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Hope For the Best: Alabama versus Mississippi State

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Did anyone expect the SEC West to come down to this game? Dan Mullen and Dak Prescott did, and that's what makes this game so scary for fans of the Crimson Tide.

Can Blake Sims get back on track and shred the Bulldogs' 120th ranked pass defense?
Can Blake Sims get back on track and shred the Bulldogs' 120th ranked pass defense?
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

"We had to overcome to win...When the defense went out there after the fumble, I told them, ‘This is where you show you know how to win. We got to stop them right here.' When the offense went out there with 50 seconds left to go in the game, I said, ‘This is where you show that you know how to win. We got to go kick a field goal with no timeouts.' The players did a great job in the face of those circumstances, and it continued into overtime...We made it a little more difficult than we needed it to be, but we have to be proud of the players for the way they competed - the resiliency they showed, and how they finished the game." - Nick Saban

A team that struggled to find its identity throughout much of the 2014 found it last Saturday in the most unlikely of places: with its back against the wall in one of the fiercest places to play in all of college football. That identity can be summed up in one word (for those who are into the whole brevity thing): resiliency.

Alabama may not have played its best game of the season versus perennial foe and fellow contender LSU last Saturday night. The Tide may not have even been the best team on the field for most of the four-quarter slugfest that trickled into overtime on a stellar autumn night in Baton Rouge. Even the most ardent Bama supporter couldn't argue that the team played nothing close to the type of flawless just-do-your-job football demanded of the players by head coach Nick Saban.

But none of that mattered in the waning moments of a game that will go down as yet another classic in an era of classics between the two heavyweight power-punchers. What mattered was that, when cornered, the Crimson Tide shook off the ring rust, took LSU's best punch on the point of the jaw, and landed the knockout blow when it mattered most.

Resiliency...it is a powerful thing. And with the schedule the Tide will face in two of its remaining three games, it will need that kind of resiliency to close out a "rebuilding" year with a chance at a spot in the first-ever College Football Playoffs.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Alabama was supposed to win that game against LSU. The Tide entered the game with LSU as a roughly 6-point favorite in most betting houses, despite the challenge of playing in Baton Rouge against a salty LSU team that was floating on newfound confidence derived from its win against Ole Miss two weeks prior. Few outside of Cajun Country gave LSU a chance of beating Alabama, as on paper, the Tide seemingly had the superior team.

As is often the case, what happened on paper became nothing more than grill-chimney kindlin' once the ball was kicked. LSU wouldn't accept its fate as an also-ran, and the Tide did all it could to accommodate the Tigers' upstart efforts. A perplexing offensive game plan that saw the Tide pass 46 times, coupled with fumbles, dropped passes and a lack of assertion in the running game...these things fed right into the energy and delusion that is Death Valley at night, leaving the Tide splayed and ready for ready for dissection with 50 ticks left on the clock.

That's where that resiliency came in handy for the Tide. Rather than accepting the seemingly inevitable outcome after LSU kicked a field goal to take the lead with less than a minute remaining, the Tide rose. Quarterback Blake Sims, who had found it difficult to pass against the LSU secondary, finally began to connect with mere seconds left in the game. Foggy-headed for much of the game, his decisions on the final drive before overtime were as crisp as his passes. Receivers who seemed mortar-handed before became geckos with sticky fingers.

In other words, when the time came to perform, the Tide refused to allow its competitive flame to be extinguished by so much bourbon and Tony Chachere's in that purple-and-gold bayou hell. The team that seemed not to know its own strength finally awakened, and forced the inevitable down the throats of the home-standing Tigers.

That, quite simply, is the definition of resiliency.

It's a good thing Alabama found that identity against LSU, as they will need that same resiliency this week against the unblemished and number 1 ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs. Bringing back memories of 2008 Florida, this is not your daddy's Mississippi State squad. They are fast, physical and ferocious. And they have an identity of their own...confidence. They are confident that this is their year to bury Alabama, to seize the SEC West for the first time in recent memory and to plant the cowbell atop the College Football Playoff mountain. They will offer the Tide its most comprehensive challenge of the year, and it will take a nearly perfect effort from Alabama to derail the Bulldogs' fast train out of Starkville.

