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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
Can Nick Fitzgeralds get the job done in his last game against Alabama?
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Apologies if you’ve heard this one before: a 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, well-coached 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 over a decade, and like it or not, many teams see the Tide as the embodiment of what they wish to become. Beating Alabama has won hefty raises and extended grace periods for coaches (looking at you, Gus Malzahn). 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 (Paging the now-defunct Hugh Freeze and the Ole Miss Admiral Akbars).

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 a well-coached, physical team that Joe Moorhead has assembled in his first year in Starkville. Dual-threat senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald can explode at any time, and he’s had solid outings against the Tide in the past. And the MSU defense is the best overall unit the Tide has faced in 2018 so far.

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 has been exemplary under new general Bob Shoop and is considered one of the top-three best defenses in the league. 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 offered only withering resistance to Tua Tagovailoa and the Tide offense while giving up almost 600 yards of offense and 29 points.

The Bulldog offense is potent as always, especially now that Fitzgerald has grown into his role as leader of the dynamic read-option Bulldog offense. Moorhead and offensive coordinator Luke Getsy can be dangerous play-callers with their “Chipotle” brand of zone-read option (made famous in Moorhead’s time as OC at Penn State), and with Fitzgerald gaining greater command in his third year as a starter.

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 not particularly high, as Alabama has separated itself as a next-level college program seemingly without peer. If Alabama plays to its usual standard, even the mighty Bulldog offense won’t derail the Hawaiian Express. 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 make sense of Moorhead’s tricky schemes and RPO balancing act enough to snuff the MSU run game? Will Mississippi State be able to do what West rival LSU was unable to do 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 2018 season draws to an exciting conclusion. After all, Mississippi State is the most complete defense the Tide has played to date. In the meantime, let’s take a closer look…

Alabama’s offense versus the Mississippi State defense

Make no mistake…the Mississippi State defense is legit.

They’ve been startlingly good this season, an outgrowth of having two of the best defensive coordinators in the game shaping them over the last two seasons. Last year, it was current Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham who began the reclamation project on the Bulldog defense. This year, Shoop entered the picture and took the baton. Now, Mississippi State has a defense that even the likes of LSU and Alabama can respect, as they are leading the former two defensive powerhouses in many critical defensive metrics.

Let’s look at the numbers. The Bulldogs have been dominant throughout 2018 with a veteran front and great size and ability in the defensive backfield. They rank sixth in the nation in total defense, allowing a mere 278.7 yards per game. They’re seventh in pass defense (167.2 yards allowed) and 18th in run defense (111.4). They’re only allowing 12.3 points per game, good for second in the country. Their pass efficiency D is excellent, as they rank fourth. In the advanced metrics, they rank fifth in defensive S&P+, 25th in rush defense S&P+, and eighth in pass defense S&P+.

LSU had a great defense, and Alabama whipped them like a rented mule. Why should MSU be able to do much better?

For one thing, they can do something that LSU couldn’t. They can rush the passer. The tandem of end Montez Sweat (6-6, 245 pounds) and nose Jeffery Simmons (6-4, 300 pounds) has been dynamic this season. Between the two of them, they’ve combined for 21.5 tackles for loss, and Sweat has 9.5 sacks to his credit. As opponents of Alabama have seen this year, it’s difficult to block two monsters on a defensive line because you can only execute so many double teams. That holds true for the Bulldog line, as even when a line can neutralize Sweat or Simmons, Braxton Boyette (6-3, 310 pounds) and Gerri Green (6-4, 255 pounds) can make things happen.

This will be an important test for Alabama’s vaunted offensive line. They’ve been particularly adept in pass protection, only allowing six sacks through nine games. They’re fourth nationally in sacks allowed and seem to get better with every game. While Bama center Ross Pierschbacher will have his hands full with Simmons, it will be left tackle Jonah Williams and right tackle Jedrick Wills that will have the unenviable task of dealing with Sweat.

Tua thrives when he has time to work in the pocket, so it will be critical that the Bama line not only keeps the QB’s jersey clean, but that they keep the pocket clean as well. MSU has a solid secondary, though Tagovailoa can exploit their sometimes soft coverage with his laser-like accuracy. To realize his pinpoint potential, he’ll need a viable pocket, so it’ll be up to the Tide line to battle back Simmons, Sweat, and the rest of their maroon-clad cohorts if Alabama’s offense is to run as smoothly as it did last week against LSU. Easier said than done, however, as the Bulldog front seven is just plain beastly.

