The top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide will host the Mississippi State Bulldogs on Saturday, Nov. 12, for an SEC matinee.
Mississippi State (4-5, 2-3 SEC) won’t lack confidence following its stunning 35-28 victory over then-No. 4 Texas A&M. However, it doesn’t get much tougher than a trip to Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Alabama (9-0, 6-0) pulled out a hard-fought victory over LSU but must be careful not to look ahead to the Iron Bowl showdown against Auburn—even if that doesn’t seem likely for Nick Saban‘s team.
Kickoff is scheduled for noon ET, and ESPN will televise the conference clash. Alabama opened as a 28.5-point favorite, per Odds Shark.
Get on the Board Early
Playing from behind will only create more problems for Mississippi State. Scoring early is imperative.
In each of the Bulldogs’ five conference games, the team to score first eventually won. While that’s not a perfect metric, it provides useful insight into how their performance reflects the opening quarter.
Alabama is far too talented to relinquish a lead, but you cannot be certain what will happen if Mississippi State jumps ahead.
Don’t Let the Defense Score
As if the Crimson Tide aren’t dominant enough, they regularly score on defense and special teams, too.
Though LSU snapped Alabama’s 10-game streak with a non-offensive touchdown, Mississippi State has allowed a couple this season. Both Auburn and Kentucky scored one in wins over the Bulldogs.
Mississippi State’s defense will have a difficult enough time stopping the Tide as it is. The offense must not put the unit in a deeper hole.
Stretch the Field
Although Auburn and Kentucky were successful on the ground, Mississippi State’s run defense is still ranked 49th in the FBS. The Bulldogs have consistently played poorly against the pass, though.
According to CFBStats, the secondary has allowed 15 gains of 30-plus yards, nine passes of 40-plus and four plays of 50-plus. Each of those marks are 79th or worse nationally, and Mississippi State is 104th overall.
If the Bulldogs need to respect the deep ball, that’ll only create more room in the box for the Crimson Tide to run.
Don’t Let Fitzgerald Run
Running quarterbacks add an important element to the offense. Alabama’s struggles against mobile signal-callers are overblown, but Nick Fitzgerald could be a potential troublemaker for the Tide.
However, he’s not a great passer. Fitzgerald is averaging just 6.8 yards per attempt and has thrown nine interceptions.
The sooner Alabama forces Mississippi State to limit Fitzgerald’s non-scrambling runs, the better off the defense will be.
Fred Ross, Wide Receiver
One of the nation’s more underrated wide receivers, Fred Ross is a high-volume target with playmaking ability after the catch.
Will somebody complement him, though?
Donald Gray exploded for 207 yards and three touchdowns against Samford. But in the four surrounding games, he mustered just five receptions for 46 yards. No other player has more than 200 total receiving yards this season.
Ross might need to single-handedly carry the pass-catching group.
Richie Brown, Linebacker
Mississippi State must receive a notable impact from A.J. Jefferson up front, but Richie Brown is the center of attention.
The senior middle linebacker has recorded a team-high 76 tackles with 3.5 for loss, adding three quarterback hurries.
If the Bulldogs successfully contain Damien Harris, Jalen Hurts and the Alabama running game, Brown will be a significant reason why.
The Running Backs
Harris often handles the most carries, but Bo Scarbrough played a major role at LSU, and Josh Jacobs has become a regular contributor.
Saban has a simple method to decide which one will be the featured runner. “You know, the guy that always has the hot hand is the one you want to run,” he said, per Michael Casagrande of AL.com.
All three will play. Somehow, Mississippi State needs to stop them all.
Jonathan Allen, Defensive Line
No matter if he’s playing end or tackle, Jonathan Allen is a nightmare to block. Especially if he’s Superman.
Defensive players rarely join the Heisman Trophy chase, but the senior has earned a place. Through nine games, Allen has amassed 38 tackles with seven sacks, 11 hurries and two defensive scores.
While Mississippi State hasn’t allowed many sacks, tackles for loss are regular sights. Allen might spend another afternoon in the backfield.
According to Matt Zenitz of AL.com, head coach Dan Mullen said the Bulldogs will be challenged because they cannot simulate Alabama’s talent.
Still, he’s looking forward to the massive test: “We’re a very young team. I want to see how they react. In some ways, it’s not a bad situation to be in. Kind of the ‘What the heck. Let’s go find a way to win the game. No one expects us to win. Let’s just go find a way to win’ without the pressures or any of that stuff on them.”
Starting a freshman quarterback means that mistakes will happen. According to Marq Bennett of SEC Country, Saban is pleased with Hurts but wants the first-year starter to cut down on those lapses:
He made some errors in the game early that were costly. We made some plays in the end that his athleticism allowed him to make. I think as we grow with him, we’re going to have to live with both. I like the second part better than the first. He’s a great competitor. He never loses his poise, but we need to do a better job of executing.
Considering the team’s struggles in 2016, Mississippi State earned what is perhaps the season’s most surprising win.
But two straight just isn’t happening.
Alabama will dominate the line of scrimmage, constantly collapsing the pocket yet containing Fitzgerald’s running ability. Without his mobile threat, the Crimson Tide should be able to force multiple turnovers and maybe even start a new non-offensive touchdown streak.
Mississippi State’s defense will play well early, but Alabama will ride Hurts and the running game to a comfortable victory.
Prediction: Alabama 45, Mississippi State 14
All recruiting information via Scout. Stats from CFBStats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.