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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.

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Mississippi State
Can Nick Fitzgerald power the Bulldogs past Bama for the first time in a decade?
Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

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 the most physical team they play all year. 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, Alabama must 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 tough, 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 the usually lowly Bulldogs possibly do to upset the Alabama championship apple cart?

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s that, like many teams in the SEC’s 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 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 face Alabama this Saturday evening, they’ll be bringing possibly the best team, top to bottom, that Dan Mullen has fielded in his moderately successful time in Starkville. If the Tide struggles, it won’t just be because they had a tough opponent last week, or are looking ahead to the Iron Bowl two weeks from now. It will be because this Mississippi State team is fundamentally sound, dynamic on both offense and defense, and extremely well-coached. They are a formidable foe, one of the toughest Alabama must conquer if it is to see a repeat voyage to the College Football Playoffs.

Mississippi State has represented one of the biggest surprises of the season in the SEC this year. Their defense, which last year was among the nation’s worst overall, has rebounded under new general Todd Grantham and is considered the third-best defense in the league behind Georgia and Alabama. That match-up will be no easy lifting for the Tide after hacking through the tangled jungle of Tiger defenders in last week’s game, as the Dogs are better than the LSU squad that held Alabama under 300 yards of offense for the first time this season.

The Bulldog offense is potent as always, especially now that dual-threat quarterback Nick Fitzgerald has grown into his role as leader of the dynamic read-option Bulldog offense. 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 second year as a starter, the offense has become stout and resolute.

Outside of the previously-mentioned external dynamics, does Mississippi State have a legitimate chance of pulling an upset of an Alabama team that has demolished all comers this season? The chances of such a coup are greater this year than they’ve been for some time, especially with Alabama reeling from an unfortunate series of injuries that has gutted a once-deep linebacking corps. Can the Bulldogs frustrate (and possibly shock) 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 Mississippi State team with swag in its step and a chip on its shoulder? Can Alabama’s defense patch together a cast of reserves and veterans at linebacker and snuff the MSU run game? Will Mississippi State employ lessons learned from West rival LSU and find a way to seal off Bama’s offense? 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 2017 season draws to an exciting conclusion. After all, Mississippi State is the most complete football team the Tide has played to date. 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 solid if unspectacular, 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 that game and into the playbooks of future opponents.

For what that LSU defensive effort proved, even in defeat, was that Alabama’s offense can be stopped…or at least, limited. That is a problem, since the injury-riddled Bama defense may become a concern once the level of opposition elevates. Depth could become an issue, and what was once a strength could become a bit of a liability. 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 pro-spread running game that utilized both the running back position and quarterback Jalen Hurts. 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 and create space or dominate the interior with Power, then that offense is nearly unstoppable. It is so incredibly multiple, and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll can rock back and forth between the short passing game, the quarterback keeps off the zone read, and the Power 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. Alabama always retains to the right to Hulk-smash opponents as well, and that blistering array of offensive styles and weapons has led to many a demolished defense.

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 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, thinking that it was in the pocket where he would do the least damage to the defense, especially after it was Hurts’ dagger-in-the-heart run that sealed the deal last season versus LSU. They gambled to make that a reality, bringing their talented edge rushers (such as OLB Arden Key) into play as aggressive quarterback assassins and run game 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, with last year’s game still a fresh reminder, they kept him in the pocket and forced him to throw. Hurts responded with one of his better passing performances to date, wedging passes into tight gaps and finding receivers through his progressions that he would have missed last season.

That said, the offense for Bama was still ugly. Its usual dominance was reined in to a degree. By using these simple tactics, LSU forced Alabama to stutter and start. Sure, Hurts made a few plays that ultimately changed the game. The runs that Hurts broke were big ones, converting third downs and sustaining scoring drives. Hurts even hit a few passes to extend drives, and showed remarkable progress in that area of his game.

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 certainly can, with one of the nation’s best, most well-rounded defenses, a unit that is equally at home defending the run and the pass. In fact, they are a top-25 defense in both regards (eighth versus the pass, 23rd versus the run). While they may not have the roster talent of the Tigers, they do have a scheme that is extremely flexible under Grantham, and one can expect the veteran defensive coordinator to adapt his defense against the Tide to do some of the same things LSU did.

