Happy Friday, everyone. Tomorrow the Tide takes the field in Starkville for a dangerous tilt against star QB Dak Prescott and a Mississippi State Bulldogs bunch who would love to make their season by slaying the SEC version of Goliath. They have some talent, but this game really won't be about Mississippi State. They will take their best shot as everyone else has this season, but to be frank they don't have enough to get it done if the Alabama squad plays to its full potential.
This game presents a real test for the Tide, the one that they haven't yet passed this season: Can they bring consistent effort and execution on offense every week? We saw them open the season by whipping a solid Wisconsin team, only to muddle through a three-game stretch at home. We were overjoyed when they destroyed the other Bulldogs in Athens, then concerned with an ugly first half against Arkansas. They played very well in College Station, then nearly lost any realistic shot at an SEC title at home against Tennessee. Following the bye week, they played undoubtedly their best game against LSU. Here we are.
As a card-carrying Gump, I want to believe that Alabama rides a new-found wave of confidence into Starkville and puts a solid two-score beating on the undermanned Bulldogs as they did to LSU. Dak Prescott will certainly make some plays, but the Tide defense should be able to hold them under 20 points as several have this season. The bigger question will be on the other side, where Alabama should be able to line up and run right over a mediocre defense that has given up 167 yards a game on the ground. If we truly have a Heisman caliber running game, that side of the ball should be an utter mismatch. As in the LSU and Tennessee games, the Tide's ability to assert its will on offense will determine whether the game is a satisfying, solid win or a nail-biter that leaves more questions going forward.
In any case, lots to read about this morning:
Derrick Henry is a special back with his combination of power and speed, but he gets plenty of help from a terrific run-blocking group up front. Alabama's offensive line ranks 6th in the country in adjusted line yards, and once Henry gets to the second and third level he's extremely difficult to catch and tackle in the open field. The offense is able to grind opponents down in the running game and limit the other team's possessions by burning the clock. The defense, which stays well rested, is a physical group that is as good against the run as any unit in the country. With that combination, which was on full display Saturday night, the Tide are the clear favorites in the SEC right now.
Robinson helped clear the way for Henry and Kenyan Drake to run for a combined 278 yards and three touchdowns while averaging a combined 5.8 yards per carry during the Tide's 30-16 win over LSU Saturday night. "He was just doing his job very well," Saban said. "Dominated his space. ... He played well." As a whole, Saban said the offensive line was "better."
Yep, this will be the key. The offensive line as a whole played its best game since the Georgia game, and the results were beautiful to watch. Great film study on that first link, particularly on the key 3rd-and-9 run by Henry in the fourth quarter that was actually an RPO, with Jake Coker deciding to hand off when the slot corner stayed wide with the bubble action. Had he blitzed or crashed in run support, that ball goes to ArDarius Stewart for what should be an easy pickup in a three-on-two situation. Coker made the right read, the offensive line opened the hole, and Henry did the rest. Also, we'll do Robby a solid and not tell Cam Robinson that he mistook him for Arie Kouandjio.
What changed that Monday? What led to Henry having a big smile and even joking around and throwing out a player's nickname? A question about walk-on tight end/H-back Michael Nysewander and blocks he made to help Henry run for 210 yards and three touchdowns during the Tide's 30-16 win over then-No. 2 LSU Saturday night. "I told Michael Nysewander he did a great job," a smiling Henry said of the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Nysewander, who wears No. 46. "Highway 46. I'm rocking with him the whole way. He did a great job of blocking on Saturday."
Nysewander provided one of the highlights of the night when he blew up LSU CB Tre'davious White on a touchdown run by Henry. By all accounts, he is a guy who has out-performed his talent level and one that the team can rally around.
He said Tide coaches had put in the offensive package with Robinson earlier in the season but never used it. They revived it last week after a couple of goal line failures. Saban had used defensive lineman Jesse Williams in similar fashion a few years ago. Henry said Robinson had been promising all week that, "I'm going to get you in there." He didn't hesitate when asked what Robinson would do if he actually got the ball. "Score. Run somebody over. Stiff arm them," Henry said. "He can make plays on both sides of the ball. He's an athletic player like that."
