The Alabama Crimson Tide dominated LSU on both sides of the football last weekend in Tuscaloosa, which is why they checked in at No. 2 in this week's College Football Playoff rankings. Back in control of its own destiny in the SEC West thanks to Ole Miss’ 53-52 overtime loss to Arkansas, Alabama once again has the inside track for a spot in the SEC Championship Game, and therefore, a ticket to the Playoff.
However, before the Crimson Tide can win the West, Alabama must travel to Starkville to take on the surprising Mississippi State Bulldogs. A near-consensus preseason pick to finish last in the division, State is 7-2 overall this season and 3-2 in SEC play. And, believe it or not, the Bulldogs are capable of pulling off a huge upset Saturday if they follow these three steps:
1. Dak Prescott and De’Runnya Wilson Play the Game of Their Lives
Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott has firmly entrenched himself as one of the greatest signal-callers in SEC history. Last Thursday against Missouri, Prescott became the 10th player in conference history to surpass 10,000 career yards of total offense, while passing Eli Manning and Johnny Manziel on the league’s all-time list. Prescott also connected with Fred Brown on a touchdown pass in the third quarter for the 100th touchdown of his incredible career.
As great as Prescott has been in four seasons with the Bulldogs, he’ll need to be even better Saturday to pick up his first career victory over the Crimson Tide. And he’ll need help. Mississippi State entered the season with modest expectations because of a largely inexperienced roster, but Prescott and 6-foot-5 wide receiver De’Runnya Wilson are both NFL prospects capable of excelling against the best teams in the country. Also the Alabama pass defense (189.6 passing yards allowed per game this season) is much more susceptible than the team’s suffocating rush defense, which also plays to the strength of the Bulldogs.
So far this season, Prescott has put together the strongest performance of his career. He has completed 200 of 300 pass attempts for 2,351 yards, 18 touchdowns and one interception, and also leads the Bulldogs with 418 rushing yards and seven scores on the ground. Wilson leads MSU in receiving yards (626) and touchdown receptions (8), and the pair combined for a season-high 102 yards and two TDs last week against a stingy Mizzou secondary.
2. A Repeat Performance For Chris Jones and the Mississippi State Defensive Line
Mississippi State defensive tackle Chris Jones played the best game of his career last Thursday against Missouri. Despite allowing 215 rushing yards in the game (72 of which came on one play late in the fourth quarter), Jones was a menace as a run-stopper against the Tigers. Although, the 6-foot-5, 300-pound junior made an even bigger impact as a pass rusher.
Jones had just one sack in the game, but he made life very uncomfortable for Missouri quarterback Drew Lock, who completed just 11 of 26 pass attempts for 107 yards and two interceptions. Lock was sacked five times during the game, as Jones helped swallow attempted blockers while the rest of the attacking Mississippi State defense came after the quarterback from all angles.
For State to pull off an upset against Alabama, Jones and company must control the line of scrimmage even better Saturday. The task will be a huge one, as Alabama boasts one of the most talented offensive lines in college football and running back Derrick Henry has emerged as a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender this season with 1,254 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns, including 210 yards and three scores last week against LSU.
3. Somehow, Some Way, Find Success Running the Football
Speaking of Heisman Trophy contenders, the Alabama defense made Leonard Fournette look like a Heisman pretender last week. After averaging more than 193 rushing yards over his first seven games in 2015, and leading the nation with 1,352 rushing yards over that span, Fournette gained just 31 rushing yards on 19 carries against the Tide (1.8 yards per attempt) and had just 14 yards in his first 14 carries. The LSU offense as a whole had just 54 rushing yards on 26 attempts - a paltry 2.1 yards per carry.
Alabama already had the best rush defense in the SEC, statistically speaking, and the 75.8 yards per game the Crimson Tide has allowed on the ground ranks No. 2 nationally. Nonetheless, the performance against LSU was incredible because of the tremendous success Fournette and the Tigers have had this season.
Mississippi State, on the other hand, has not been overly effective running the football. The Bulldogs have gained an average of 147.1 rushing yards per game this season, which ranks 10th in the SEC and No. 95 in the nation. Prescott has nearly twice as many rushing yards as the next closest ball carrier - 5-foot-8, 160-pound running back Brandon Holloway - who has 220 yards without a touchdown.
Therefore, while it would be inappropriate to expect State to have better success in the rushing game than LSU did, doing so is the best chance the Bulldogs have at a victory. One way is the quarterback run, which has given Alabama trouble in the past in losses to Auburn (quarterbacked by Cam Newton) and Texas A&M (Manziel) as prime examples.
To beat Alabama, Prescott, Holloway, and the rest of the Mississippi State backfield will need to move the football on the ground somehow in order to take pressure off the passing game (and the Bulldogs’ offensive line, which faces a distinct speed and talent disadvantage compared to Alabama’s defensive front seven).
It’s a very tall task, and there’s a reason Alabama is on the fast track to the College Football Playoff and favored to beat the Bulldogs on the road. However, Mississippi State is capable of pulling off what would be an upset that would have ramifications far beyond just the SEC West.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Allen's work on college football can also be found on SaturdayBlitz.com and FanSided.com. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.