The SEC West is once again the epicenter of a college football weekend. Alabama is usually the team at the top of the SEC West, but Mississippi State has worked its way through the nation’s best division and enters Week 12 as the No. 1 team in college football’s playoff committee rankings. Of course, the Bulldogs stay at No. 1 is tenuous, but a loss to the Crimson Tide wouldn’t eliminate coach Dan Mullen’s team from the playoff mix.
Alabama opened the 2014 season with a 5-0 start but suffered a 23-17 loss to Ole Miss in Oxford. The Crimson Tide has rebounded since that defeat by winning four in a row, including a 20-13 game at LSU last Saturday. Alabama ranked No. 5 in this week’s committee rankings, but coach Nick Saban’s team controls its destiny into the playoff.
Despite Mississippi State’s No. 1 ranking, the good folks in Vegas aren’t putting much stock in this matchup. The Bulldogs are more than a touchdown underdog (8.5 points) but had an easy win over Tennessee-Martin last Saturday and are catching Alabama at the right time. After a physical 60-minute battle with LSU, can the Crimson Tide respond with the same type of effort and performance a week later?
Alabama has dominated the overall series against Mississippi State 76-17-3. The Crimson Tide has won six in a row against the Bulldogs and none of those matchups were decided by single digits. Mississippi State’s last win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa transpired in 2006.
Mississippi State at Alabama
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Alabama -8.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Dak Prescott Against Alabama’s Defense
This is one of the most intriguing matchups of the 2014 season. Alabama is simply an immovable object against the run. The Crimson Tide has allowed only 808 rushing yards this year, limiting opponents to just 2.8 yards per carry. Additionally, coach Nick Saban’s defense has allowed only two rushing scores all year and none over the last three games. While Alabama aims to stop the run and has been tough to run on all year, Mississippi State has to try to establish its ground game. Through five SEC contests, the Bulldogs rank second in the league by averaging 251.8 rushing yards per game and have scored 16 touchdowns. Running back Josh Robinson leads the team with 984 yards, while quarterback Dak Prescott is a close second with 779 yards. Both players have 11 rushing scores and average over five yards per attempt. Mobile quarterbacks have provided plenty of headaches for Alabama in recent years: Auburn and Oklahoma in 2014 and Texas A&M in 2013 and 2012. Can Prescott continue that trend? The Alabama defense is the best Prescott and Robinson have played this year and getting 250 or so rushing yards will be a challenge. However, it’s the small gains that could eventually lead to big plays. Keeping Prescott out of third-and-long situations and using his mobility when the pocket breaks down are two areas for Mullen and his staff to monitor on Saturday.
2. Alabama’s Rushing Attack
Alabama still has a few games to help its offensive numbers, but the Crimson Tide rank seventh in the SEC in rushing heading into Saturday’s game against Mississippi State. The No. 7 rank for the rushing attack is the lowest for Alabama in the last seven seasons. And there’s some uncertainty surrounding the running backs for Saturday, as T.J. Yeldon suffered an ankle injury against LSU and may not be at full strength against the Bulldogs. Yeldon has 686 yards this year, while Derrick Henry has 554 on 111 attempts. Alabama’s offensive line isn’t as strong as it has been in recent years, but this rushing attack will challenge the Mississippi State defensive front. The Bulldogs aim to stop the run and have held their SEC opponents to 149.6 rushing yards per game. The defensive line for Mississippi State is loaded with talent, depth and experience, starting with end Preston Smith and continuing to tackles P.J. Jones, Kaleb Eulls and Chris Jones. Can Alabama’s offensive line jell at the right time and create rushing lanes for Yeldon and Henry? Or will Mississippi State win the battle at the point of attack and put the Crimson Tide into long yardage situations?
3. Alabama WR Amari Cooper
Timely is the best way to describe Alabama’s passing offense in last week’s win against LSU. Receiver Amari Cooper had a few dropped passes against the Tigers but finished with eight catches for 83 yards and one score. Blake Sims has been a better quarterback in Tuscaloosa than on the road this year. Sims is completing 69.2 percent of his passes at home and has 11 touchdowns to just one interception. The senior has not tossed a pick in four games, and with a tight game expected on Saturday, he needs another zero in the interception column. Cooper (79 catches for 1,215 yards) is by far the top target for Sims, and the junior should have opportunities for big plays against a Mississippi State secondary that has allowed 16 plays of 30 or more yards this season (worst in the SEC). And if the Bulldogs find a way to slow down Cooper, Alabama still has tight end O.J. Howard and fellow receivers DeAndrew White and Christion Jones to target. Even if Mississippi State stops the run, can its secondary find an answer for Cooper?
Mississippi State hasn’t played particularly well since its 38-23 win to Auburn. However, that shouldn’t be of concern, as the Bulldogs continue to rise to the challenge each week, especially in a road win against LSU and a home victory over Auburn. The Bulldogs have the pieces to match Alabama but winning in Tuscaloosa requires a perfect effort. Prescott and Robinson may not find a ton of success early, but it’s important to stick with the rushing attack. And when Prescott throws, there are plays to be made against the Crimson Tide secondary. Alabama is coming off a physical game against LSU, so a sluggish start isn’t out of the question. With the Bulldogs’ penchant for giving up big plays in the secondary this year, the Crimson Tide may come out throwing to open up their rushing attack. Mississippi State is catching Alabama at the right time. However, the Crimson Tide finds a way to win this one in the second half, and coach Nick Saban’s team sets up an interesting finale against Auburn on Nov. 29.