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Hope For the Best: Mississippi State edition

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If Alabama is going to make a run at the College Football Playoffs, it has to get through dual-threat QB Dak Prescott and the most explosive WR corps in the SEC

Dak Prescott is the only vector to victory of the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Dak Prescott is the only vector to victory of the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

We've all seen this movie before, right? An impressive Alabama team, fresh off a physical victory over fellow SEC West wrecking ball LSU, faces an upstart Mississippi State team the following week. Alabama sputters and struggles, thrashes like a baby deer fallen through a frozen lake, until superior depth takes over in the fourth quarter and the Tide rightfully pulls away.

It's almost become an annual ritual. The term "trap game" is tossed around, excuses are made afterward for a less than stellar performance against a team pundits believe Alabama should handily dispatch. The Bulldogs from Starkville are the perennial also-rans, the "Bad News Bears" who can only rarely pull of the big victory over their SEC Joneses (with whom they struggle futilely to keep up.)

But this season, there's a different story line. Sure, Alabama has reestablished itself as a defensive power to be feared. After two years of erosion of that reputation at the hands of myriad spread offenses and double-threat quarterbacks, Tide linebacker Reggie Ragland said at SEC Media Days that teams no longer feared the Alabama defense. Consider that fear re-instilled, as the Tide has brutally crushed all comers (with the exception of an early season off-performance against another squad from Mississippi), locking down opposing rushing attacks and developing consistency of performance for a secondary that has been lacking for the better part of three seasons.

The difference is that this is not your typical Bulldog squad. Dan Mullen has taken the old Mississippi State run-first formula and morphed it into a different creature during the tenure of dual-threat quarterback Dak Prescott. Prescott has been a work in progress, and despite early Heisman consideration in 2014, the then-junior threw three costly interceptions to a lesser Tide secondary. In 2015, Prescott has been a study in efficiency: he's completing 67 percent of his passes and taking full advantage of a sneaky-good wide receiver unit. If this Alabama defense has a weakness, one could make the claim that the pass defense is still the flawed link, if only because few teams have offered the unit a serious challenge thus far.

Make no mistake, they will get that challenge from Prescott and the Dogs. Unlike LSU, which relies primarily on stellar running back play for offensive production, the Dogs have the Dak Attack. Prescott has been surgical through the air, and one could argue he is the best running back on the Bulldog roster (he has 418 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground). Prescott is the kind of Cam Newton-Johnny Manziel-Cardale Jones signal-caller who has given Nick Saban defenses fits in previous years.

Will the Tide defense be able to contain this year's version of the Dak Attack? Will they execute with the discipline needed to frustrate and confine a QB with Prescott's wheels? Will the as-of-yet untested Bama secondary hold up to an onslaught of precision passing to huge, athletic receivers? We will soon know. This game may provide Alabama's defense with a view of things to come if it indeed weathers the storm and makes it to the post-season. That lesson will be of little use, however, if the Tide can't figure out Mississippi State this Saturday. Let's take a closer look...

The Alabama offense versus the Mississippi State defense

There's little mystery in how Alabama will attack the Bulldog defense this weekend. Anyone who has watched this year's incarnation of the Crimson Tide knows that there is a heavy Derrick Henry component to what Alabama does when the Tide has the ball. Unlike in previous years, when a tandem of running backs shared the rushing load, this year Henry has been the lead dog (or, more appropriately, lead stampeding rhinoceros, FWIW) behind an offensive line that, while not the best of the Saban Era, is workable nonetheless.

While the weapon wielded by the Tide against opposing defenses is no secret, the way offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has used that predictability has been somewhat unique. Kiffin is a master of creating match-ups, whether in the passing game (in which he fancies isolating darty receiver Calvin Ridley against safeties, or tight end O.J. Howard against middle linebackers) or in the running game. The latter bears a little more elaboration, as one doesn't often hear about match-ups in regard to the rushing attack. Bulldog defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said it best this week, claiming that Alabama "will make all 11 defensive players tackle" by design.

