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Hope for the Best: Mississippi State

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Usually a tough out after a physical grudge match with LSU each year, Mississippi State may go down, but they rarely go quietly.

Texas A&M v Mississippi State
Nick Fitzgerald is coming on of late, but he hasn’t faced a defense like the on Alabama will field Saturday.
Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images

Apologies if you’ve heard this one before: a battered-and-bruised-yet-victorious Tide team staggers into the week after the LSU game, relieved to have gotten by their biggest challenger to the SEC West throne. A plucky Mississippi State team awaits, and Alabama slogs through a less-than-inspiring, mistake-filled contest before winning by an unimpressive margin.

While there have been aberrations to this routine in the last decade in which the Tide dominated the scoreboard against Mississippi State from start to finish, in most cases, the Tide has to battle the Bulldogs in instances where the game should be a blowout. Even if Alabama doesn’t necessarily struggle, many times the Tide fails to have its best game coming off its perennial battle with LSU. Maybe it’s due to the physical toll absorbed the previous week in the game against a physical, old-school opponent. Maybe it has something to do with motivation, as after conquering LSU (a team that is generally in the race for conference and national titles), the Tide may have trouble “getting up” to play what is usually a struggling Bulldog team. Maybe it’s the creeping specter of late-season complacency that Nick Saban harps upon, as after beating mighty LSU, what could lowly MSU possibly do to upset the Alabama apple cart?

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s that, like many teams in the SEC’s lower middle class, the game against Alabama each year marks a guidepost…a target, if you will. Alabama has been the envy of the conference for nearly a decade, and like it or not, many teams see the Tide as the embodiment of that they wish to become. Beating Alabama has won hefty raises and extended grace periods for coaches (looking at you, Kevin Sumlin). Beating Alabama has catapulted players into the national Heisman spotlight (cough-Johnny Football-cough). Beating Alabama has generated recruiting coups and respect for regimes (in Oxford) that were once thought unrespectable.

Maybe it is one, or a combination, of those factors that leads the Bulldogs to give their best effort of the season against Alabama. Maybe the general tone and timbre of the MSU-Bama game is an amalgam of all of these aforementioned factors. But no matter the reason, when the Bulldogs come into Bryant Denny Stadium this Saturday morning, fresh off a dominant victory over (previously) fourth-ranked Texas A&M, they’ll give the Tide their best game, and Alabama better respond by returning the favor.

Mississippi State has struggled for much of the season, it’s true. Their defense is middlin’ at best, but their pass defense is among the nation’s dregs in that regard. The table would seem to be set for Alabama’s offense to return to form after hacking through the tangled jungle of Tiger defenders in last week’s game, as the Dogs can’t match talent or scheme against Alabama’s powerful offensive unit.

The Bulldogs offense is potent as always, especially now that dual-threat quarterback Nick Fitzgerald seems to be finding his stride. Dan Mullen can be a dangerous play-caller with his brand of zone read option made famous by former Florida national championship teams, and with Fitzgerald gaining greater command in his first year as a starter, the offense will only get better.

Outside of the previously-mentioned external dynamics, does Mississippi State have a legitimate chance of pulling a second upset in a row against a top-5 team? Probably not, though stranger things have happened in this 2016 season. But can the Bulldogs frustrate Alabama if the Tide is running at less than optimal pace in this game? That is certainly the case.

Will Alabama rise to the occasion and put its foot on the throttle against a lesser Mississippi State team with nothing to lose? Can Alabama’s defense possibly match its historic performance against LSU last weekend? Will Mississippi State employ lessons learned from West rival LSU and find a way to seal off Bama’s edge rushing game? Or will the Tide reassert its dominance coming off what was easily its biggest challenge of the season to date?

A lot will be learned about the mental toughness of Alabama’s football team, and what can be expected as the 2016 season draws to an exciting conclusion. In the meantime, let’s take a closer look…

Alabama’s offense versus the Mississippi State defense

First, let’s look back for a moment. Last week’s performance by the LSU defense was fantastic, from the game plan to the execution on all but a few pivotal plays. While that game is in the history books, what the defense accomplished may have effects for Alabama that go beyond the confines of Death Valley and into the playbooks of future opponents.

