While most of the attention in the SEC will be focused on Georgia-Florida, Alabama-Mississippi State is a game that shouldn’t be overlooked this Saturday. The Bulldogs are off to their best start since opening 8-0 in 1999 under Jackie Sherrill. Alabama enters this matchup ranked No. 1 in the BCS standings and is a heavy favorite to repeat as national champions.
These two teams have met 96 times, with the Crimson Tide claiming the last four victories in this series. Mississippi State won back-to-back games in 2006-07, but this series has been largely dominated by Alabama. The Crimson Tide has won the last four matchups against the Bulldogs by at least 17 points.
With a looming showdown against LSU next week, Alabama has to be careful not to overlook Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have played a weak schedule but are a dangerous team and should not be taken lightly.
Storylines to Watch in Alabama vs. Mississippi State
Tyler Russell vs. Alabama’s secondary
Coming into the season, most expected a Tyler (Wilson or Bray) would make All-SEC honors. However, not many placed Tyler Russell into the top half of the SEC in quarterback rankings. The junior has been one of the conference’s top quarterbacks so far, throwing for 1,573 yards and 15 touchdowns. Russell has tossed only one interception and is averaging 260.7 passing yards per game in conference play. Although Russell is off to an impressive start this year, Alabama will be the toughest secondary he has faced. The Crimson Tide rank second nationally in pass defense and has allowed just two passing touchdowns in 2012. Opposing quarterbacks are also completing just 50.8 percent of their passes against Alabama. The Crimson Tide shut down Tennessee’s offense last week and held Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson to just five catches for 95 yards. Not only does Russell need to have his best game for Mississippi State to pull off the upset, he has to continue playing mistake-free ball.
The turnover battle
One look at the turnover margin stats for 2012 reveals a surprising No. 1 team: Mississippi State. The Bulldogs ranked 59th nationally last season but have forced 21 turnovers in 2012. Alabama isn’t far behind, ranking third nationally in turnover margin with 20 forced turnovers. With both teams ranked atop this category, something has to give on Saturday. If Mississippi State can win the turnover battle, it should have a good chance to pull off the upset. If Alabama wins, the Crimson Tide should roll to an easy victory.
Mississippi State’s secondary vs. AJ McCarron
Just as Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell is taking on his toughest test of the year, the same could be said for Alabama passer AJ McCarron. The Bulldogs rank 21st nationally in pass defense and have allowed only five passing scores this year. Additionally, no SEC opponent has thrown for more than 200 yards on this defense in 2012. In last season’s game, McCarron threw for 163 yards on 14 completions but has improved significantly from the end of 2011. There’s no question Mississippi State’s secondary will be able to challenge Alabama receivers, so repeating last week’s performance against Tennessee (306 yards and four touchdowns) seems unlikely.
Will Mississippi State slow down Alabama’s rushing attack?
The Bulldogs haven’t faced a rushing attack like the one Alabama will bring to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday. The Crimson Tide have gashed opponents for 219.4 yards per game and the backs are running behind one of the nation’s best offensive lines. Mississippi State’s run defense ranks 47th nationally but opponents are averaging 4.1 yards per carry. With Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon both averaging over six yards per carry, Alabama should be able to move the ball on the ground against the Bulldogs. Matching the Crimson Tide’s physical presence in the trenches will be critical for Mississippi State, as well as winning the battle on first and second down against the run.
This matchup will be a good measuring stick for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are clearly getting better under coach Dan Mullen but have yet to be tested this season. With a difficult close to the season, a good showing in this game would give Mississippi State some confidence. Although the Bulldogs are improved, beating the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa will be very difficult. Alabama is playing well on both sides of the ball and its defense will be a handful for Bulldogs’ quarterback Tyler Russell and running back LaDarius Perkins. Mississippi State will keep it close in the first half but eventually Alabama has too much firepower and pulls away in the final two quarters.
Final Prediction: Alabama 31, Mississippi State 13
by Steven Lassan
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