Shoop runs a lot of 4-2-5 nickel against teams that pass prolifically, so Alabama can fully expect to deal with five DBs throughout the afternoon. Unlike a lot of defenses that sub in a corner at nickel, Shoop prefers to have a safety with nice coverage skills to fill the nickel role to hedge his bets against the run. Between safeties Jonathan Abram (6-0, 215 pounds) and Mark McLaurin (6-2, 215 pounds), and nickels Brian Cole (6-2, 210 pounds) and Jaquarius Landrews (6-2, 190 pounds), Shoop has a battery of big-bodied defensive backs who are tailor made to be a shock force employed against teams that run a lot of RPOs (read: Alabama).

Whether or not they can be successful at neutralizing Alabama’s quick-hit RPO offense is to be determined. Lots of teams run lots of RPOs (Mississippi State’s own offense among them), but few get the results that Alabama produces. The reason is that no one else has the Tide’s elite skill position athletes. Between Tua’s surgical accuracy and quick release and Bama’s superhuman corps of wide receivers, even defensive backs who read the right keys and put themselves in position can’t stop the passing attack. Again, the key is that Tua needs time, even only a few seconds, to run through his progressions, conduct his mental calculus, and get the ball out.

Mississippi State is better suited at disrupting that timing and finesse than any other defense the Tide has faced this season. LSU has great talent, but they have enough broken pieces to corrupt their defensive machine. Sure, their defensive backs are great in man coverage and will press you like a button, but their pass rush is weak and their run defense isn’t great. Against an offensive like Alabama that can diagnose weaknesses and attack them with versatile weapons, stopping the Tide is akin to the Dutch boy of lore holding his finger in the dike. Eventually, the defense begins to erode, and its attempts at compensation lead to new weaknesses that Mike Locksley and his offense can exploit.

Mississippi State doesn’t have those glaring weaknesses, however. They can get after the passer and disrupt timing. They are very solid against the run and bracket things inside effectively. They play a system that limits big plays downfield when properly executed. They have size, they have talent, and they have a veteran roster. Those are attributes no other opponent defense has wielded to date, and Mississippi State will present another test for what appears to be a generational Tide offense.

The best tack for Alabama will be a balanced approach that doesn’t allow any of Mississippi State’s defensive strengths to take over the game. If the Bulldogs have success in the pass rush, Bama will need to call some designed QB runs and some zone-read tinged plays that will slow the pass rush and introduce even a moment of indecision in the front seven. Screens to Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris could work wonders, and Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle in the slot create mismatches that the Bulldogs can’t accommodate, as good as they may be. There will be match-up problems in the middle as the Bulldogs employ large, lumbering ‘backers who have a difficult time in coverage against receivers. Irv Smith Jr. also gives Alabama another tool, as he is more athletic than the Bulldog linebackers and safeties. There are ways for Alabama to neutralize the pass rush and reduce its impact on the game, and Locksley has been an expert in doing just that all season long.

Again, balance will be key. Mississippi State will come into the game knowing the Tide will test them through the air. Therefore, it would be wise to show them that the Tide still runs the ball with authority, as it did last week against LSU. If the running attack is successful enough to draw those safeties into the box or force Shoop to play more 4-3-4, the Tide passing game will prosper. If they go back into nickel to attack Tua’s passes, then Bama should pivot back to the ground and stretch out long, time consuming drives until explosive plays become available. It’s not rocket science. Effective, aggressive balance is the Bulldogs’ worst enemy against Alabama, and if the Tide can muster that, this game could be another rout.

After watching Bama play all comers to date, the impulse is to assume that the result of this game will be the same as all others. Bama will romp by halftime, and starters will give way to reserves by the fourth quarter. That assumption is folly, however. No one knows quite yet what the Tide can do when faced with a defensive challenge like the one they meet this Saturday, simply because they’ve yet to face a defense as good as the Bulldogs. If Alabama loses one facet of its offense to an oppressive attack, the Bulldogs are good enough to key in and strike at what the Tide does well.

Alabama defense versus the Mississippi State offense

For much of the season, the Mississippi State offense has been slightly less dynamic than in 2017, with the growing pains of a new scheme with Moorhead’s system were evident. Moorhead has been something of an innovator at his prior stops (Fordham and Penn State among them), and he’s dialed in a way to run simplified offense that still uses the element of surprise.

His offense is dynamic not in window dressing, but in practice. He runs most of his sets from static personnel groupings, usually 10 or 11 personnel with a little 12 thrown in for good measure. This is done by design to cut a defense’s ability to read the range of play-calling options he has based on personnel. It also simplifies things for his offense and lets them run a lot of looks from the same groupings.

