Just like their offense, the Mississippi State defense has slowly improved from not good, to average, to above average in their 3 seasons under Mike Leach. Defensive Coordinator Zach Arnett is still a young, up and coming DC with the Bulldogs being his first P5 job. He runs a 3-3-5 scheme that is intent on limiting damage, and allowing the opposing offense as many underneath plays as they want. It’s a schematic gamble that assumes, eventually, a college QB is going to mess up.
And, in the passing game, it’s mostly worked out for them. The Bulldogs are only allowing 58% completion rate, 6.5 yards/attempt, and more interceptions than touchdowns so far on the season. The issue for them has been the fact that dropping 8 into coverage means you’re quite light in the box. And they’re giving up an astronomical 153 yards per game on the ground.
The epitome of this is the fact that Jordan Davis is one of their 3 down linemen. Davis signed with Alabama a few years back as a 230-lb linebacker before going to junior college and eventually winding up at Miss State. He’s put on size since then, but is still a linebacker playing as one of only 3 guys trying to hold an entire line of scrimmage.
Along with him, Cameron Young, Randy Charlton, and Nathan Pickering rotate in the defensive line. Pickering and Charlton both have 2 sacks as pretty much the only pass rush production from the defensive linemen. Of course, again, their job is a thankless one in this scheme. Similar to Alabama’s 3-4 back in 2008-2013, they don’t get stats, they just try to hold up as many blockers as possible so the linebackers can get to the ball.
At linebacker, 3rd year starter Tyrus Wheat has been on of the team’s most consistent producing players for years, and that continues in 2022. He’s got 3 sacks, 4 TFLs, a couple of deflected passes, and a couple of fumble recoveries. Beside him at middle linebacker, 5th year senior Nathaniel Watson returns for his 3rd starting season as well and holds the team lead with 4.5 TFLs and 3 sacks, plus a 51-yard interception return. The third backer, Jett Johnson, doesn’t have quite the big play stats, but instead gets tasked with much of the sideline-to-sideline cleanup and ball chasing, and he leads the team with 67 tackles.
In the secondary, cornerback Emmanuel Forbes is the star player. Forbes was a Freshman All-American a couple of seasons ago and is now entering his junior year as a potential early exit for the NFL. He has 5 pick-sixes in his career, and his 13 career interceptions lead the SEC. He also has 5 picks already this season, including being named the Nagurski player of the week after grabbing two picks (one for a score) and blocking/returning a field goal for a TD against Texas A&M.
The rest of their secondary consists of a trio of safeties who, while not the most talented cover players, are all solid tacklers who do a lot to keep passes in front of them and limit yards after the catch.
In his time at Alabama, Bryce Young has utterly shredded most any defense who doesn’t sent constant rushers at him up the middle. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, their scheme is to drop as many players as possible, and Young thrives against that. He’s unfathomably patient and will hang around until someone eventually comes open.
And at the same time, Saban always loves to go rush-heavy against teams that present a light box to him, so I expect Jahmyr Gibbs and Jase McClellan to get a lot of volume.
The Bulldogs sport a top-30 defense, but this is just a bad matchup for them... Especially since Alabama is coming off a loss, and that usually galvanizes Nick Saban teams for a few weeks.
I’m guessing somewhere in the neighborhood of 42 points for the Tide.