In other words, there's no secret that a 185 pound corner has no desire to run up against a snorting 245 pound Henry in open space. Corners are on campus to play coverage against people of similar size, and though there are notable exceptions, corners don't have the tackling skills of linebackers. Therefore, Kiffin probes a defense, taking shots running the ball at every defender just to find the weak link. Then, hammers that link into submission with his 245 pound pile-driver.

In that regard, Alabama is the anti-spread. Where the tendency in modern college football involves spreading defenses out to create space and magnify one-on-one match-up weaknesses, Alabama doesn't mind clumping up, bringing those weak tacklers closer to the running lanes, and then beating them to a pulp with the power game. It's simple, it's effective, and when one has a running back like Henry, it's ingenious.

Expect to see a great deal of that this weekend. Though the run defense is the likely stronger segment of the MSU defense after injury ravaged the Bulldog secondary, they are still only the 69th rated run defense in the nation. Last week, Alabama faced a top 10 unit in LSU, and college football fans are well-versed in that outcome. Quite simply, if Alabama plays as it has on the road all season long, the Bulldogs will have little chance of stopping the Henry Express as it roars into Starkville.

The Bulldog linebackers bear mentioning here, as they are typically solid against the run and are versatile within the Diaz defensive scheme. Richie Brown (6-2, 245 pounds) and Beniquez Brown (6-1, 238 pounds) are heavy hitters, with Richie Brown manning the middle spot and the other Brown is a smart, instinctual Will who is used as a pass rusher and run-forcer. Unlike many of Bama’s other opponents, the Browns don’t concede a size advantage to Bama’s burly tailback, and one can expect that one of the two will draw the responsibility of getting a helmet on Henry at every opportunity.  If the Bulldog linebackers can win even half of their share of collisions with Henry, preventing him from breaking through to the second level, then it will be a huge win for the Mississippi State defense. Don’t expect Kiffin, however, to run Henry at the Bulldogs’ best tackler, however, so their skill may prove a moot point.

Because the Bulldog secondary has been raked by injury (the most important to future NFL corner Will Redmond), there's no reason to believe that Alabama won't have its chances in the passing game. Tavese Calhoun is a legitimate corner, but Alabama has multiple receiving weapons with which to attack the Bulldog secondary. Needless to say, Calhoun can't cover them all. Whether with short-yardage passes, flicks to the flats or the occasional play-action shot downfield, quarterback Jake Coker has earned the responsibility of making calls at the line and checking into successful plays. The quarterback has well-managed his run-pass option responsibilities as he's grown more confident in his starting roll, and that ability to pivot on a dime has made the Alabama offense more dangerous as a whole.

There are two notable areas in which Alabama's offense may struggle this weekend in Starkville: third-down conversions, and in the red zone. For their apparent lack of ferocity between the 20s, the Bulldogs have been fairly nasty in the red zone, holding opponents to a 77.7 percent scoring percentage (and only 10 of the 24 red zone scores were for touchdowns.) Similarly, while the Bulldogs are 48th in total defense, 43rd in pass defense and 69th in rushing defense, they are 11th in scoring defense, allowing only 17.2 points per game. As a third-down defense, the Bulldogs are equally as stingy, allowing conversions only 32.2 percent of the time, good for 25th nationally.

How will these statistical tendencies play out against Alabama? Alabama will likely be able to move the ball between the 20s with relative ease, especially in the game's later stanzas. However, once in the red zone, the yardage will be hard-fought and tough to come by. This could lead to field goal attempts where there should be touchdowns, or stalled drives where there should have been scores. With a defense as good as Bama's, such an outcome wouldn't be damning by itself, as opponents will have hills of their own to climb in scoring against a rigid Tide defense. However, such a tendency against the Bulldogs could be more worrisome, as Prescott and the offense are scoring points at an alarming clip against decent defenses (the most recent being Mizzou's solid unit.)

