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Alabama at Mississippi State Preview: When the Bulldogs have the ball

The Air Raid is coming back for Round 3... Can the Tide defense shut it down like they did in 2020 and 2021?

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

We’re now squarely into year 3 of the Mike Leach Experience in Starkville, and, as many projected, the (in)famous Air Raid offense has looked a decent bit sharper with another season of experience for the Bulldogs.

Sound familiar? That’s because that’s literally the exact same thing I opened this article with last year.

For as much as Leach has defined the Air Raid offense and been the subject of conversation over the past two decades, this scheme really is not particularly complicated or intricate. Get in the shotgun, put 4 receivers on the field, have them all run quick crossers and outs, and get the ball out quick.

That gets layered in with a hearty dosing of WR screens and RB screens in different forms and fashions in lieu of a running game, and the occasional calculated and pre-planned 50-50 sideline shot.

Wash, rinse, repeat, for about 50 pass attempts per game.

Seriously, go read my article from last year. Not much has changed other than the receivers have different names.

While the offense looks much the same with Will Rogers still throwing the ball, they’re up from 29 points per game in 2021 to 35 so far this year. They’ve put up 40+ points on Memphis, Texas A&M, Bowling Green, and Arkansas, but with 16- and 17- point duds against LSU and Kentucky mixed in to bring down the average.

Rogers, in his 3rd year as the starter, is still a high percentage thrower with a crazy quick release and a slippery pocket presence that allows him to take 50 dropbacks/game and only average 1.3 sacks (and half of his total sacks came against LSU. 5 of his games have been 0 or 1 sack outings).

He’s significantly upped his yards per completion this year compared to the previous two, finally getting over 10 Y/C. The reason for that is less about Rogers playing better, and more the fact that running backs Jo’Quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson are actually having some success on the ground.

With Johnson averaging 6 yards per carry over 68 carries, it’s allowed Rogers to drop his attempt quantity to focus more on downfield passes and not as many short passes that function as proxy runs. Marks has upped his YPC a little to 4.5 as well, but it’s Johnson’s breakout that’s really made the improvements in this offense.

Johnson and Marks also are right at the top of the team in catches with 31 and 30 catches, respectively. 6’5” Caleb Ducking leads the way with 33 catches and 7 touchdown grabs. Somehow, Leach’s Miss State offense always has about 4 different 6’5” receivers out there every year, and it’s always a totally new group every year.

Austin Williams and Jaden Walley return from last year, but have seen their production drop in favor of slot guy Rufus Harvey and sophomore Rara Thomas, who’s the main big play threat in this offense (averaging 17.4 yards per catch.)

Like in previous years, playing this offense is a bit unique. You can’t win on pass rush, as the Bulldogs are just going to throw 0.8 second passes all game long. You have to get enough pressure to convince them to keep making those short throws, and then your defensive backs have to be ready to make the tackle.... Over and over and over and over.

In 2020 and 2021, Alabama’s dime package pretty well totally shut things down, holding the Bulldogs to 0 and 9 points.

The difference this year is that the Bulldogs finally have a threat in the run game, and are a much better balanced team than they were a year ago. Of course, Alabama’s defense is likely looking to go scorched earth after a poor showing last week, so I expect the Tide will play much more disciplined and focused.

With both of those things taken in mind, I’m predicting 17-24 points for the Dogs.