Alabama has made it to November in control of its destiny in the SEC West every year since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007. Although the Crimson Tide have a difficult slate ahead of them in the first two months of the season, no one will be surprised if Saban’s team makes it to November pacing the West once again. Alabama will have to face its two greatest rivals — LSU and Auburn — in the final month of the season, but don’t overlook its Nov. 14 matchup at Mississippi State. Here are four reasons why The Tide’s most important game of the season could be when it plays the Bulldogs in Starkville.
Related: SEC Football 2015 Predictions
1. QB-WR Tandem of Dak Prescott and De'runnya Wilson
Alabama’s struggles against good (sometimes even mediocre) passing attacks have been well documented. Unlike LSU, Tennessee, and Arkansas though, Mississippi State appears to have proven playmakers that can take advantage of Bama’s commitment to man-to-man coverage on the outside and a lack of length at cornerback. In fact, as it stands now, Dak Prescott may be the only true NFL-caliber quarterback in the SEC — certainly the most proven after throwing for 3,449 yards and 27 touchdowns last season. And on the outside, Prescott has a Mike Evans look-a-like in De’Runnya Wilson, who caught nine touchdowns in 2014, tied for the second most among returning SEC players. So, while Jeremy Johnson and D’haquille Williams have enormous potential at Auburn, Prescott and Wilson are proven commodities for the Bulldogs in the SEC.
2. The Physicality of Mississippi State
In their 11 losses since 2008, there have been two requirements for beating Alabama: first, feature a quarterback that can beat man coverage, and second, be physical. In Prescott, the Bulldogs actually have both. Mississippi State had the third-ranked rushing attack in the SEC in 2014, thanks to Prescott’s 986 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. His Tebow-like running style and his more legitimate arm will give his team a chance in every game. On defense, the Bulldogs will lean on three returners — Ryan Brown, Beniquez Brown and Chris Jones — to lead a young front seven, which was the strength of the defense a year ago. Of those three, Jones is widely believed to be most talented and has the ability to be a force against a young offensive line like Alabama’s.
3. The Ultimate Trap Game
Even though every game in the SEC is big, the expectations and the priorities around the Alabama program make Mississippi State a perennial trap game. Bama fans are quick to notice that the Bulldogs don’t recruit like Auburn, LSU or Texas A&M, and they’ve never really rivaled Alabama at any point like Tennessee has. And to the average Alabama fan, Mississippi State isn’t even the best school in its own state. Nick Saban fears the letdown every week, but that hasn’t kept Alabama from sleepwalking through its last couple of trips to Starkville in 2011 and ‘13. If the Crimson Tide make it to November in contention, the fans will breathe a sigh of relief while keeping an eye on the Nov. 28 Iron Bowl finale on the Plains, the scene of the infamous “Kick Six” in 2013.
4. It’s in Starkville
A part of me wants to just say “cowbells” and leave it at that, but I’ll elaborate. Away from home in 2014, Alabama struggled to communicate on both sides of the ball. After a neutral site game against West Virginia to open the season Nick Saban was quick to point out that no one on his defense appeared to know what their assignment was. Even though the Bama-Mississippi State game is the 10th game of the season for the Tide, when you subtract Landon Collins, Trey DePriest, and Xavier Dickson — three of Alabama’s most experienced players — Crimson Tide fans have to wonder who’s going to lead the defense if things start to go wrong on the road. Likewise, on offense, Lane Kiffin worked magic doing what he did with Blake Sims at quarterback. However, that too was less impressive on the road, and the Tide will be breaking in a new quarterback in 2015.
— Written by Eron Jenkings, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Jenkins is a public school teacher in Baton Rouge, has written for several other publications and is an SEC fanatic. Follow him on Twitter @EronJenkins.