Mississippi State comes to Tuscaloosa Saturday for, perhaps, the biggest game in the school's history. The top-ranked Bulldogs will face off against #5 Alabama in what will be the penultimate test for both teams in determining who will represent the West division in the SEC Championship and perhaps the College Football Playoffs.
While State has had a stellar year, the team's success has largely been achieved on one side of the ball. The Bulldogs are near the top of the conference in total offense (second to Texas A&M) and points per game (second to Georgia). Defensively, however, Mississippi State is well below average. The Bulldogs are 76th nationally in total defense, and while their rushing defense ranks in the top twenty nationally, they are one of the worst teams in the country against the pass - falling to 121st among FBS teams.
Preston Smith (91), Bernardrick McKinney (50) and Kaleb Eulls (92) - top players on the MSU defense.
The strength of Geoff Collins' 4-3 defense is in the veteran line and linebacker corp. Senior Kaleb Eulls is a leader at the tackle position, having started all 48 games of his career so far. The 6'4", 295-lb Eulls has amassed 2.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss in 2014.
Joining Eulls is tackle P.J. Jones, also a senior. Jones (6'3", 296 lbs) is a third-year starter who solidified his role last season. Jones has one sack and one tackle for loss as well as a quarterback hurry and a forced fumble.
At the end spots are senior Preston Smith and junior . Smith is a 6'6", 270-lb monster who leads the offensive line in tackles with 32. Smith also has two interceptions on the year. Brown, at 6'6", 262 lbs, is one of the most athletic members of the line and is an intelligent on-field player as well. Brown was on the SEC Academic Honor Roll in 2013.
Middle linebacker Bernardrick McKinney (6'5", 249 lbs) is the team's leading tackler with 55 so far this season. McKinney has 6.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, three passes broken up, three hurries, a forced fumble, and a fumble return in 2014. Arguably the best mike linebacker in the country, McKinney is a projected first-round pick by most experts and will likely forego his senior season for the NFL when draft time rolls around.
Sophomore Beniquez Brown's 47 tackles are second on the team. Brown, a 6'1", 235-lb native of Florence, Alabama, also has 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two passes broken up, and three hurries on the season. Senior Matthew Wells (6'2", 220 lbs) has 35 tackles, six tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks. He also has accumulated 7 passes broken up, four hurries, and a forced fumble.
Backup linebacker Christian Holmes, 6'1", 230-lb senior, also has the distinction of playing as a backup tight end. Holmes is third on the team with 46 tackles and has a kickoff return for a touchdown. Sophomore linebacker Richie Brown has three interceptions on the season, tied for the team lead.
While the secondary is experienced, featuring three seniors and a junior in the starting lineup, it is the weak link in the Bulldog defense. Mississippi State gives up an average of slightly more than 300 yards per game passing (more yardage than Alabama gives up total).
Junior Taveze Calhoun (6'1", 184 lbs) leads the secondary in tackles, with 41. Calhoun has broken up seven passes and has 1.5 tackles for loss at the cornerback spot. Jamerson Love, a senior, is a bit undersized for a corner at 5'10", 175 lbs. He has 27 tackles, including three for loss. Love has also broken up seven passes.
Seniors Jay Hughes and Justin Cox are starters at strong and free safety, respectively. Hughes has two interceptions on the season and Cox has one. Backup cornerback Will Redmond, a sophomore, has three picks on the season.
Mississippi State's defense will not impress anyone statistically, but they have been able to provide enough stops to keep the Bulldogs undefeated through nine games. While State's opponents typically gain a lot of yards, the Bulldogs do hold their opponents to under 20 points per game. So, the pressure will be on Alabama to move the ball and score consistently in order to stay ahead and keep Dak Prescott and the MSU offense off the field. If the Crimson Tide can maintain the success that they have had at home this season, they have a good chance to walk away with a win on Saturday night.