Tuscaloosa, AL (SportsNetwork.com) - The biggest game of the week takes place on Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa, as the fourth-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide play host to the top-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
This game could decide the SEC Western Division, leading to one of the coveted spots in the four-team postseason playoff to determine the national champion.
For Nick Saban's Crimson Tide, this is definitely a must-win, as they already have a loss on the year, falling to Ole Miss on the road (23-17) back on Oct. 4. Since then, the team has posted four straight wins to move to 8-1 overall and 5-1 in SEC play. Last weekend, Alabama came from behind to tie LSU in regulation and then earned a 20-13 overtime win in Baton Rouge.
Dan Mullen is on a very short list for National Coach of the Year, as he has taken a team that wasn't even ranked in late September and ascended the Top-25 all the way to the summit, taking over the top spot in the polls a couple of weeks ago and showing now signs of relinquishing it. The Bulldogs took a break from SEC action last weekend with a 45-16 rout of FCS foe Tennessee-Martin. The team is now 9-0 on the year and sitting in the driver's seat in the SEC West at 5-0 with Alabama, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss left on the docket.
This marks the 99th all-time meeting between these two teams. Alabama holds a sizable 76-18-3 series advantage, including a 41-9-1 edge in games played in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide have won six straight and 11 of the last 13 meetings overall.
The Crimson Tide will be tasked with trying to slow down a high-powered MSU offense that is generating a whopping 522.1 yards per game. It is a balanced attack that the Bulldogs use, with 254.9 yards coming on the ground and 267.2 yards through the air.
Junior quarterback Dak Prescott has his hand in both areas and it is the reason he is regarded as one of the favorites to win the Heisman. Prescott has a gaudy 158.5 passer rating through nine games, completing 61.1 percent of his passes, for 2,231 yards and 18 TDs, while rushing for 779 yards and another 11 scores.
Saban has high praise for Mississippi State's star quarterback.
"Dak Prescott is a very talented guy in a lot of ways. He's a big physical runner, which he reminds you of [Tim] Tebow in a lot of ways, but he's also a very, very good passer."
Prescott is joined in the backfield by junior tailback Josh Robinson, who is closing in on a 1,000-yard season with 984 yards on the year. Robinson is averaging 6.7 yards per carry and has also scored 11 TDs rushing.
There isn't a go-to-guy on the outside for Mississippi State, as Prescott likes to spread the ball around. Eight players have caught 10 balls or more on the year, with sophomore wide receiver De'Runnya Wilson (22 rec, 367 yds, 6 TDs) representing the most productive.
The Bulldogs are giving up 427.2 yards per game to the opposition, with just over 300 yards coming via the pass, but that has a lot to do with teams abandoning the run and playing catch-up in most games. All that yardage allowed has led to a mere 19.7 ppg, good for 16th nationally. What the defense does exceptionally well is get after opposing QBs, with an impressive 32 sacks on the season.
The defensive attitude reflects the play of All-American candidate Benardrick McKinney. The junior linebacker is tops on the team in tackles (55), with 6.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks, three fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. Senior defensive lineman Preston Smith (32 tackles) is a difference-maker as well, leading the team in TFL (11.5) and sacks (7.0), with two INTs, two forced fumbles and two blocked kicks.
The Bulldogs will need to be at their defensive best against an Alabama offense that can chew up yards both with the run and the pass. The Crimson Tide are also averaging over 200 yards per game in both areas, amassing 206.1 via the run and 281.2 via the pass.
Quarterback Blake Sims has been outstanding under center and has really opened up Alabama's passing attack this season. The junior QB has completed 61.6 percent of his passes, for 2,243 yards, with 17 TDs against just three interceptions, leading to a passer rating (158.98) just a bit better than MSU's Prescott.
It definitely helps that Sims is usually looking the way of junior wideout Amari Cooper, who has proven himself to be the nation's top receiver, with 79 receptions, for 1,215 yards and 10 TDs.
Also opening things up downfield is a two-pronged rushing attack, led by tailbacks T.J. Yeldon (686 yds, 5.1 ypc, 5 TDs) and Derrick Henry (554 yds, 5.0 ypc, 4 TDs).
Alabama has continued its tradition of stingy defensive play in 2014, ranking second nationally in scoring defense (13.9 ppg), third in rush defense (89.8 ypg) and fourth in the total defense (275.2 ypg). The team has also turned up the heat on quarterbacks with 24 sacks on the year.
Linebackers Reggie Ragland (69 tackles. 7.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT, 2 FR, 1 FF) and Tre DePriest (50 tackles, 1 FF) lead the way in the middle of the squad. Landon Collins (61 tackles, 2 INTs) is playing at an All-America level in the secondary. Xzavier Dickson (27 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 7.0 sacks) is the player to watch along the defensive line.
Mullen is impressed with Alabama's defense.
"They have one of the best, if not the best, defense in the nation," said Mullen. They do it how they have always done it. They have great players and they have depth. They are big and very physical. They are strong against the run and can get after the passer with great pass rushers. They have great size in the secondary and can cover really well. They are really a complete defense."