Practically every school in the SEC wanted Reed -- "Jarran Reeds just aren't floating around everywhere," Lesley says -- but he decided his future would be best at Alabama. Nick Saban later gave the go-ahead for Pettway to return to the team after a year of purgatory and the two dominant junior college defensive linemen were headed to college together. "We've been brothers since the first day I met him at East Mississippi," D.J. Pettway says. "We roll together. I'm glad we are here together. I love playing with him; we spend dang near every day together."
This defensive line is simply amazing, and the way it came together is improbable as well. Pettway's infamous involvement in the "Skittles Four" incident got him kicked out of school and opened up an opportunity for playing time, which likely helped in recruiting at the position. While he's away at junior college, he meets and becomes great friends with Jarran Reed, who would have already been enrolled at Florida had he earned a couple more credits the previous year. The two of them decide to come to Tuscaloosa together and join with A'Shawn Robinson , Dalvin Tomlinson, and Jonathan Allen to form a ridiculously talented two-deep. Add an elite freshman per year in Da'Shawn Hand and Daron Payne, and you have among the best group of defensive linemen college football has ever seen. For all the controversy surrounding Jonathan Taylor, D.J. Pettway is a second chance that worked.
"We're trying to develop more and more players to be able to get in there and play some," Saban said. "I don't think it was our plan to have (Derrick) carry the ball 38 times in that game or any other game. But when he's going well and he's running well, it's kind of hard to take him out, especially in critical times of the game. "Kenyan got his bell rung a little bit at the end of the game and he was having a good game as well. So we'd rather just not put an inexperienced guy in a situation like that."
The article speculates that Bo is more likely to see time against Charleston Southern, but there is no question that Henry needs someone to take a few more carries.
"But I'm such a traditionalist when it comes to ... everybody has an idea of what Alabama football players are supposed to look like when they come out of the tunnel in terms of the uniform that they wore and the uniform that we wear," Saban said. "That's not a tradition that I think anybody has a right to mess with."
He just gets us, y'all.
About the enemy:
No, the other SEC team that's been in the playoff committee's top 25 every single week since it began last season, the team that has the exact same 20-5 record as Alabama in their last 25 games, is the team that has a legitimate chance Saturday to throw the entire playoff picture into chaos when it plays host to the Crimson Tide. They'll ask for more cowbell, which is cool, but how about a little more respect for Mississippi State?
Then there's Dak Prescott. The Mississippi State quarterback has been a better player, both statistically and anecdotally, than he was in 2014, but he's barely noticed beyond Oktibbeha County. The Heisman Trophy debate in this region is Alabama's Derrick Henry vs. LSU's Leonard Fournette. Forgotten is the guy who finished eighth in Heisman voting last year, who this season has 18 touchdown passes and only one interception, who has completed 200 of 300 pass attempts, and who leads Mississippi State in rushing (418 yards) and rushing touchdowns (7).
Mississippi State has a solid team, particularly on offense, and a QB that can beat you. Shut down the run, collapse the pocket, and possess the football. It is a plan that has worked all season when executed.
Lastly and obligatorily:
Look, if they could give Nick Saban full power - and I fully believe that they are willing to do that - I see no reason why Nick Saban wouldn't, because when you more or less fail at a job, you want so badly to get back in the game. He failed in Miami for various reasons, the biggest one being that he didn't have full power. He wanted Drew Brees and he was told he had to take Dante Culpepper. If he had taken Drew Brees, he might still be in the league. So I think if they could offer him full power, and I think that they would be willing to do that, I could see him coming back in a heartbeat.
One radio host makes a comment about Nick Saban and every media outlet under the sun runs with it. Look, if Nick decided to make a second run at the NFL, Alabama fans shouldn't begrudge him as he has given us so much more than most anyone expected when he was hired in 2007. That said, I'll believe it when I see it. He just turned 64 and seems happy in Tuscaloosa. Granted, the prospect that both coordinators could leave for head coaching jobs along with Cristobal and perhaps even Scott Cochran might give some reason for pause, but we'll just have to see what Miss Terry has to say about it.
That's about it for today folks. May your Friday the 13th be weird. If you're going to the game, travel safe and don't forget the earplugs. Cowbells suck.