Grantham’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 all types of alignments, in all types of personnel groupings. You name it, and Grantham probably has it up his sleeve. Against spread offenses like the one Alabama is running this season, Grantham is known to go with a 3-4 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 two outside linebackers who are dedicated pass rushers who 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 pattern-matching zone and Cover-2 coverages.

Quite honestly, the Bulldogs don’t have the talent up front boasted by LSU. Jeffrey Simmons (6-4, 301 pounds) is a nice, versatile player as a one-gapping nose, and Fletcher Adams (6-2, 270 pounds) and Koby Jones (6-4, 275 pounds) are nice prospects at end. But do the Bulldogs have better talent along the line than some of the Tide’s other foes this season (FSU, LSU, Texas A&M…just to name a few)? The answer is decidedly no.

Despite that disparity, can Grantham and his defense find ways to disrupt Alabama’s bread-and-butter running game? Possibly. MSU has two good edge rushers in Montez Sweat (6-6, 241 pounds) and Gerri Green (6-4, 245 pounds) who can use the same tactics LSU employed (with Key) 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 on read plays, 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 short passing game. One of Daboll’s primary tools for stretching out defenses and creating open space to exploit is the short, quick passes to backs and tight ends. 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 consistent threat on the outside, which allowed the edge rushers to focus and disrupt potential stretch runs.

Mississippi State can use some of these tactics, though they have a good roster playing in a sound system in their own right. With Grantham in charge and the defense operating smoothly in his “fast, physical, and aggressive” system, State can challenge the Tide’s inside running game while maintaining confidence that Hurts will have a hard time picking apart the excellent, diverse secondary. MSU has many tools in that secondary that can mitigate the match-up issues created by Bama’s skill position players, and that instantly levels the playing field for the Bulldogs while taking away one of the primary advantages Alabama generally carries over its opponents.

Expect Daboll to reassert the running game, as though the Bulldogs have a top-25 run defense by all statistical appearances, Bama still has the beef and backfield to run over and through MSU if they execute. After a week of struggles against an inferior LSU run defense, Alabama may just have its hands full this Saturday unless the offensive line once again discovers the stride it lost last week in Tuscaloosa. Alabama should attack the Dog front seven the same way it attacked the Arkansas and Texas A&M defenses: spread them out; wear out the bulk up front by running at them behind a Power running scheme; hit the short passes to Ridley, the backs, and the tight ends and take advantage of defensive cushions; and then let the multifaceted running game take over. That’s easier said than done against a stout, disciplined, physical Bulldog front, but Alabama’s performance against the MSU defense will speak to several future challenges they may encounter from better overall run defenses in Auburn and (potentially) Georgia.

Daboll has implemented a little more of his progressive offense with each game this season, and last week’s contest against LSU saw him loosen the reins further on Hurts in the passing game. To his credit, Hurts responded crisply, slinging the ball confidently, running through his reads more fluidly, and displaying a modicum of accuracy that eluded him last season. He still missed a few open receivers (such as Calvin Ridley, who could have scored unencumbered in the second quarter if Hurts had seen him). Daboll would also be wise to let Hurts work the passing game a little this week, as it will be needed to loosen the run defense and allow the Tide to do what it does best. However, doing so is not without significant risk, as the Bulldogs have an excellent secondary that is ranked ninth in pass defense S&P+. If Hurts can become a weapon in the passing game and use the elite talent around him at receiver, tight end, and running back, then that may be the tipping point that gives the Tide offense an insurmountable advantage against the Bulldog D.

Alabama defense versus the Mississippi State offense

For much of the season, the Mississippi State offense has been much more dynamic than in 2016, when the growing pains of a new quarterback in Mullen’s complex system were evident. However, the Bulldogs have come around of late, partially on the rising star of junior quarterback Fitzgerald (6-5, 230 pounds). Fitzgerald is a dual-threat quarterback not unlike former MSU standout and current Cowboy Dak 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 signal caller has been impressive, particularly as a runner, for the Bulldogs this season. Fitzgerald has produced an impressive 801 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground, and he’s passed for 1459 yards and 13 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. If there’s one knock against Fitzgerald, it’s that he is a little careless with the ball, and that could cost him dearly against an Alabama defense that ranks 15th nationally with 12 interceptions on the season.

