TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — No, that record isn’t wrong.
Mississippi State really is 7-2 with six straight wins heading into Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night.
Now 19th in the BCS standings in the second year of the Dan Mullen era, the Bulldogs found an edge using old-fashioned principles with a new-fangled twist.
Using some of the same ideology Mullen used as the offensive coordinator at Florida when Tim Tebow made history, Mississippi State’s offense likes to run, deceive and throw when you’re not expecting it.
What started as a two-quarterback offense turned into Chris Relf’s show, and the Montgomery product knows how to run the ball.
Facing an athletic quarterback creates several issues. It starts with finding the right member of the scout team to mimic the actions of Relf on a roster full of traditional drop-back passers. Fortunately for Alabama coach Nick Saban, he recruited a jack-of-all trades athlete in true freshman Blake Sims, who can play in the secondary and was a high school quarterback.
“(Sims) did a lot of these same kinds of plays in high school, has been the guy that’s filled in,” Saban said. “Phillip (Sims) does a good job of it too because he’s very athletic and big and strong. So we’ve gotten a decent picture of it in the past when we needed to.”
The Bulldogs average 218.7 yards per game on the ground to rank third in the SEC and support a passing game that isn’t quite on the same level. Through the air, Mississippi State is the 10th-best team statistically in the SEC (164.6 yards per game) and 101st nationally.
Facing the Tide defense known for stopping the run will take a special effort that Mullen acknowledged must come Saturday. Working in the Bulldogs’ favor is a scheme that tests the edges of the run defense that saw major breakdowns in the second half of Alabama’s loss at LSU.
The Bulldogs, who had a bye last week, certainly saw that and took note.
“You have to be a little creative to do that, and we are going to perform at a high level,” Mullen told reporters Monday in Starkville. “When you run the football, your margin for error is smaller. When you’re running the football, you have to execute at a very high level, and we’re going to have to have great performance from our offensive line.”
Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower knows the deception is coming.
“They do a lot of things — a lot of eye candy,” Hightower said.
That includes using offensive linemen as decoys. Hightower said the Bulldogs will pull a guard on a play-action pass as an example of a complex method of confusing defenses.
Running back Vick Ballard is Mississippi State’s main threat to gash a defense with his feet. Ballard ranks seventh in the SEC with 77.4 yards per game and 6.7 yards per run.
“I had a lot of respect for (Anthony) Dixon last year in terms of being a big, strong physical back, so I was saying to myself ‘I’m glad that guy’s gone,’ ” Saban said. “The guys they have carrying it this year have really good ability, probably a little more speed and explosiveness. They are in a lot of what you would call three-back runs.”