His offense strives for balance and efficiency, and he utilizes a myriad of RPO calls entrusted to his quarterback to get the desired results. He can tailor his offense to the available talent and strengths on the roster. When he has a quarterback with a rocket arm, the balance may tilt slightly towards the passing game. But with a dual-threat quarterback, he can alter the plan to rebalance his offense towards the run. The offense hinges off the zone-read, and in that way it’s similar to former MSU coach Mullen’s system. However, it’s more versatile and flexible, and rather than counting on bulk up front to clear a way, Moorhead’s offense uses more subterfuge and counter moves to trick a defense into getting out of his way.

Even though the system is like Mullen’s, the Bulldogs took a while to adapt to the new offense. Moorhead said the most difficult part of installing his offense is teaching players their reads. He calls his offense the “Chipotle” offense because it involves a few simple ingredients that can be mixed in multiple ways. For example, it’s not just the QB who must make the reads on a given play, but his receivers as well. A receiver may have three different route options on a given play, which creates an incredible combination of options for his offense every time the ball is snapped. It’s difficult for a defense to get a read on what the offense will do from a particular alignment or set because even the offensive players don’t know what they’re going to do until the ball is snapped and they make their reads.

Despite their heavy front-loading of the offense in the early season, the Bulldogs have come around of late, with quarterback Fitzgerald (6-5, 230 pounds) putting up nice stats the last two weeks against Texas A&M (14-of-22 for 241 yards, two TDs and no INTs passing and 88 yards on 16 carries with two TDs rushing) and Louisiana Tech (17-of-28 for 243 yards, four TDs and no INTs passing and 107 yards on 18 carries rushing).

Fitzgerald is a dual-threat quarterback not unlike former MSU standout and current Cowboy Dak Prescott in size and demeanor, though he admittedly doesn’t yet have the passing polish Prescott displayed in his final two years in Starkville. Yet, the senior signal caller has been impressive, particularly as a runner, for the Bulldogs this season. Fitzgerald has produced an impressive 839 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground, and he averages 156.5 yards per game passing and 10 touchdowns with seven 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 seventh nationally in turnover margin.

Make no mistake, Fitzgerald is a talent for the Bulldogs, that much is certain. He’s big, athletic, and can do everything Moorhead asks of a quarterback within his offense. He still has not become a polished passer, which hamstrings the Bulldog offense and makes them one-dimensional against SEC foes with great defenses. For example, against Florida he only had 98 yards passing, against Auburn he could only muster 69 yards through the air, and against LSU Fitzgerald had an abysmal 59 yards passing.

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. He is a huge quarterback who runs with power and has elite speed. With the Tide still lacking depth behind Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses at inside linebacker, the task of corralling Fitzgerald will be even more difficult as the game wears on. Successfully defending a read-option quarterback involves dynamic, disciplined linebacker play, something the Tide has in Wilson and Moses but struggles to find beyond the starting pair.

The one weakness of the Bulldog offense to date has been something that has haunted Mississippi State’s offenses for years: they are predictable. They would much rather run than pass, and Fitzgerald remains their leading rusher. That situation will continue against Alabama, as starting tailback Kylin Hill (5-11, 215 pounds) sprained an ankle last week and is believed questionable for the game. 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 decent rushing attack statistically speaking (21st in raw stats, with 230 yards per game on average, and a rush S&P+ ranked third nationally just ahead of Alabama), it is Fitzgerald who carries the load as the leading rusher. Backs Aeris Williams (6-1, 215 pounds), Nick Gibson (5-11, 215 pounds), Dontavian Lee (6-1, 230 pounds), and Kylin Hill (5-11, 215 pounds) have combined for more yards this year (1,011 yards) than Fitzgerald has generated alone, though they’re tracking behind where they were at this time last year as a group. 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 against a quality defense.

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, 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. While Fitzgerald is a threat offensively, the lack of a passing game (the Bulldogs are ranked 105th in passing offense with 187 yards per game and a passing S&P+ of 87th) will help Alabama hedge its bets and play aggressively against the run.

Alabama’s primary intention is to crush opposing running games and harass the quarterback from the front. 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 Joe Burrow, 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 and pass rush, 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 184 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 Juwan Pass in the Louisville game, Kellen Mond in the Texas A&M game, or Jordan Ta’amu 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 or Louisville. Stephen Guidry (6-4, 190 pounds), Keith Mixon (5-8, 187 pounds), Deddrick Thomas (5-9, 190 pounds), Jesse Jackson (6-2, 218 pounds), Austin Williams (6-3, 205 pounds), Malik Dear (5-9, 225 pounds), and Orirus Mitchell (6-5, 210 pounds) are all decent receivers, and they have the size to match up with Bama’s aggressive defensive backs. That said, Bama has shut down better wide receivers before and robbed better quarterbacks of productivity. Factor into the equation that Fitzgerald will more often than not be running for his life from Quinnen Williams, and it’s hard to imagine Mississippi State reaching even their modest average of 187 yards per game 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 44 percent rate, good for 29th nationally. But those stats weren’t generated against Alabama, a defense that is ranked 11th on third downs, allowing conversions on only 30 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 are effective in the red zone and are ranked 28th this season, converting almost nine of 10 trips (89 percent) inside the 20 into scores. Against Alabama’s defense (allowing scores on 66.6 percent of trips in the red zone, good for third 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 not particularly explosive, and is ranked 76th 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 running 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. That said, Alabama does give up big plays when they give up plays at all, and in the early season they were more prone to those slips than they have been of late. As a result, the Tide’s defensive IsoPPP+ rating is 92nd.