Make no mistake, Fitzgerald is a talent for the Bulldogs, that much is certain. He’s big, athletic, and can do everything Mullen asks of a quarterback within his offense. His passing needs more polish, but that will come. On the ground, he presents the Tide D with quite a challenge, as he is the style of quarterback that has given the Tide the most trouble in recent memory. With the Tide down a few star linebackers, that task will be even more difficult, as successfully defending a read-option quarterback involves dynamic, disciplined linebacker play, something the Tide suddenly has in short supply.

The one weakness of the Bulldog offense to date has been something that has haunted Mullen’s offenses for years: they are predictable. They would much rather run than pass, and Fitzgerald remains their leading rusher. Their conventional running game, however, is far more robust this season, which has helped to diversify their attack. Their passing game isn’t horrible, but neither is it intimidating. While the Bulldogs have a great rushing attack statistically speaking (11th in raw stats, with 259.3 yard per game on average, and a rush S&P+ ranked 10th nationally), it is Fitzgerald who carries the load as the leading rusher. Backs Aeris Williams (6-1, 217 pounds), Nick Gibson (5-11, 211 pounds), and Kylin Hill (5-11, 200 pounds) have combined for more yards this year (1,263 yards) than Fitzgerald has generated alone, which wasn’t the case last season. After all, while diversity is good and a dual-threat QB adds an explosive element to a read offense, depending on the quarterback for a rushing attack can be problematic (especially when facing the nation’s second-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 (Deshaun Watson and Clemson not withstanding). Saban rebuilt his Death Star after losses to mobile quarterbacks like Manziel, Cam Newton, Chad Kelly, and more recently, Watson. The newly-constructed Bama D is not one that often 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. That said, after last weekend’s performance against a run-heavy LSU offense in which the Tigers ran for 151 yards against a Bama defense that generally keeps opponents well under 100 yards per game, even that previous guaranty could be in jeopardy due to the spate of linebacker injuries.

Alabama’s primary intention is to crush opposing running games, last weekend’s outing not withstanding. Make no mistake, fresh off a lackluster performance that was surely an after-effect of the ridiculous number of injuries to key players endured by the Tide, the Bama defense will be better prepared and better motivated to return to their run-stuffing form. What will Mississippi State do when Alabama locks down on the running game, which is, in fact, their primary weapon offensively?

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 large complement 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. The Tide defense, in particular the secondary, shut that burgeoning quarterback down with the quickness, with the defensive backs locking up the receivers with physical man coverage in what was a simply dominant performance that resulted in a total of 155 yards through the air for LSU.

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 Deondre Francois in the FSU game, or Shea Patterson in the Ole Miss 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 (5-10 200 pounds), Keith Mixon (5-8, 187 pounds), Gabe Myles (6-0, 195 pounds), Jesse Jackson (6-2, 218 pounds), and Deddrick Thomas (5-9, 187 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 169.4 yards per game (ranked 109th nationally) 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, something they’ve done better this year than in previous campaigns. They are currently converting at a 46.6 percent rate, good for 14th nationally. But those stats weren’t generated against Alabama, a defense that is ranked ninth on third downs, allowing conversions on only 28.3 percent of attempts. Stretching drives against the Bama D has been a challenge for better offenses than the one the Bulldogs sport, and if the Tide can keep the Dog offense on the bench, then the chances of a win increase exponentially.

Say Mississippi State does manage to put together a drive and reach the Bama red zone…then what? The Bulldogs have been somewhat impotent in the red zone this season, which is the cause of many of their woes thus far. The Bulldogs are a disappointing 77th in the red zone this season, converting just over eight of 10 trips (82.9 percent) inside the 20 into scores. Against Alabama’s defense (allowing scores on 72.2 percent of trips in the red zone, good for 12th nationally), 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.

If the Bulldogs are going to do anything offensively, they may have to take a few chances to render explosive plays and jump-start the offensive game plan. The MSU offense is particularly explosive, and is ranked 25th 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 no team has been able to make explosive passing plays through the air with enough regularity to indicate that proposition is accurate. The Tide’s defensive IsoPPP+ rating is ranked third, presenting quite the challenge for even a volatile offense like the one the Bulldogs field.