For what that Herculean LSU effort proved, even in defeat, was that Alabama’s offense can be stopped…or at least, limited. That is of small consolation, practically speaking, as the Tide may not need much offense if its defense continues to play at a level similar to the one it enjoyed against the Bayou Bengals. But LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s game plan was one that could provide a template for teams that have the misfortune of facing Bama’s high-octane offense in the future, and that future may very well begin this weekend against Mississippi State.

What Aranda and the Tigers did wasn’t particularly complex in terms of scheme, though it did require discipline from key role players on the LSU defense. The Tigers simply diagnosed the key to the Alabama offense that unlocked the entire door for the Tide, and that key was the spread-out, zone read option running game. When the Tide can operate that offense smoothly at the point of attack with an undisrupted mesh point, when it can stretch out defensive fronts with screens and sweeps and edge runs, then that offense is nearly unstoppable. It is so incredibly multiple, and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin can rock back and forth between the short passing game, the quarterback keeps off the zone read, and the inside zone running game to keep opponents completely off balance. One of the things he’s done so well this season is allow his play-calling to encourage defenses to be more aggressive…then he uses that aggressiveness against them with misdirection, zone reads, and RPOs.

LSU knew what to expect, however, and Aranda found a way to attack it. LSU, rather than falling into the snare of trying to string out the Alabama edge run, penetrated at the edges, hemming in Hurts and effectively cutting off one of his reads on every play. They sought to keep him in the pocket, knowing that it was in the pocket where he would do the least damage to the defense. They gambled to make that a reality, bringing their talented edge rushers into play not as aggressive quarterback assassins, but rather as disruptors who got their hands up in passing lanes and forced decisions by Hurts that made the available options far more predictable. They didn’t rough up Hurts or try to knock him out of the game. In fact, they turned his weakness against him by putting him in the pocket and giving him time to throw, knowing that if Alabama had to depend on the freshman’s passing for offense, there would be considerable struggles ahead.

By using these simple tactics, LSU was able to force Alabama to stutter and start. Sure, Hurts made a few plays that ultimately changed the game. The few zone read runs that Hurts broke were big ones, converting third downs and ultimately producing the game’s only touchdown. Hurts even hit a few passes to extend drives, though his passing performance was largely pedestrian at best…just as LSU planned.

Flash-forward to this week: can Mississippi State take these lessons learned and leverage them against a Tide offense that may still be reeling somewhat from last week’s brutal cage match? They can certainly try. While they definitely don’t have the roster talent of the Tigers, they do have a scheme that is extremely flexible under newcomer Peter Sirmon, and one can expect the up-and-coming defensive coordinator to adapt his defense against the Tide to do some of the same things LSU did.

Sirmon’s defense can’t be categorized schematically, other than hitting it with the comprehensive label of being “multiple.” Multiple it is, indeed. The Bulldogs will line up in 4-3, 3-4, 3-3-5, 2-4-5, 3-2-6…you name it, Sirmon has it up his sleeve. Against spread offenses like the one Alabama is running this season, Sirmon is known to go with a 3-3 front and a nickel backfield that features three safeties…a tactic which is not terribly dissimilar from what Aranda had his Tigers do last week against the Tide. In this configuration, MSU will have three down linemen (a nose, tackle and end) as well as a hybrid linebacker known as the “Viper” that can play at the line standing up or with a hand in the dirt (but who can also drop into coverage on fire zone blitz looks). In terms of coverage, the Bulldogs may throw man at an offense, but they also like a heaping helping of Cover-1, Cover-2, and Cover-3.

Quite honestly, the Bulldogs don’t have the talent up front boasted by LSU. Johnathan Calvin is a nice, versatile player at the Viper, and A.J. Jefferson is a legitimate NFL prospect at end. Nelson Adams is a big, solid nose. But do the Bulldogs have better talent along the line than some of the Tide’s other foes this season (Ole Miss, Tennessee, Texas A&M…just to name a few)? The answer is decidedly no.

