If you haven't already heard, this Saturday is pretty big. Then again, they're all pretty big at this point.
One of the constant thrills of the Saban Era in Tuscaloosa - which, it's worth noting, probably didn't really begin until LSU visited in 2007 - has been that the football universe has more or less revolved around Bryant-Denny. College Gameday has set up outside Bama games - either in Tuscaloosa or at neutral sites - on multiple occasions every season since 2008, and the Tide has played on national television pretty much every week.
The opponents have rotated, though few would ever imagine that Mississippi State would ever come to Alabama ranked No. 1 in the nation. If you didn't know - and no doubt you'll hear this ad nauseam between now and Saturday night - State is actually Bama's closest conference opponent (geographically, anyway).
You wouldn't know that, probably, because the two have rarely competed at the same level. Yes, it's true that Alabama is traditionally a national power, while State is traditionally an Independence Bowl participant, but in the best years of Jackie Sherrill - State posted winning records from 97-2000, winning their division once and winning 10 games in 1999 - their closest geographic conference foe was mired in the dregs of Mike Dubose*.
* - It wasn't until after this post published that I realized I completely glossed over Alabama's 1999 win over Sherrill's undefeated Bulldogs, one of the better games I attended as a student. I can't believe I forgot about it, since it was one of the bigger victories of the Dubose era. Wait ... now I remember why I forgot about it.
So it is a rare thing indeed to see a mighty Bulldog team come to Tuscaloosa (the undefeated team that came here two years ago was nowhere near this good). And previewing their offense is a fun task.
College football, like most things, goes in reactionary cycles. When I was a kid, the spread passing game became all the rage, popularized mostly because of Steve Spurrier's success at Florida, and the "West Coast" offense that some NFL coaches brought with them to various programs. At some point in the mid-1990s, defenses responded by adopting zone blitzes and "press man" defense, which made the effort to take away short throws by bullying receivers at the line of scrimmage while simultaneously pressuring the quarterback.
And then the option came back.
The first time I remember seeing what we now call the "zone read" option was in a high school game, during one of the years that Homewood beat Benjamin Russell for the 5A state championship. The game lasted 6-7 overtimes, with Homewood scoring each time on a zone read option play that BRHS simply couldn't defend.
The actual history of the zone read - the foundation of the spread option offense - is a whole other story that would take up most of an entire book (and has, in fact). In any case, Mississippi State's Dan Mullen didn't invent the play, but it has made him a great deal of money over the years. Mullen served as quarterbacks coach for Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, offensive coordinator under Meyer at Utah and Florida, before he came to State in 2008.
The 2014 version of the Bulldogs are the ideal version of his offense: Coming into Saturday the Bullies rank 6th in the country in total offense, averaging over 7 yards per play, and over 520 yards per game. They run for 250 yards per game (15th in the country), and pass for 260 per game (38th). And they've saved their best for their biggest games - the Bullies ground up LSU for 570 yards, then followed that with 469 yards vs. Auburn (a total that is slightly limited only because Auburn turned the ball over 3 times in its own territory, so State started with short fields). And when their defense needed them on the road at Kentucky - a classic "letdown game" in which State surrendered 500 yards - the offense was brilliant, with 542 yards, 326 of them on the ground, and 45 points.
To be perfectly fair, of their opponents thus far, only LSU and Arkansas rank in top half of the SEC in total defense (and it's fair to say the Tigers are a much better, more mature team now than they were in September when State visited). Even so, this offense has been lethal thus far in 2014. As an added bonus, Mullen gave us one of the video highlights of the year on Gameday:
There really aren't that many compliments I can give Dakota Prescott that other, much smarter football minds than I have already given. The stats basically speak for themselves: 61 percent completion percentage, 9.3 yards per attempt, 18-7 TD-interception ratio, 5.4 yards per rush, 11 rushing touchdowns, etc., etc., etc. Even in his worst performance so far this season - a 17-10 win vs. Arkansas in which he threw 2 interceptions - he overcame a sore foot to finish the Hogs with a 69-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
One of the beauties of an option-based offense is that if the quarterback is a fearsome enough threat as rusher and passer, everyone else blossoms. The Bulldogs' leading rusher is tailback Josh Robinson, who's averaging over 6 yards per carry, over 100 yards per game and already has one of the season's more memorable runs (vs. Kentucky).
No other rusher for State - aside from Prescott - has more than 35 carries this season.
For whatever it's worth, Alabama has limited State's rushing attack in the past three seasons season to 12, 47 and 53 yards. For the season opponents are averaging under 90 yards per game rushing.
Prescott's receiving threats are varied, however: De'Runnya Wilson, Robinson, Gabe Myles, Malcolm Johnson, Fred Ross, Jameon Lewis, Fred Brown and Robert Johnson all have double-digit catches on the season. Wilson is by far the best of the lot, averaging almost 17 yards per catch, with 6 touchdowns.
So, dispensing with the praise, I'll just note this: During this Saban Era, Alabama's defense has faced either the reigning or the eventual Heisman Trophy winner in every season save two (2009, because the eventual Heisman winner played for us that year, and 2011, because even though everyone knew Tyrann Mathieu was the best player in the country, Robert Griffin won it because God forbid someone other than a quarterback wins the stupid Heisman).
The results of those games have been ... let's say, mixed. Tim Tebow was able to overcome Bama in the fourth quarter in 08 but was pretty pedestrian in 2009; Cam Newton did the same in 2010; Johnny Manziel shocked Bama in 2012 and was probably better in 2013 (but the Tide still won).
The late Beano Cook famously said once that the easiest way to win the Heisman is "to either play for Notre Dame or beat Notre Dame." Something similar holds true for Dak this Saturday: If he comes to Tuscaloosa and throws up a performance like he did at LSU, and State leaves town undefeated and ranked No. 1? Cancel the caterer for the Heisman ceremony and just send the trophy directly to Starkville.
Hope for the best. No, really. Hope for the best.