If Alabama sees drives stall, if the Tide settles for field goals instead of touchdowns, the pressure will mount on a defense that, although great, is still comprised of 18-22 year old young men who be playing in hostile territory amongst the deafening din of 55,000 cowbells. While the Alabama defense may be up to the task, the best defense the Tide can muster may be extended offensive drives that eat clock and result in points, thus limiting the damage the dynamic Prescott can do with the ball in his hands. Keeping the Tide defense fresh through ball-control offense will pay dividends in the fourth quarter, when the Tide has traditionally enjoyed its greatest advantage over Mississippi State in years past.

The Alabama defense versus the Mississippi State offense

Let's be frank, shall we? Dak Prescott is the fuel in the engine of the Mississippi State football team (and is likely the engine, the wheels and the windows as well.) He has evolved into an elite passer with legitimate wheels and great decision-making, and unlike in previous years, Mullen has surrounded the quarterback with elite talent at wide receiver to create an explosive passing attack the likes of which Alabama hasn't seen this season.

And, as previously mentioned, the jury is still somewhat out regarding the Alabama secondary. Sure, they've been dramatically upgraded in 2015 with personnel shifts (Eddie Jackson) and new blood (Minkah Fitzpatrick). They passed their supposed "big test" of the season by thrashing the Texas A&M Air Raid variant earlier this season in College Station. The chrome on that shining moment has begun to rust, however, as Texas A&M has proven itself a dumpster fire at quarterback since the Alabama game, the Aggies even finding themselves stymied by the lowly Auburn defense in their most recent loss. True, Alabama shut down what at the time was considered a strong passing attack in Athens, but again, that win has lost its shine as the quarterback shuffle has continued at Georgia.

So how good is the Alabama secondary? There's no doubt the answer will be revealed this week. Prescott has been excellent this season, and if not for Mississippi State's early losses to LSU and Texas A&M, the quarterback would be at the forefront of the Heisman Trophy race. His numbers warrant it: Prescott has thrown for 2,351 yards, 18 touchdowns to only one interception and a 67 percent completion percentage. Add to that his ability in the running game (as previously mentioned, he has 418 yards and seven TDs on the ground), and it's easy to see why Prescott is critical to the Bulldog offense.

Alabama has had good luck against Prescott in past meetings...what's so different this season? Quite simply, it's the wide receiving targets he has at his disposal. While De'Runnya Wilson is the big play-maker and red zone threat, it's not Wilson alone that has raised the level of play for the Bulldog passing attack. Fred Ross (6-2, 207 pounds) is money in the slot, where he uses his big body and slick, fluid motions to create space into which the surgical Prescott can deliver the ball. Prescott has spread the ball well this season, with lesser-known receivers such as Fred Ross (6-2, 207 pounds), Gabe Myles (6-0, 192 pounds), Joe Morrow (6-4, 202 pounds), Donald Gray (5-10, 193) and Malik Dear (5-9, 220 pounds) rounding out a deep, talented corps of pass-catchers.   The Bulldogs have play-makers at tight end, with steady Gus Walley (6-4, 242 pounds) and Darrion Hutcherson (6-7 260 pounds) emerging as legitimate targets as the season has worn on.

One thing one notices about these receivers is their sheer size. Most are above 6-2 in height, and they hover at or above 200 pounds. They are physical, and they are not afraid of battling press coverage (not that Bama uses press exclusively, but you get the idea.) Alabama corners and safeties will for probably only the second time this season be facing a receivers corps to which they cede a decided size advantage, and combined with Prescott's passing, it's not difficult to conjure images of tall receivers plucking well-thrown balls out of the air over the heads of Tide defensive backs in Manziel-to-Mike Evans-ish fashion.

All of that said, regardless of the competition, Alabama's pass defense has been nothing if not efficient. While not what one would consider a top tier defensive performance, statistically speaking, there's one important defensive stat that bears mentioning here: opponent pass efficiency defense. In that regard, Alabama's defense has been elite, ranking sixth nationally in pass efficiency defense. That is a huge indicator of the Tide's real-world ability to defend the pass on a play-to-play basis, and it minimizes the statistical impact of big pass plays, which the Tide has ceded on occasion this year. While the Bulldog passing attack has been somewhat underrated, the same can be said about Alabama's pass defense. One will win out this weekend, and it will all come down to execution.

