GAME NOTES: Border rivals collide in SEC action this weekend, as the top- ranked Alabama Crimson Tide continue their run towards another conference title, taking on the Mississippi State Bulldogs in a SEC West Division battle in Starkville.
Nick Saban's Crimson Tide are in a very familiar spot, sitting atop the national polls as well as the BCS rankings. With last weekend's 38-17 victory over a tough LSU squad, Alabama moved to 9-0 on the season and a perfect 6-0 in league play. The two-time defending champions will close out the regular season with a home game against FCS foe Chattanooga and a showdown with instate rival Auburn on the road.
Dan Mullen's Bulldogs have had an up and down season thus far and the team's 4-5 overall record is indicative of that. Where MSU has really struggled to compete is in the SEC. The team dropped its second straight contest last weekend, falling to Texas A&M in a shootout in College Station, 51-41 and in the process dropped to an ugly 1-4 in league play. To become bowl eligible, Mississippi State will need to win two of its last three games, with Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss left on the docket.
Mullen knows what his team is up against in this contest.
"It's a great challenge. Alabama is a team that leads the nation in just about everything. I don't know that they have many weak spots. They've got a strong offense, a physical offensive line, one of the best offensive lines probably in the league or the country."
The Tide have dominated the all-time series with the Bulldogs, holding a 75-18-3 advantage. Alabama has won five straight meetings and 10 of the last 12 overall. In the last five encounters, Alabama has outscored MSU, 155-34.
Alabama is once again getting it done with efficient play on the offensive side of the football. The Crimson Tide are averaging 40.9 ppg on the year, thanks to a balanced attack that is putting up 208.8 yards per game rushing and 243.9 yards passing.
It starts with a savvy signal caller in senior AJ McCarron, who has an amazing 34-2 record as Alabama's starter. He is one win behind Alabama record-holder Jay Barker (35), but his .944 winning percentage ranks first at the school and the SEC. He has been ultra-efficient this season, completing 69.4 percent of his passes, for 2,041 yards, with 19 touchdowns against just three interceptions.
Although, none of Alabama's wideouts are putting up eye-popping numbers, they are all capable of making plays down the field. Christion Jones (28 catches, 281 yards, 2 TDs), Kevin Norwood (27 catches, 386 yards, 4 TDs), DeAndrew White (24 catches, 346 yards, 3 TDs) and Amari Cooper (23 catches, 350 yards, 2 TDs) have all had their moments.
Of course, Alabama has long been known for its grueling ground attack and this season is no different. The Tide are led in the backfield by T.J. Yeldon, who is averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Yeldon has amassed 862 yards on 140 carries, with 12 TDs.
As good as the Alabama offense has been, the defense has matched the production. The Crimson Tide are tied for the national lead in scoring defense (10.6 ppg) and rank fifth in rush defense (95.3 ypg), 11th in pass defense (185.9 ypg) and sixth in total defense (281.2 ypg).
All-American C.J. Mosley headlines the unit. The senior linebacker is a semifinalist for the Lombardi, Bednarik and Butkus Awards and leads the team in tackles (71), with 7.0 TFL. The secondary is chock-full of talent as well, despite the loss of Vinnie Sunseri to injury. Safeties Landon Collins (38 tackles, one INT, one fumble recovery) and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (36 tackles, one INT) are playmakers in the back seven. The defensive line has played well this season, with freshman A'Shawn Robinson (23 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks) showing flashes of brilliance.
Mississippi State may present a challenge for Alabama's defense, as the Bulldogs are also known for their offensive balance. The team is averaging a gaudy 459.2 yards of total offense, eclipsing the 200-yard plateau both on the ground (209.7 ypg) and through the air (249.6 ypg). The team rolled up 556 yards against Texas A&M last week and is on pace the shatter the school's record for offensive production (422.0 ypg).
The team employs a two-quarterback system, with senior Tyler Russell and sophomore Dak Prescott. The latter is the more explosive playmaker, throwing for 171.3 yards per game, while averaging 80.2 yards on the ground. Prescott currently leads the team in rushing with 722 yards and 10 TDs on the ground.
Junior wideout Jameon Lewis must be accounted for at all times. MSU's leading receiver, with 39 catches, for 505 yards, is the only player in the country with at least three TDs rushing (3), receiving (4) and passing (3).
Saban realizes the task at hand with Mississippi State's offense.
While the MSU offense has flourished this season, the defense has been mediocre at best. The Bulldogs are allowing 27.2 ppg on 372.9 yards of total offense. The team has also recorded just 13 sacks and the same number of takeaways through nine games.
Sophomore linebacker Benardrick McKinney leads the team in tackles with 55 and is tied for the team-lead in sacks (2.5). Senior safety Nickoe Whitley 36 tackles, four INTs) and junior cornerback Jamerson Love (19 tackles, three INTs) have made their share of plays in the secondary.
Despite their record, Saban knows the Bulldogs are dangerous.
"I think that Mississippi State probably has a very, very good team to have five losses to teams that are all rated in the top 20, and playing very competitively in every one of those games and being in every one of those games, so you have to look past the record. This is a very good team offensively. They can run the ball. They keep the ball. Their time of possession is good. Defensively, they are in the top tier of the SEC. They are very well coached."
Mississippi State has lost 14 straight games to ranked opponents and the streak is likely to continue. The Crimson Tide have been here before and certainly know how to close out a season. Alabama should cruise in this one.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Alabama 41, Mississippi State 13