Despite that disparity, can Sirmon and his defense find ways to disrupt Alabama’s bread-and-butter? Possibly. MSU has two good edge rushers who can use the same tactics LSU employed to keep Hurts in the pocket and prevent him from victimizing them on the edge. They can take the Tigers tactic and go after the mesh point, though that approach may be less disruptive due to the lesser number of threats along the Dog defensive line.

But that’s only half of the equation. The reason that the Tigers were able to seal the edge so effectively did have something to do with the ends/ linebackers on either end of the line. But it also had something to do with LSU’s ability in the secondary to lock down on the Tide’s edge short passing game and reduce it to a whimper of its former self. One of Kiffin’s primary tools for stretching out defenses and creating open space to exploit is the bubble screens and short, quick passes to the edge (as mentioned ad nauseum this season). What Aranda did is let his secondary play aggressively and press at the line against those short passing looks, knowing he had the athletes at DB to challenge the Tide receivers up close. That tactic may have created something of a liability on plays when Hurts optioned into runs at the snap, as it effectively takes defenders out of position in run support and commits them to the edges, away from inside plays. But on the positive side, it prevented Bama from creating any kind of threat on the outside, which allowed the edge rushers to focus and disrupt the stretch runs, which in turn allowed Aranda to keep some tonnage in the box to battle the inside zone.

Mississippi State can use some of these tactics, though they will be decidedly less effective due largely to the talent and depth disparity. LSU’s gambles played off partially because they have the talent to cover mistakes and make up for slight miscues. State doesn’t have that luxury, not even in the starting line-up. They have experienced struggles with fundamentals at times this season, and they quite simply don’t have the kind of depth to execute an aggressive, pressing game plan for four quarters against the likes of Alabama. So while some future teams may be better able to leverage the intel provided by LSU in last week’s loss, the borrowing of those tactics may prove nothing more than momentary window dressing for a Bulldog defense ill-equipped to weather Alabama’s offensive storm over the long haul.

Expect Kiffin to reassert the running game, as though the Bulldogs have a top-50 run defense by all statistical appearances, much better units have tried and failed to contain the Tide’s rush this season. Alabama should be able to attack the Dog front seven the same way they attacked the Ole Miss defense: spread them out, wear out the bulk up front by running them up and down the line of scrimmage, hit the short edge passes and take advantage of defensive cushions, and then let the inside zone read sleight-of-hand take over. There’s really not much the Bulldogs can do to stop it, and it will provide some polish for the Tide’s offense for future games.

Kiffin would also be wise to let Hurts work the passing game a little, especially on intermediate routes. Much has been made of Hurts’ struggles to find touch and complete passes down the field. And those criticisms are well-founded. Hurts hasn’t developed timing with his receivers, and his mechanics have seemingly gotten worse as the season has progressed. He has the arm to be a workable passer within the confines of the offense, but he must develop some timing and some confidence in that portion of his game.

With MSU coming to town, there’s no time like to present. Hurts will be in front of a supportive home crowd, and he’ll be facing what is statistically one of the worst pass defenses in the nation. It doesn’t matter that the Bulldogs use a lot of nickel personnel packages, because no matter what they seem to do, they get victimized in the passing game. Whether it’s poor fundamentals amongst the defensive backs, a misunderstanding of roles and responsibilities with a first-year coordinator in a new scheme, or just limited athleticism in the back end of the defense, the Bulldog secondary is pretty rough around the edges. Truthfully, they don’t get a lot of help from the pass rush, as the Bulldogs are ranked 66th in sacks with only 19 for the year.