One could argue that there's no doubt Alabama's secondary is better than the one fielded by the Aggies, as Texas A&M held Prescott to a mere 210 yards through the air and 96 yards on the ground. While the supremacy of Alabama's defense is undoubted at this point in the season, the Bulldog offense has evolved since that Texas A&M game in early October. Prescott has rung up 300 yard passing performances in his last three games, with 10 TDs to one interception and a nearly 70 percent completion percentage. Clearly, Prescott is at the top of his game, as one of those 300 yard games came against a Mizzou defense that is considered well-ahead of the Texas A&M curve.

Alabama will need its secondary to collectively play its best game of the season. Cyrus Jones will likely draw the unenviable task of covering Wilson the majority of the time, leaving Marlon Humphrey and Fitzpatrick to lock down the remaining gamut of talented receivers. Though they've been up to the task for most of the season, they haven't yet met the size-speed quotient they'll face Saturday, especially when combined with Prescott's throw-it-into-a-grocery-sack accuracy. The young defensive backs will be tested, and it's important to note that even the Tide's most seasoned defensive back, Jones, will give up six inches in height to Wilson. Defending this receiving corps will be a tall task indeed, and will likely involve some substantial cover-two component to give the defensive backs safety help (which it can do given the rather anemic Bulldog running game.)

Speaking of the MSU running game...there isn't much of one to speak of. Prescott will give the Bulldogs their most legitimate threat on the ground, as the passing game is good enough to keep Alabama off-balance, something that in the past has led to openings for mobile quarterbacks. It won't be designed runs that kill the Bama defense. The most potentially dangerous scenario involves aggressive pass rush that overruns Prescott, allowing him to find seams and use his running ability to gash Alabama's interior for first down after first down.

The Bulldogs use a heavy dose of run-pass option, and such a strategy can create problems for Alabama...at least theoretically. Lots of teams have attempted to use RPOs to keep Bama off-balance this season, but few teams have seen the kind of sustained success necessary to materialize victory. The Bulldogs, with Prescott under center, have a dangerous advantage in that regard: rather than being a two-headed monster for defenses to anticipate, Prescott's running ability adds a third dimension of uncertainty to the RPO equation, as he has the ability to keep the ball on option reads and make defenses pay.

Thus far, Alabama's defense has proven itself extremely disciplined and sound in controlling gaps, two traits that will be favorable characteristics needed for keeping Prescott in check. Like Alabama's offense and its dependency on the running game, opponents of the Bulldogs can know the pass is coming, and yet still find themselves unable to do anything about it due to pinpoint passing and the physical supremacy of the Bulldog receivers. If executed properly and precisely, Mississippi State can create a nearly-unbeatable offensive equation. The secret is in the execution, or conversely, the lack thereof.

The Alabama pass rush will obviously be important in this game, but what strategy is the best strategy? Immediately, one would thing that the dinged-up, struggling Bulldog offensive line will get brutalized by the Bama front seven. In the past, Alabama has elected to use a mush-rush against dangerous mobile quarterbacks with passing savvy (like Manziel). That strategy has produced mixed returns.

It's worth noting that Alabama's pass rush in previous years has not been as potent as the current incarnation, and Mississippi State's line is nowhere near as adept in pass blocking as some of the foes the Tide has faced this year. The Alabama front seven will be able to penetrate and disrupt the Mississippi State offense, but the scary thing to consider is that Prescott has the knack for taking busted plays and turning them into positives. He has been chased all season long due to breakdowns in pass protection, and yet, he has been able to make hay with his legs and outside of the pocket in the passing game (Prescott has only been sacked on four percent of offensive plays, and it's not due to the offensive line). Given the QB's elusiveness, Alabama can't pin back its defensive ears the way it did against LSU, but must take a more measured approach to containing Prescott's ability to exploit over-pursuit in the pass rush.

The Tide-defense-versus-Bulldog-offense match-up will spell the ultimate outcome of the game. There's little doubt Alabama offense will be able to ultimately prevail and move the ball against the Bulldog D. Even if that contest devolves into a battle of attrition, Alabama will win that battle nine of 10 times.

