So can Mississippi State pull off the improbable on Saturday in Starkville and upset undefeated Alabama? It seems unlikely considering how well the Crimson Tide have played to this point, but if the Bulldogs do have a puncher’s chance, it’s because of their quarterback, Nick Fitzgerald.
When it comes to Alabama, Nick Saban is widely considered the best head coach in college football today and is arguably the best we’ve ever seen in the sport. Saban has built a well-oiled machine in Tuscaloosa, with the most talented roster in America paired with top-notch instruction on everything from Xs and Os to strength and conditioning and nutrition. The head coach and his staff overturn every stone at their disposal from Sunday to Friday, searching for every possible advantage. As a result, Saban’s team typically takes care of business on Saturday.
Saban is a brilliant defensive mind and his teams usually rank among the best in the nation. This season is no different: through nine games, the Crimson Tide rank second nationally in total defense (243.8 ypg), yards per play allowed (3.96), run defense (75.8 ypg) and yards per carry allowed (2.5). Alabama also ranks in the top 10 nationally against the pass (168.0 ypg), and has recorded 12 interceptions and 29 sacks in 282 pass attempts, for an impressive 4.26 percent interception rate and a staggering 9.32 percent sack rate. The unit is banged up, but even with Shaun Dion Hamilton and Mack Wilson on the shelf, and Minkah Fitzpatrick hobbled by a hamstring injury he suffered against LSU, there’s plenty of talent available.
However, Saban-led defenses have been susceptible to dual-threat quarterbacks. Since 2009, when Saban won his first national title with the Tide, Alabama is 109-11 overall. Seven of those 11 losses came away from Tuscaloosa, and against quarterbacks such as Cam Newton, Trevor Knight, Chad Kelly and Deshaun Watson – players capable of pressuring opposing defenses with their feet as much as with their arm. Even the winning quarterbacks not known for their speed, such as Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace and Ohio State’s Cardale Jones in 2014, were capable of escaping oncoming pass rushers and picking up yards on the ground to move the chains and keep drives alive.
And that’s where Fitzgerald comes in, although it goes without saying simply having a running quarterback is no guarantee of victory against the Crimson Tide. Case in point, Mississippi State was embarrassed in Tuscaloosa last season. Fitzgerald, who completed just 10 of 33 pass attempts for 145 yards and an interception, was bottled up for just 15 rushing yards on 11 carries (including three sacks) in the embarrassing 51-3 loss. It was the eighth loss in eight tries for Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen against Saban and Alabama.
Nevertheless, a signal-caller capable of putting pressure on Saban’s defense in multiple ways creates more opportunities to make big plays, both by the quarterback and his surrounding cast. With enough big plays, few mistakes, and some help on the other side of the football against a solid Tide offense, Alabama can be beaten. Despite last year’s debacle, Mississippi State has an opportunity to upset the Crimson Tide Saturday in Starkville. And, despite his previously poor performance, Fitzgerald is the perfect weapon for the Bulldogs.
A 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior, Fitzgerald is built most like Newton, and runs with a similar blend of speed and physicality. He’s also put up rushing numbers similar to the 2010 Heisman winner. In 2016, Fitzgerald led the SEC with 16 rushing touchdowns and he finished a close second in the league with 1,375 yards. Through nine games this year, Fitzgerald ranks fifth in the SEC with 801 yards on the ground and is tied for second with 12 scores, including seven over his last four games. He has posted four straight 100-yard rushing games, and has surpassed the century mark a total of five times this season.
Fitzgerald is the key to Mississippi State’s running game, and when he can move the football consistently on the ground, the Bulldogs are very hard to beat. In fact, when Mississippi State runs for more than 200 yards in a game, the team is 7-0 this season. The two times the Bulldogs failed to reach that mark – 177 rushing yards against Georgia and 194 against Auburn – they lost. When Fitzgerald runs for at least 60 yards, State is 6-0. When he fails to reach 60, the Bulldogs are 1-2.
But if the Bulldogs struggle to get the running game going, they must rely on Fitzgerald’s arm, and unfortunately for Mullen and company, the quarterback hasn’t been as productive as a passer. This year, Fitzgerald has completed 133 of 234 attempts (56.8 percent) for 1,459 yards and 12 touchdowns with an SEC-high 10 interceptions. He has already thrown as many picks this season as last, and his interception rate has increased from 2.77 percent in 2016 to 4.27 percent this year. Fitzgerald also has tossed multiple interceptions in four of his last six games, including two last week in a sloppy win over UMass.
Regardless, Fitzgerald’s running ability creates opportunities in the passing game. When opposing defenses creep toward the line of scrimmage to try and stop Fitzgerald and running back Aeris Williams, who has 776 rushing yards and two TDs this season, it allows receivers to get open. Though the Bulldogs have yet to find a go-to playmaker in the passing game, and leading pass catcher Donald Gray is injured and questionable to play this week, there have been flashes of big-play potential. For example, Keith Mixon, who leads the team with 255 receiving yards, had a pair of 45-yard catches against LSU and Auburn and big targets Farrod Green and Jamal Couch have both averaged more than 21 yards per catch in limited action.
The Bulldogs have also done a better job putting the ball in the end zone. Mississippi State ranked 85th nationally in points per trip inside its opponent’s 40-yard line (4.29) in 2016. This year, the unit has scored 4.66 points per trip inside the 40 – an improvement of 40 spots on the national leaderboard. Last season, Mississippi State moved the football against Alabama and reached the Crimson Tide’s 40-yard line seven times in 14 drives. Of course, the Bulldogs struggled to finish those drives, managing a lonely field goal, resulting in 0.43 points per trip inside the 40.
However, Mississippi State isn’t likely to win a shootout with Alabama, so the final piece to the puzzle comes on the other side of the football. Fortunately, the Bulldogs have shown improvement on defense. Last season, Mississippi State allowed 459.1 yards per game (including 177.5 rushing) and 6.24 yards per play for the season. The Crimson Tide gashed the Bulldogs for 615 yards, including 218 on the ground, and 8.54 yards per play. This season, Mississippi State has held opponents to 289.3 yards per game, including 124.1 rushing, and 4.92 yards per play. So there’s hope the Bulldogs’ defense can slow down a multi-faceted Alabama offense.
An upset isn’t likely. Saban has the Crimson Tide playing like a national championship contender once again, and oddsmakers have pegged Alabama as a two-touchdown favorite. Mississippi State will have its hands full defensively with Jalen Hurts, Damien Harris, Bo Scarborough, Calvin Ridley and plenty of other blue-chip recruits, while the Crimson Tide defense remains one of the best in the nation.
Still, there is a path to victory. The Bulldogs have been much improved defensively and the unit is capable of keeping the score close early. Playing in Starkville, where they are undefeated this year, also is an advantage. Mississippi State must establish the run, which would create opportunities for big plays in the passing game and put the offense in scoring position. If Fitzgerald and company can make the most of their drives, then it increases the Bulldogs’ chances of at least hanging around. And if everything goes right for Mississippi State than the improbable could happen and Mullen could pick up his first win over Saban and mighty Alabama. After all, just like Newton, Kelly, Watson and others, Fitzgerald at least fits the bill when it comes to a quarterback that gives the Bulldogs a chance to pull off the upset.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.