Will Bama's emotional victory over LSU propel the Tide with newfound confidence, or will the Bulldogs do to Bama what they've done to all other comers this season? Time will tell...let's take a closer look.

Alabama offense versus the Mississippi State defense

At first glance, this seems like a bit of a mismatch. Though the Bulldog front seven is probably (as Saban said this week) the most physical front seven the Tide will face all year, the Bully secondary is among the worst in the nation, ranking 120th in pass defense while allowing 300.6 yards per game.

Alabama should be able to fire away at the Mississippi State secondary, with Amari Cooper healthy and DeAndrew White seeing a late season surge. O.J. Howard will see the ball when mismatches are there to be exploited. In fact, Alabama's offensive game plan against LSU would have made more sense against MSU, as unlike the floundering Bulldog secondary, LSU had the leading pass efficiency defense in the nation before last Saturday's game.

This year, unlike in previous seasons, Alabama has not depended on the run to set-up the pass, but rather, vice-versa. Because of Alabama's struggles in run blocking, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has used his affinity for the pass to open up running lanes later in games where the line of scrimmage was decidedly controlled by the defensive front seven early on. Sure, the ends justify the means, but the pass-first philosophy Kiffin has employed at Alabama has been shocking to fans of the Tide, to say the least.

Though Mississippi State doesn't feature the talent or skill of LSU's secondary, the stats are somewhat deceptive when it comes to the MSU pass defense. There's not much one can do to candy-coat the 120th ranked pass defense in the nation, but despite that figure, the Bulldogs wield the nation's 8th ranked pass efficiency defense. This indicates that teams are often stymied by the strong MSU rush defense, and typically attempt more passes than usual as a result. Even though those passes may be completed, the Bulldogs limit gains and explosive plays so that those receptions do minimal damage in the overall landscape of the game. Make no mistake, the secondary is the weak link for the Bulldog defense, and Alabama should exploit it. But it won't be like the Tide is throwing against the Texas A&M secondary, either. Kiffin will have to use formations and motion to create mismatches, and Amari Cooper will need to be spectacular to give Sims confidence and open the door for the Tide's other offensive weapons.

In this game, however, the passing game is the most likely scalpel that Sims will use to slice the secondary of Mississippi State. That said, Alabama should also be able to run against the physical front seven the Bulldogs bring to the table to some degree, though much of that will hinge upon whether or not T.J. Yeldon is 100% after suffering an ankle strain in the waning moments of the LSU game. The Bulldogs have the 22nd ranked rushing defense in the nation, partially due to stellar play along the deep defensive line (including future NFL'ers Kaleb Eulls and Chris Brown) and linebackers who combine physical freakishness with veteran football savvy (Bernardrick McKinney and Beniquez Brown.) The running lanes will be tough to come by unless Alabama does something it hasn't done all year: dominate the point of attack on running plays.

The good news is that Alabama's offensive line appears healthy, and if nothing else, the unit proved it can get the job done in the final moments of the LSU game.

One thing to watch will be how Alabama performs in the red zone. Though Mississippi State's defense is ranked only 89th in the nation in total defense, the Bullies have the nation's top-ranked red zone defense. The Bulldogs are stingy inside the 20, and Alabama's red zone offense hasn't necessarily been the strength of the team this year (ranked 61st in CFB.) Alabama will need the kind of explosive plays they've seen against other similarly ranked passing defenses (like the aforementioned Aggies) at Bryant Denny Stadium this year, as the going between the goal line and the 20 will be tough, to say the least.

The battle up front on passing downs will be important, too, as Mississippi State is fifth in the nation in team sacks. Alabama conversely is 12th nationally in sacks allowed. Something must give, as both teams do what they do consistently well. Alabama will need the offensive line's best game of the year to dominate the Bulldogs up front, thus opening the gates to the offensive playground for Sims and the wide receiving corps.