That said, the Tide defense is ranked in the top-11 of all advanced defensive metrics save for the IsoPPP+ stat. For those of you who don’t crunch numbers, let’s put it bluntly: Alabama’s defense may not be as dominant as in past years, but it remains exceptional. And they have gotten better with every game, as evidenced in their absolute destruction of a decent LSU offense last week…the same offense that hammered an elite Georgia defense and torched MSU’s own heralded unit earlier this season. The way Alabama has played in the last several weeks, there are no more than five 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 Bama defense that should be rejuvenated after a dominant contest in Baton Rouge last weekend. The Bulldogs have a tremendous offensive line that is simply monstrous (the line averages 323 pounds, with two players weighing in over 330 pounds). They are also a veteran unit with three upperclassmen in the middle flanked by sophomores at the tackle positions.

Against a dual-threat quarterback running a spread offense, linebackers are key…and Bama has those players in short supply. Wilson and Moses have grown into their roles nicely, but they’re human. They will need relief, even if only temporarily, and the depth behind them is quite shallow. A single missed assignment against Fitzgerald can quickly turn into a touchdown.

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 offensive while catching a few breaks and have their defense find a way to slow down the Tide offensive machine. Otherwise, the score could get out of hand early (as it has for many Bama opponents this season), and the Tide’s defensive depth in the second half could be a non-issue.

Special Teams

The Tide’s kicking game woes have seemingly been righted (the PAT debacle in Baton Rouge aside), which is reassuring for those forecasting a stretch run for Bama. Joseph Bulovas has become a solid performer for the Tide at place kicker. Mike Bernier may not be a game-changer for the Tide, but the Tide at least has a steady punter who can reliably boost field position.

Teams have learned that kicking to Waddle and Jacobs is a fool’s errand, and LSU avoided putting the ball in Waddle’s hands more time than not last weekend. Expect the Bulldogs to follow suit, as no one not wearing crimson wants to see Waddle with the ball in his hands and a spring in his step on punt returns.

Mississippi State has had struggles of their own in the punting game with new starter Tucker Day assuming the role. Day is only averaging a pedestrian 38.3 yards per punt with a long of 59 yards. The place-kicking has not been exemplary with Jace Christmann as the starter after a great 2017, as he is 8-for-11 on field goals (72.7 percent) with a long of 47. At punt returner, the Bulldogs trot out receiver Keith Mixon, who is averaging 6.5 yards per return. The kick return options include the duo of Deddrick Thomas (2/ 43 yards, 21.5 yards per return) and Brian Cole (10/ 225 yards, 22.5 yards per return).

Unlike previous years, this year’s rendition of the 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. This MSU team is legit, and they can give Alabama problems if the Tide gives anything less than a flawless effort on Saturday.

Alabama has looked unstoppable for most of the year, and they should beat Mississippi State handily. But at this point, Alabama really isn’t playing the opponent on the other sideline. They are playing Alabama. They are playing a mental game with themselves. They must find a way to tune out the rat poison of public praise heaped upon them by pundits across the country. They must continue to provide the effort demanded by Saban as tribute to the ghosts of championships past and those yet to come.

This game isn’t about Mississippi State’s defense or Fitzgerald’s athletic prowess. At their best, those two factors would merely dent the Tide’s armor in a game like this. This game is about whether Alabama can continue to produce pride in performance, the carrying of the Alabama standard. It’s about whether the Tide has established the identity that Saban talks about frequently. It’s about how good this Tide team wants to be when the cards fall at the end of the season.

Make no mistake, this Alabama team isn’t playing against Mississippi State, or Auburn, or Georgia. This team is playing against history, and they are fighting a battle against soma-inducing opiate of complacency and the nature of dominance. If they are victorious, there’s no team in the country that can stop them from their appointed rounds in the playoffs this season.

The Tide’s stretch run begins this Saturday, and the road to legend goes through Mississippi State…hope for the best.