Alabama’s tough November slate and path to the CFB Playoff continues on Saturday night with a trip to Starkville to take on Mississippi State. A win over the Bulldogs would ensure the Crimson Tide are 11-0 headed into an epic showdown at Auburn in the Iron Bowl on Nov. 25. For Mississippi State, coach Dan Mullen’s team is all about bowl positioning over the final weeks of the 2017 season. The Bulldogs ranked No. 16 in this week’s CFB Playoff rankings and close out the year with matchups versus the Crimson Tide, at Arkansas and at home versus Ole Miss on Thanksgiving night.
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen is one of the best in the SEC. Since taking over the program in 2009, the Bulldogs are 68-44 under his watch and have played in seven consecutive bowl games. After Dak Prescott finished his eligibility after the 2015 season, it was no surprise Mississippi State had a rebuilding year last fall. But with Mullen at the helm, and the development of quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, the Bulldogs are back in the top 25 and poised to take one of the top bowl spots in the SEC allotment. Mullen’s team started 3-0, which included a 37-7 win over LSU. However, Mississippi State lost by a combined score of 80-13 to Georgia and Auburn in the next two contests. The Bulldogs rallied to reel off four wins in a row, including a 35-7 blowout victory in College Station to Texas A&M.
Another year, another dominant Alabama team. That may seem like a broken record, but it’s the expectation in Tuscaloosa with Nick Saban at the helm. The Crimson Tide are 9-0 and ranked No. 2 in this week’s CFB Playoff rankings. Alabama defeated LSU 24-10 last Saturday, crossing off one hurdle in the quest to finish the regular season 12-0 and with another SEC West title. This team also had a victory over Florida State (24-7) in the opener and a road 27-19 win at Texas A&M in early October.
Alabama holds an 81-17-3 series edge against Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have lost nine in a row to the Crimson Tide. The last victory by Mississippi State in Starkville came in 2007.
Alabama at Mississippi State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Alabama -14
Three Things to Watch
1. Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald
Mississippi State’s chances of an upset rest on the right arm and legs of quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. The junior ranks third in the SEC by averaging 251.1 total yards per game this season and has accumulated 25 overall scores. Fitzgerald is a dynamic runner with the ability to pick up chunk plays or grind out the tough yards between the tackles at the line of scrimmage. And Fitzgerald enters this matchup with momentum on his side. The junior has rushed for over 100 rushing yards in four consecutive games and averages 6.9 yards per carry. Running back Aeris Williams (776 yards) is another weapon for Mullen to utilize on the ground.
After a dynamic sophomore season in 2016, Fitzgerald’s top priority in the offseason was to improve as a passer. Continuing to refine his passing skills and develop the necessary touch and accuracy was the final piece for a quarterback capable of winning first-team All-SEC honors. He’s made some progress through nine games, raising his completion percentage to 56.8 (up from 54.3). Fitzgerald has passed for 1,459 yards and 13 touchdowns so far this year. However, the junior is still a work in progress and is dealing with a banged up receiving corps. Keith Mixon (17 catches), Donald Gray (24) and Gabe Myles (nine) each missed last week’s game against UMass. As a result, Fitzgerald only connected on 14 of 25 throws for 139 yards and two picks. With Gray and Myles likely out, there’s added pressure on Fitzgerald and receivers Jesse Jackson, Deddrick Thomas and tight ends Farrod Green and Jordan Thomas.
As expected, Alabama’s defense has been a brick wall against the run in 2017. The Crimson Tide lead the SEC in rush defense, giving up just 75.8 yards per game. Additionally, Nick Saban’s defense is allowing only 2.5 yards per carry. But Alabama’s defense has one major concern: Injuries. Various ailments have sidelined Shaun Dion Hamilton, Christian Miller, Terrell Lewis and Mack Wilson for the remainder of the regular season. Make no mistake: Saban’s defense isn’t hurting for talent at linebacker. However, the depth is depleted.