Those factors combine to provide Kiffin and Hurts with a tremendous opportunity to work out some kinks in the passing game. Alabama’s has wide receiver talent like few other teams in the country. But to date, they’ve barely used it as anything more than an afterthought. Knowing MSU will struggle to stop the running game regardless, why not let Hurts work in a few safe throws over the middle to O.J. Howard or Miller Forristal? Set up future defenses by reminding them what guys like Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart can do when the ball is delivered to them in space. The Tide offense can take advantage of some significant mismatches in coverage if Hurts can deliver the ball, as both Bulldog starting corners measure in at 5-10, while the Tide’s wide receivers average 6-1+. There are plays to be made in the secondary, and the Tide won’t have to fear a backfield of future NFL draft picks, as was the case last weekend in Baton Rouge.

Even if Hurts misfires, it will be valuable practice under live-fire. And given the issues with the MSU pass defense, that will be a low-risk, high-reward proposition, especially if doing so helps the young quarterback find a rhythm that can make Alabama’s offense a true double-threat unit heading into the game with Auburn in two weeks (a team that can stop the run, but struggles against the pass).

Alabama defense versus the Mississippi State offense

For much of the season, the Mississippi State offense has been a shadow of its former self. And that is to be expected, as a team doesn’t lose a leader the likes of Dak Prescott and not hit a few speed bumps in locating a suitable replacement at quarterback.

Despite that sizable loss on the offensive side of the ball, the Bulldogs have come around of late, partially on the rising star of new sophomore quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is a dual-threat quarterback not unlike Prescott in size (6-5, 230 pounds) and demeanor, though he admittedly doesn’t yet have the passing polish Prescott displayed in his final two years in Starkville. Yet, the young quarterback had a coming out party against the Aggies last week, throwing for over 200 yards and running through the Aggie D like a jack rabbit through a briar patch. On the season, Fitzgerald has produced an impressive 839 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground (for comparison, Alabama’s Hurts has run for 635 yards and 10 TDs), and he’s passed for 1705 yards and 16 touchdowns with nine interceptions (Hurts has 1656 yards, 11 TDs and six INTs).

Make no mistake, Fitzgerald is an emerging talent for the Bulldogs, that much is certain. He’s big, athletic, and can do everything Dan Mullen asks of a quarterback within his offense. His passing needs more polish, but that will come.

So with a Dak-lite quarterback and a largely veteran offensive line (three seniors, a junior and sophomore), why is Mississippi State’s offense not lighting it up? The answer is simple: they are predictable. They lack a conventional running game to support what Fitzgerald does on the ground. Their passing game isn’t horrible, but neither is it intimidating. While the Bulldogs have a great rushing attack statistically speaking (27th in raw stats, with 226.9 yard per game on average, and a rush S&P+ ranked 12th nationally), it is Fitzgerald who carries the load as the leading rusher. Backs Ashton Shumpert (6-2, 218 pounds), Aeris Williams (6-1, 217 pounds), and Brandon Holloway (5-8, 165 pounds) have combined for about the same number of yards that Fitzgerald has generated alone, and while diversity is good, depending on the quarterback for a rushing attack can be problematic. Especially when facing the nation’s top-rated rushing defense in Alabama.

While the narrative continues to exist regarding Alabama’s struggles with mobile quarterbacks, the reality is that Nick Saban cracked that nut long ago. Saban rebuilt his Death Star after losses to mobile quarterbacks like Manziel, Cam Newton, and Chad Kelly. The newly-constructed Bama D is not one that struggles with mobile quarterbacks, but is rather built to stop any and all running attempts, regardless of the position from which they originate. With Alabama’s light, fast, flexible front seven, the Tide can get the maximum effect up front with minimal personnel. After last weekend’s performance against a one-dimensional LSU offense, it’s hard to imagine that a team like Mississippi State will have considerably more success running the ball than their SEC West counterparts. Fitzgerald is no Fournette, and Alabama should have little trouble shutting down what the Mississippi State offense does best.