Alabama defense versus the Mississippi State offense

Dak Prescott. That name has been cast about the airwaves this year prolifically, as Prescott has been the second coming of Tim Tebow through nine games, operating head coach Dan Mullen's version of the run-based spread to perfection in his final year in Starkville.

And the hype is deserved for the oversized, fleet-footed Messiah of Middle Mississippi. Prescott is a physical specimen at the quarterback position, and he is fast and powerful enough to truck SEC linebackers with regularity. But what's changed about Prescott this year is his passing ability. MSU quarterbacks coach (and former Bama-beating Utah QB) Brian Johnson has helped Prescott refine his mechanics and decision making, and the result is Tebow2.0: a player who can inflict damage upon defenses equally with his arm or his feet.

Prescott is a force the Tide will have to reckon with...there's just no way around that. Alabama has struggled with big physical quarterbacks running spread systems in the past, players like the aforementioned Tebow or that other Heisman winning quarterback from across the state. Sure, Bama struggled with mobile quarterbacks in the past, but what makes Prescott so potentially lethal is not just his speed, but his size gives him the ability to break tackles on designed runs. Unlike smaller, more flighty running QBs (like Johnny Manziel), Prescott doesn't depend on making the first man miss with elusiveness, as he is not often tackled by the first defender who hits him.

Though Prescott is the Bulldogs' primary offensive weapon, he is by no means the only one Mullen will have pointed at Alabama this Saturday. Running back John Robinson (146 carries for 984 yards, 6.7 yards per carry, 11 touchdowns) is averaging 109 yards per game. Not only is Robinson the leading rusher on a team that features the likes of Prescott, but he is also an adept receiver, catching 19 passes this year for 278 yards (14.6 yards per catch.) A player with Prescott's skill set is only made better by the presence of a player like Robinson, who much like the quarterback, can take over games and shred defenses when too much attention is focused on the other star player.

While the Bulldogs' wide receiver corps feature few big names, the biggest name will return from injury for the Bama game in all likelihood. Jameon Lewis is expected to be back on the Bulldog sideline this weekend after suffering an injury early in the season, and his presence will give Prescott yet another target. Lewis has caught 16 balls for 225 yards thus far in 2014 even with the lost time, and in his absence, the Bulldogs saw the emergence of another receiving threat in De'Runnya Wilson (22 catches, 367 yards, 16.7 yards per catch, six touchdowns.) Against a solid Alabama secondary, there's no reason to believe that the Bulldogs will choose to pass prolifically, though they do show nice balance in offensive play-calling. The running attack will set up opportunities in the passing game, and Landon Collins and company will need to be ready for Prescott's precision passing.

Mississippi State's offensive tendencies in critical moments tilts decidedly towards the run, and that will play right into the hands of the nation's 3rd ranked rush defense. Alabama only allows an average of 2.82 yards per rush, and only 89.8 yards per game rushing, despite having played two of the most run-heavy teams in the SEC (Arkansas and LSU.)

Numbers don't decide football games: players do. Fortunately for Alabama, its defensive playmakers are rounding into form as the season progresses. Probably the most impressive standout on defense this year has been inside linebacker Reggie Ragland, who has played the role formerly occupied by current Baltimore Ravens starter C.J. Mosley to great acclaim. Ragland is a ferocious hitter with sideline-to-sideline speed who always seems to be in the right place at the right time to make a stop. His in-play adjustments are phenomenal, and his mental acumen and understanding of the defense (and opposing offenses) has made the departure of Mosley less painful for the Tide.

Another Tide newcomer who has proven his worth in both stopping the run and the pass is Jarran Reed. Reed and fellow defensive lineman D.J. Pettway have been excellent additions to a line that already featured A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen, Brandon Ivory and Darren Lake, and they will offer the Mississippi State rushing attack its most formidable challenge of the season. If the defensive front seven can stay disciplined and limit the Bulldog rush, then Prescott will be forced to use his newfound passing proclivity to give the Bulldogs a chance at winning in raucous Bryant Denny Stadium.

