Undoubtedly disappointed by last weekend's breaking loss to No. 1 LSU, the fourth-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide get back to action this weekend against SEC foe Mississippi State on the road.
The fact that Alabama couldn't score a single touchdown combined with some missed field goals doomed the team in the 9-6 overtime setback to LSU.
"I actually think that was a heck of a football game. I'm really proud of the way our players competed in the game," said head coach Nick Saban afterwards. "I thought we played hard and physical and we played with a lot of toughness. It was a very physical game on both sides. We had a lot of opportunities that we didn't take advantage of."
The Tide opened the season with eight consecutive victories, all by 16 or more points, and it remains to be seen if Saban's squad can still earn a spot in the BCS National Championship Game.
Mississippi State is far from an SEC or national title contender, but there is an obvious goal in reach for Dan Mullen's troops. One more victory will earn the 5-4 Bulldogs bowl eligibility, and while they will undoubtedly be considered underdogs this weekend and next week against Arkansas, the finale against Ole Miss in Starkville appears very winnable. Last weekend, MSU stomped FCS foe Tennessee-Martin as expected by a 55-17 final.
"It was a good win," said Mullen after last weekend's tilt. "Here it is November and we have a winning record. It's a good direction; it's where we want our program to be."
Alabama holds a commanding 73-18-3 series lead over Mississippi State, which includes double-digit victories in each of the last three meetings.
The Crimson Tide were able to move the ball a bit against LSU, gaining 295 yards on the afternoon, but an average of 3.1 yards per rushing attempt and two interceptions by quarterback AJ McCarron did Bama in. Marquis Maze made six catches for 61 yards, but suffered a leg injury in the game and is listed as questionable for this weekend's affair. Trent Richardson played hard as usual, pounding out 89 rushing yards to go along with 80 receiving yards on five catches.
In addition to the 23 catches he has made this season for nearly 300 yards, Richardson has rushed for 1,078 yards and 17 touchdowns while averaging 6.3 ypc. Maze is by far the best receiver on the club, and he will be missed if he can't play or is limited this weekend. McCarron has completed 65.8 percent of his passes for 1,863 yards and 10 touchdowns, and he had thrown a mere two TDs through the first eight games before matching that total last week.
It is hard to put much blame on the Alabama defense for the loss to LSU, as the Tide surrendered only 239 total yards and kept the Tigers out of the end zone the entire evening. Two interceptions were notched by Saban's group, and just 3-of-11 third-down conversion attempts by LSU were successful.
There is absolutely no question that Alabama possesses one of the truly elite defensive units in all of college football. The Tide are holding foes to 7.1 ppg and 187.0 total ypg, eye-popping numbers to say the least. They yield only 56.3 rushing ypg at a clip of just two yards per carry, and the pass defense has permitted just four touchdowns while notching 11 interceptions. Dont'a Hightower has posted 55 tackles to pace 'Bama, while Courtney Upshaw has registered 12.5 TFL, including 5.5 sacks.
Switching focus to Mississippi State, it racked up 570 total yards against Tennessee-Martin last week and finished with seven offensive touchdowns. Vick Ballard rushed for 102 yards and two scores, while Tyler Russell threw for 183 yards and a score on just nine completions. Chris Relf saw time under center and was tremendously impressive, hitting 5-of-6 passes for 61 yards and two scores. Arceto Clark made five grabs for 96 yards with two TDs.
"We were fortunate to put up some points, but we've got Alabama next week and we're going to have to take it up a notch," said Russell after the win.
MSU is generating 27.9 ppg this season while compiling 400.2 total ypg, so it is fair to say that the offense has played pretty well on most occasions. Ballard has run for 790 yards and seven touchdowns, but he averages just 15 carries per game and would benefit from more work. Relf and Russell are average QBs at best, and while Clark is a solid target on the outside he doesn't touch the ball enough.
There is no doubt that MSU could have played much better defensively than it did against UT-Martin a week ago. The Skyhawks were able to pound out 269 rushing yards in that affair at a clip of 5.5 ypc, a stat that undoubtedly disappoints coach Mullen. UTM kept possession of the ball for nearly 34 minutes, made good on half of its third-down conversion attempts and completed 20-of-33 passes.
Opponents are scoring just 18.7 ppg while gaining 349.3 total ypg against MSU, so last weekend's performance was an anomaly. The Bulldogs have come up with 16 takeaways to date, a respectable total, and many impact plays will be needed this weekend to hang with the Tide.