What will the Bulldogs do when Alabama locks down on their running game? The same thing most teams try to do…they’ll try to open things up via the passing game. But because the Tide can generate immense pressure on the quarterback with four or five defenders up front, they have the luxury of using a great deal of nickel personnel packages to shut down passing lanes as well. Just ask Danny Etling, LSU’s starting quarterback who had given the Tigers some semblance of a passing game prior to their match-up with Bama. Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson, and DaRon Payne shut that burgeoning quarterback down with the quickness, with the secondary locking up the receivers with physical man coverage in what was a simply dominant performance.

Alabama must be a little more disciplined in pursuit of Fitzgerald given his running ability, but expect to see something similar to what the Tide did against Chad Kelly in the Ole Miss game, or Josh Dobbs in the Tennessee game. Fitzgerald is not an elite passer by any stretch, and he doesn’t have the stable of wide receivers sported by the likes of Ole Miss. Donald Gray (5-10 204 pounds), Fred Ross (6-2 205 pounds), and Malik Dear (5-9 220 pounds) are all decent receivers, but they give up a good bit of size to Bama’s aggressive defensive backs. Factor into the equation that Fitzgerald will more often than not be running for his life, and it’s hard to imagine Mississippi State reaching even their modest average of 219.2 yards through the air.

Whether running or passing, in order to have success against the Alabama defense, an offense must find ways to extend drives. That all begins on first downs, as an offense that fails to generate positive yardage on first down more than likely sees its drive die on the vine. Alabama is so good on second and third downs that unless a team picks up solid first-down yardage, almost all hope of a conversion is lost. Just ask LSU…

For the Bulldogs to have success, they’ll have to find a way to convert third downs, though given their struggles against lesser defenses, that is not a likely prospect. Mississippi State is currently only converting third-downs at a rate of 38.6 percent (which is tied for 78th nationally). Pair that with Alabama’s third-down defense, which allows conversions on only 29.6 percent of attempts (seventh nationally), and you get an idea of the tall task at hand for the Bulldogs.

Say Mississippi State does manage to put together a drive and reach the Bama red zone…then what? The Bulldogs have been impotent in the red zone this season, which is the cause of many of their woes thus far. The Bulldogs are a wretched 123rd in the red zone, converting just over seven of 10 trips inside the 20 into scores. Against Alabama’s defense, which has repeatedly turned teams away inside the 20 on the rare occasion offenses have made it that far down field, there is little chance Mississippi State will see that metric improve.

About the only relative “soft spot” in the Tide’s defensive armor could be in the passing game, where the Tide has proven itself somewhat susceptible to the types of “chuck-and-pray” passing attempts that have plagued the Tide secondary for years. This year, given the ferocity of the pass rush, those mini-Hail Mary’s have not been as prominent. But if the Bulldogs are going to do anything offensively, they may have to take a few chances in that regard. After all, the MSU offense is ranked in the top-25 (24th) in IsoPPP, a metric that measures explosive plays of 20+ yards or greater. If the Bulldogs take a few chances and have success, it could cause the Tide defense to adjust and relent somewhat up front, thus opening space for the passing game. That is pure speculation, however, because outside of Ole Miss, no team has been able to make explosive passing plays through the air with enough regularity to indicate that proposition is accurate. Even with the Rebel Explosive-Play-O-Rama factored in, the Tide’s defensive IsoPPP rating is, you guessed it, number one.

In fact, the Tide defense is ranked in the top-3 of all advanced defensive metrics save for the defensive back havoc sub-metric (where the Tide is ranked 14th). For those of you who don’t crunch numbers, let’s put it bluntly: Alabama’s defense is other-worldly. It’s alien…superhuman, even. There are two, maybe three, offenses that have the scheme and talent level to even challenge the Tide defense, let alone beat it.

While it’s hard to say that all hope is lost for the MSU offense…all hope is lost. They simply don’t have the talent to outperform the Tide without some considerable variables coming into play, and their scheme is the exact iteration of offense the new Tide D is built to shut down.

Special Teams

Another week, another missed field goal by Tide place-kicker Adam Griffith. That said, Griffith did hit another pivotal attempt, which is what the Tide can expect of their much-maligned kicker these days. He’s going to miss some, he’s going to hit some. There’s no sense in beating the guy up about it, but one can hope that in the future, the Tide can finally find a kicker to match the excellence it enjoys on other units.

