing 231 yards passing per game, 7.4 yards per attempt and 16 touchdowns through the air. The rushing defense is a tad better, allowing 141.7 yards per game with 14 touchdowns and 4.2 yards per attempt. Statistically, the defense is middle-of-the-pack-ish (71st in scoring defense, for example), which generally is not good enough to stop the potent Alabama offense. In this game, the Bullies will have to pick their poison, defensively speaking. Alabama, behind a vastly improved offensive line that is asserting its dominance at this point in the season, will likely be able to run at will with T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake. If the Bulldogs double-down to stop the run and stack the box, certainly their inexperienced secondary will have little chance of covering the likes of Amari Cooper, Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones (to name only a few of the Tide's offensive weapons) in man. Add in the apparent mismatch of freshman tight end sensation O.J. Howard against lumbering linebacker Bernardrick McKinney. There just doesn't seem to be a way for Bully to put fingers in all of the holes they will see in their defensive dike versus Alabama, and AJ McCarron should be able to slice and dice the Mississippi State secondary provided the offensive line continues to pass block exceedingly well.
  • At this point in the season, it appears little can derail the Tide from a date with destiny in Pasadena. However, the looming Sword of Damocles hanging over the Crimson Tide and every other championship-caliber contender remains injury to key players. One need not look outside of the SEC to see the wreckage unleashed on championship hopes when injuries take hold, as both Georgia and Florida had their seasons prematurely ripped asunder by key injuries. Bama has been fortunate this year in that regard, sustaining only minor injuries to supporting players thus far. But the wrong injury at the wrong time could be more devastating than anything inflicted by any of the Tide's remaining opponents. I won't mention names for fear of negative juju, but we all know what could happen to the Tide if a key player suffers a season-ending injury. That scenario would be the pine box in which the Tide's title hopes would likely be interred. Pour on the HooDoo this week, folks, as Bama needs to emerge from this one injury-free.
  • Cow bells. Those damn cowbells. Who ever uttered the phrase "more cowbell" apparently never had to play at Mississippi State. It's not that the bells are intimidating on their own, mere sheets of copper bent into shape with an iron ringer inside. But en masse, the cowbells are every bit as irritating and off-putting as the vuvuzelas of World Cup fame. They disrupt offensive calls to a degree, that much is granted. They serve as crowd multipliers at Scott Field, where on the best day, a mere 55,000 fans crowd into Davis Wade Stadium . There's a reason Bully is fond of its cowbells, and it's an obvious one: it gives the homefield fans an advantage that they would not normally have due to their relatively small numbers. Will it affect the Tide, a team accustomed to the rousing homefield soundtrack supplied by 102,000 screaming Tide fans? Alabama is a team that routinely survives and thrives off of the din of battle levied forth in the SEC's toughest stadiums. Will the same be true against the percussive drone of Bully's bovine implements? Only time will tell. But the Tide has shown in the past, and this year in venues such as Kyle Field, that crowd noise is rarely a factor that changes the dynamics of their devastation. Loud or not, when on the road, Bama comes to play, a focused machine of war that seeks only to quickly crush an opponent and mete out its own form of simple, vanilla brutality on the other squad. Cowbells be damned, this week should be no different.

Is there much of a chance that the winds of fate blow in favor of Bully and snuff out the flame of Alabama's title hopes? Probably not, if we're being frank and honest. Sure, the Bulldogs must be respected like all opponents. After all, they are the next opponent. Can they do enough to keep things close? The answer to that question probably lies more with Alabama than Mississippi State, as it would take a catastrophic meltdown both offensively and defensively for Alabama to come close to dropping a game to an SEC cellar-dweller like Mississippi State.

But, as is often said, stranger things have happened. During a perfect storm, the "could" can become the "did" in the turn of the breeze. Let's hope that the Tide is what we think it is, and that no tomfoolery erupts in Starkville on Saturday night.

In other words, be aware of the potential worst...but hope for the best.