With injuries taking a toll at linebacker, senior Rashaan Evans, freshman Dylan Moses and sophomore Anfernee Jennings have the task of keeping Fitzgerald in check on Saturday night. Will Fitzgerald find running room off the edge against this defense? Or will Alabama keep Fitzgerald in check (15 yards on 11 carries) like last season? If the Crimson Tide win the battle on first down, that puts a lot of pressure on Fitzgerald and a struggling downfield passing attack to win this one.
2. Mississippi State’s Run Defense
Mississippi State’s defense has made marked improvement under first-year coordinator Todd Grantham. Last season, the Bulldogs ranked 13th in the SEC by allowing 31.8 points a game. This unit also surrendered 6.2 yards per play in 2016 and ranked seventh in the SEC against the run. So far in 2017, the Bulldogs are third in the SEC versus the run, limit opponents to just 18 points a game and are holding opposing offenses to 4.9 yards per play. Linebacker/end Montez Sweat has wreaked havoc all season around the line of scrimmage with nine tackles for a loss, and sophomore Jeffery Simmons is having a breakout year to bolster the front seven. Senior linebacker Dez Harris (55 stops) leads the team in tackles, and safety Johnathan Abram (43 stops) is another player to watch when the Bulldogs are on defense.
Grantham’s hire has been an important one in Mississippi State’s 7-2 record. However, the Bulldogs are going to be tested up front on Saturday night. Alabama’s rushing attack is punishing opponents for 278.4 yards a game on the ground and averages a healthy 6.1 average on carries. Coordinator Brian Daboll has a deep stable of options at running back at his disposal. Damien Harris (730 yards and 10 touchdowns) is the leading rusher, but quarterback Jalen Hurts (616) isn’t too far behind. The Crimson Tide could also turn to Bo Scarbrough (416 yards) or Najee Harris (282).
Establishing the ground game sets the table for Alabama’s offense. If the Crimson Tide control the line of scrimmage and establish the run, this will be a long night for Mississippi State. On the flipside, if the Bulldogs win some battles and force Alabama into long-yardage situations and obvious passing downs, that’s a huge victory for Grantham’s group.
3. Alabama QB Jalen Hurts
Even though most of the attention at quarterback in this matchup will go to Nick Fitzgerald, Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts shouldn’t be overlooked. The sophomore has been steady in his second year under center and gets more comfortable as a passer with each snap. He’s completed 60.6 percent of his throws for 1,406 yards and 10 touchdowns this year. Additionally, Hurts has tossed only one pick on 175 attempts.
Hurts doesn’t need to throw for 300 yards in order to win this game, but he will be tested by Mississippi State’s defense. This unit has generated 10 sacks in five SEC games, and the secondary has surrendered only five touchdown tosses in conference play. Additionally, the Bulldogs rank fourth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense. No opponent has eclipsed 270 passing yards against this group. Grantham can throw a variety of looks at Hurts to provide pre-snap confusion or send extra rushers to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. But if Mississippi State’s rushers get into the backfield, Hurts’ mobility prevents a big challenge in keeping him within the pocket.
It’s no secret Alabama’s go-to receiver is Calvin Ridley. The junior has dominated the target and catch totals for the offense all season. Ridley has 44 of the team’s 134 receptions and leads the offense with 584 receiving yards. With Alabama chasing a CFB Playoff berth, this offense needs more from its secondary options in order to win the national title. How much will players like freshmen Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III step up over the next couple of games?
In a tough road environment, how much will Alabama need to pass in order to win? And if the Bulldogs are successful in slowing down the ground game, can Hurts execute downfield enough to keep the offense moving? The guess here is that he will, but this is a good barometer test for the Alabama offense.
The trenches are where this game will be decided. Can Mississippi State’s offensive line clear enough running lanes for Fitzgerald to attack the middle and perimeter? And when Alabama has the ball, can the Bulldogs slow down Harris, Scarbrough and Hurts on the ground? The guess here is Mississippi State will win a few battles on the ground – but it won’t be easy. Even if the Bulldogs make a couple of big plays on the ground, it’s not going to be enough. Look for Alabama to stack the box and contain Fitzgerald, while its offense puts together a couple of drives in the second half to put this one away.