J.K. Scott was once again a game-changer for the Tide, consistently keeping LSU pinned deep and allowing Alabama to turn the field position tide in the second half. Alabama was trapped in its own end of the field more of the game than usual, but Scott’s steady, dependable punting chipped away at the field position deficit and allowed the Tide to eventually seize control and take advantage with a score.

The Tide’s punt and kick return game is still working to find suitable options. Trevon Diggs saw much of the duty as a punt returner, and was chastised by Saban for his decision-making on a few fair-catches. As has been the case with other inexperienced returners, lack of confidence breeds hesitation, and hesitation breeds missed opportunities in the passing game. Diggs has the athleticism to be an excellent returner, and once he puts it together mentally, the Tide may see some explosive plays in the return game. While the Tide’s defense has acclimated to the loss of Eddie Jackson, it is the return game where the loss of his presence is felt most.

Mississippi State does nothing exceptionally well on special teams, as junior punter Logan Cooke is averaging under 40 yards per attempt, though he has eight punts of 50+ yards, including a 68-yarder. The place-kicking has been average from junior Weston Graves, as he is only nine of 15 on field goal attempts, missing three attempts inside of 30 yards. His long is 48 yards on the season.

At punt returner, the Bulldogs trot out receiver Fred Ross, who is averaging 5.2 yards per return. The kick return options include the trio of Malik Dear (5/ 75 yards, 15.0 yard per return); Keith Mixon (4/ 123 yards, 30.8 yards per return); and Brandon Holloway (8/ 165, 20.6 yards per return).

It’s not that the Bulldogs are a terrible football team, despite some rather bad losses on their record to date. Such is to be expected with a team undergoing growing pains after losing a star like Prescott and several key veterans (like defensive tackle Chris Jones and linebacker Beniquez Brown) on what was a decent defense last season.

But to expect the Bulldogs to be competitive with Alabama in Bryant Denny is a little unrealistic, post-LSU hangover or not. The Bulldogs simply don’t have the tools they need for such an upset, and better teams the MSU have tried to unseat the Tide and failed this season.

Not to mention, the Bulldogs’ strengths don’t match up very well with those of the Crimson Tide. Running the ball against Alabama is akin to running against a picket of bulldozers. Sure, Fitzgerald is a talent, but he doesn’t have an elite arm, nor does he do anything with his legs that Bama hasn’t seen and shut down at least once previously in this season. When you put Mississippi State up against the template of Tennessee or Ole Miss, there aren’t many ways in which they are superior. And Alabama dispatched those opponents in unrelenting fashion. If MSU can’t run the ball, they cannot win. And they will struggle mightily to run against a ferocious Bama defense.

The Bulldogs did seem to catch lightning in a bottle in their upset of the Aggies, however. Have they turned a corner? Maybe. However, they have many corners left to turn before they can hang with a team like Alabama, so great is the discrepancy in talent and standard of performance.

While the Bulldogs certainly could take advantage of a Bama team playing down to its opponent, other than a rash of turnovers or injuries, there’s no reasonable way to reconcile the two teams in a fashion that has Mississippi State coming out on top. Even if their defense can solve Kiffin’s offensive puzzle, the Tide may need nothing more than a solitary field goal with the way its defense is playing.

As long as the odds may be, expect Mississippi State to put up a fight. They’re gritty even though they lack talent, and they will give Alabama as much of a game as they possibly can. A win is probably not in the cards, but the Bulldogs can certainly make is a bloodier battle than it needs to be. With a possible championship run in the cards for the Tide, they need to emerge from the game healthy and dominant, simply put.

Can the Bulldogs pull off another stunner for a second straight week? Will they find a way to pry a running game out of the Bama barricade-style defense? Will Alabama once again push all the right offensive buttons en route to another 500-yard offensive performance?

We will know soon…hope for the best.