The real question is whether the Tide defense can contain a multi-threat quarterback who can throw the ball efficiently to a physically-imposing corps of elite wide receivers. If there are any mysteries left regarding the Tide defense in 2015, this is one of them. If Alabama can find a way to defend the pass and shrink the size advantage the Bulldog receivers possess, Prescott's running ability will decrease in importance as the game wears on. Pressuring Prescott will be important, but it will be more important for the secondary to keep the receivers from making clutch third-down catches. After all, Prescott is not the kind of quarterback who makes many bad decisions, given his efficiency and his lone interception on the year. The best hope for Alabama is to contain and frustrate him while weathering the early storm.

Special teams

Alabama's special teams confidence took a tremendous leap forward last week as place-kicker Adam Griffith drilled a 55-yard field goal on a wet field that would have been good from 60 yards out. Griffith was perfect on the day, and he had a bit of swagger about him after nailing his career long at Alabama. Swagger for a kicker is a good thing, and the young man from Poland-via-Georgia is peaking at the right time as Alabama prepares for a potential playoff berth.

J.K. Scott has gained momentum as well, and has consistently boomed the ball. One line drive kick against the Tigers last week wasn't particularly pretty, but it was effective as the Tide controlled field position much of the day thanks in part to Scott's punting. If there's one knock against Scott, it's that he has trouble dialing it back when the situation warrants it, as he booted one into the end zone last week when it would have been beneficial to pin LSU deep. Splitting hairs, however, as Scott has once again emerged as a weapon for Alabama, and in a game like the one coming up on Saturday, field position could be a critical component in a Tide victory.

The Bulldog kicking game is solid, to say the least, with Logan Cooke handling punting duties and Westin Graves handling the placekicking. Cooke averages 36 yards per punt, which is not too far off Scott's pace in 2015. Graves is currently nine for 11 with a long of 44 yards.

The Tide won't be facing the prospect of a top-10 team, nor a rain-soaked playing surface, nor the nation's leading rusher this weekend when they make the short trip across the state line to Starkville. Rather, outside of Prescott, the Tide's biggest opponent this week may be the one it sees when it looks in the mirror. Alabama has traditionally been lethargic when playing Mississippi State fresh off of a physically punishing game against LSU. Alabama will have to avoid such lethargy this weekend, or the result could be less than savory for a team playing its best ball at the best time of the year.

Alabama can't afford a sub-par effort this week, as a slow start offensively and a broken play or two defensively could quickly turn into a rout in front of the cowbell-clanging home crowd. There's no doubt Alabama has the better overall team...but that's a familiar refrain that haunts many of the Tide's few losses of the Nick Saban Era. Alabama was the better team in the 2010 and 2013 Iron Bowls. Alabama was the better team against Texas A&M in 2012. And yet, somehow, they managed to lose to the lesser opponent. The same can happen this weekend, and such a staggering loss would put a nail in the Tide's playoff potential pine box.

A victory over Mississippi State is anything but a given, despite what the history of the series may indicate. One underestimates a team like Mississippi State (and a player like Prescott) at his own peril, as the Bulldogs undoubtedly have what it takes to knock off a napping Tide team coming off of easily its biggest victory of the season.

The stakes have never been higher for an Alabama team that few saw as a legitimate contender in September. Think about it: at the season's dawn, Alabama had no proven quarterback, the offensive line featured more newcomers than returning starters the wide receiving corps was wholly unproven and the secondary was an unknown commodity.

Now, however, the Tide has emerged as a favorite, a front-runner. It is at these times that the phrase "heavy is the head that wears the crown" comes into mind, as Alabama must find a way to ignore the hype, keep the shoulder to the grindstone, and play to a standard despite the opponent. Just so happens this particular opponent has the skills to make Alabama look foolish if unprepared.

Will the Tide rise to the emotional challenge? Will consistency of performance become a hallmark of the 2015 Crimson Tide? Will Prescott do to Alabama's defense what he's done to countless other Bulldog foes this season? Or will Bama stop the Dak Attack dead in its tracks?

We will know Saturday evening...hope for the best.