In fact, the Tide defense is ranked in the top-5 of all advanced defensive metrics save for the front seven havoc sub-metric (where the Tide is ranked 12th). 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.

All of that said, it wouldn’t be out of the question for the MSU offense to accomplish some of its goals against a depleted Bama defense that could struggle with depth uncharacteristically after the most recent rash of injuries. Against a dual-threat quarterback running a spread offense, linebackers are key…and Bama now has those players in short supply. If MSU can hang around and do enough to keep the game within 10 late, they’ll have a chance to take advantage of Alabama as the thin depth wears down late. To get to that point, they’ll need to be resilient while catching a few breaks. Otherwise, the score could get out of hand early (as it has for many Bama opponents this season), and the Tide’s dwindling defensive depth in the second half could be a non-issue.

Special Teams

The Tide’s kicking game woes have seemingly been righted, which is reassuring for those forecasting a stretch run for Bama. Andy Pappanastos has become a solid performer for the Tide at place kicker. 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. Xavian Marks saw much of the duty as a punt returner, and there weren’t many scares unlike previous weeks. Despite his lobbying, Minkah Fitzpatrick didn’t emerge as an option as a return man, especially after being dinged up early with a hamstring issue. Chances are, the Fitzpatrick-as-return-man dynamic has been officially squashed, and the Tide will continue to dance with the girl they brought to the prom in Marks and potentially Henry Ruggs III.

Mississippi State is improved this year on special teams, as senior punter Logan Cooke is averaging 43.6 yards per attempt (with a long of 67 yards). The place-kicking has been exemplary with newcomer Jace Christmann taking over duties, as he is 8-for-8 on field goals with a long of 45. At punt returner, the Bulldogs trot out receiver Donald Gray, who is averaging 3.9 yards per return. The kick return options include the duo of Gray (2/ 85 yards, 42.5 yards per return) and Keith Mixon (5/ 89 yards, 17.8 yards per return).

Unlike previous years, this year’s rendition of Mullen’s Bulldogs comes into the game against Alabama full of swagger, with enough piss-and-vinegar to give the Tide a run for its money. They are talented on both sides of the ball, they have an offense and mobile quarterback that can give Bama problems, and their defense is finally a strength rather than a liability. Had Alabama crushed LSU last week, confidence would likely be higher heading into the match-up with the Bulldogs. But the offensive struggle-bus that Alabama put on the field last week against a middling LSU defense can’t see a repeat performance this week against State, as they represent a more dynamic, more diverse defensive football team at this point in the season, and they match-up well with what the Tide brings to the table offensively.

The Alabama defense, a usual known commodity, will also bring its share of questions marks into the game due to the injury bug. Can Alabama, with a depleted linebacking corps, continue to render dual-threat quarterbacks impotent? Alabama’s run defense saw a sharp downturn last week against LSU, largely because of a single blown coverage caused by confusion amongst unfamiliar players forced into action due to injury. Has the week of prep work provided those newcomers with a better handle on roles and responsibilities? Or will Bama once again be susceptible to the mental errors that spring from a lack of experience? Against MSU, the latter could be deadly, since the Bulldog defense is built to prevent the types of offensive explosions Bama has leveraged to dominant victories earlier this season.

This MSU team is legit, and they can give Alabama problems if the Tide gives anything less than a flawless effort on Saturday. Factor in the din of battle created by the unruly, cowbell-ringing hordes in Starkville, and Saturday nights outing could be upset fuel. The Tide play well on the road, but in a night game against a team that finally believes it can beat the Tide, that crowd could create a hell-on-earth atmosphere for an Alabama team that will have many new faces in key positions this weekend.

Will Alabama rebound from a subpar performance over LSU by decimating a better Bulldog team? Has the Dog D turned the corner, providing Mullen with the balance to his dynamic offense that State has needed since he arrived there? Can the Tide finish the regular season gauntlet unscathed en route to the SEC Championship Game yet again?

The Tide’s stretch run begins this Saturday, and the road to future championships goes through Starkville…hope for the best.