Intangibles

The greatest intangible the Tide will have working in its favor this Saturday will he Sweet Home Alabama. The Tide has played its best within the friendly confines of Bryant Denny this year, and fortunately, its two final tests will both be played upon the hallowed ground. If this game was to be played in Starkville, the Bulldogs would have the decided advantage. However, 102,000+ screaming Tide fans will more than drown out the din of the few cowbells that may furtively enter BDS. Not to mention, this year's Tide team seems to thrive off of the emotion injected into the game by the home crowd. Alabama will have a decided advantage in Tuscaloosa, to say the least.

Each year, the Tide undergoes a stiff, physical test against their perennial foes from LSU. In the wake of the battering, the Tide has traditionally struggled against MSU teams that offered far less of a threat than the one that will travel to Tuscaloosa on Saturday. Last week's showdown with the Tigers was yet another bludgeoning, physical fistfight of a football game, and the Tide limped back home with a few injuries. T.J. Yeldon is dinged a bit, though Saban indicated he didn't expect the running back to have any trouble playing Saturday. The offensive line has a bevy of bumps and bruises dating to before the LSU game, and last week's overtime slugfest did nothing to heal though aches and pains. The health of Alabama's playmakers will be critical, to say the least.

The last minute overtime win over LSU could prove emotionally draining, as after experiencing the glory of victory, it is sometimes hard for a team to avoid a letdown in intensity the following week. Saban indicated the intensity level has remained high throughout practice this week, which is a sign that the LSU game didn't take as much of a toll as expected. For Alabama to have a chance against the Bulldogs, Bama will have to avoid any cobwebs, even in the early going. With Alabama's offensive struggles against LSU still fresh in mind, the Tide must not allow the high-octane Bulldog offense to run out to an early lead. Even a two touchdown lead in the first half could prove insurmountable if the offense experiences the kind of struggles it saw for much of the meeting with the Tigers.

Then there's the pressure. For 18-22 year old men, the pressure of the situation is great, with only the Bulldogs and Auburn blocking Bama's path to the SEC Championship game and a potential berth in the four-team playoff. How will the team, and the coaching staff, respond? Last week against LSU, the offensive game plan seemed ill-conceived, as the Tide chose to throw the ball against an excellent LSU secondary rather than running the ball in spite of early success. At times in tough games like the one Bama will play Saturday, Saban (and this year, Kiffin) has appeared to coach not to lose rather than coaching to win. A game on the Tide's home field against the top ranked team in the nation with the SEC West potentially riding on the outcome fits the template for that type of game.

Against MSU, Alabama would likely be better served by "letting the horse run," as the Tide is riding high after last week' emotional victory. While the knock against setting an emotional tone is that it can sometimes lead to a pause in disciplined play, the Tide will need to ride the emotional wave against the Bulldogs. Alabama has proven that it plays its best at home when loose and feeding upon the crowd noise, and such a strategy could be a boon for the Tide against Mississippi State.

The kicking game will remain a wildcard for Alabama in this game. Last week was one of ups and downs for special teams, as Adam Griffith missed an early field goal, only to return to hit the tying score under immense pressure in front of a hostile crowd. Which Griffith will show up for the State game? Saban has indicated he has full faith in his place kicker, but a fourth-down conversion attempt rather than a FG attempt last week could present evidence to the contrary. If Saturday's game evolves into a roll-up-your-sleeves cage match, Griffith may be called upon to once against land the knockout punch. Can he answer the bell?

Saban is fond of saying that the most important game is the next game, and once again, his words ring true. It's single-elimination time in the SEC West: win and continue the gauntlet...lose and play for the consolation prize.

Will the Tide rise to the challenge? Or will the Bulldogs prove themselves a team of destiny?

We will know more late Saturday night...hope for the best.