Mississippi State football welcomes the Alabama Crimson Tide to town this Saturday. The Tide seem vulnerable, but the Bulldogs have struggled mightily this year. What does this year’s Bama team look like?
It’s that time of year once again for Mississippi State football: Alabama week. It’s an annual fixture of the schedule (well at least it was) that leads to nothing but misery for the Bulldogs. State has lost 15-straight to the Tide, with their last win coming in Nick Saban’s first season in 2007.
State’s best teams in that run have still be unable to topple Alabama. Alabama’s worst teams in that run have still dominated State. And of course, in a season where the Tide have some legitimate flaws that many teams could potentially exploit, State has largely been bad.
It’s hard to have any confidence at all in this being the year that MSU flips the script against Alabama. But this is still a very different Crimson Tide team than we’re used to watching. Here’s what you’ll see out of Alabama on Saturday…
Examining Alabama’s Offense
The overwhelming majority of the conversation around Alabama this season has been about their offense. Specifically, that discussion has centered around Alabama’s struggles offensively. The Tide are no where close to being as deadly when possessing the ball as they have been for the past several years.
We’ve grown used to Bama churning out NFL-caliber QBs and record-breaking WRs. That’s not the case with this roster.
One of the biggest stories of the CFB offseason was who would end up replacing Bryce Young under center. After a three-man race that continued into the season, Bama ultimately settled on Jalen Milroe. Milroe is an incredible athlete that’s dangerous with his legs and throws a remarkable deep ball. But beyond those traits, he’s got major limitations to his game.
In terms of accuracy in the intermediate area of the field, decision-making, and pocket presence, Milroe has a long ways to go. But now that Nick Saban and new OC Tommy Rees have settled on Milroe as the starter, they’ve begun to shape the offense to better suit him.
They’re leaning more heavily on their run game, mostly still with RB Jase McClellan grinding out yards behind a shaky OL. But against Ole Miss, you saw more designed carries for Milroe to get him out on the edge where he can run away from defenses. On a few occasions, Alabama went with this QB Outside Zone and found good success with it.
This is a great job by Tommy Rees of using formation to create the best matchup for his QB. Bama goes with trips receivers into the boundary. Ole Miss has to account for the three receivers to that side, so what that means for Bama is they get a numbers advantage to the open side of the field. Milroe gets more space to operate in with more blockers out in front than Ole Miss has defenders.
It will be interesting to see if Alabama expands upon run concepts that feature Jalen Milroe as the primary ball-carrier going forward. That run threat naturally creates play-action shot opportunities for the Tide, and despite Milroe’s deficiencies as a passer, he’s been good at connecting on deep balls.
WR Jermaine Burton has been the go-to guy in such spots. Here’s a play-action bomb to Burton on the second play of the second half against Ole Miss. Bama has crossers underneath while Burton runs a deep seam route. None of the Rebels’ deep coverage defenders bite on the play-fake, but Burton has enough speed to run past them. Milroe makes a great throw that really sparked an offensive turnaround for the Tide in this game.
Milroe will absolutely make questionable decisions and has taken quite a few sacks he could’ve avoided. But for a Mississippi State defense that has struggled to generate pressure, cover receivers downfield, and contain mobile QBs, he presents a tough matchup.
Examining Alabama’s Defense
With as much talk as there’s been about Alabama’s issues on offense, it’s become overlooked that the Tide are still fielding an incredible defense. They’re currently seventh in defensive SP+ and are coming off a shut-down performance against a usually potent Ole Miss offense.
Even in their game against Texas, the defense was still largely strong. The Longhorns couldn’t run the ball effectively, and while Quinn Ewers connected on a few moon balls for scores, for the majority off the game, Bama held their passing game in check. Don’t forget 10 of Texas’ 34 points came directly off of Jalen Milroe interceptions.
The Tide are particularly strong in run defense. They’re holding teams to just 2.97 yards per carry. The only team to field a productive day on the ground against Alabama is, ironically, South Florida, who rushed for 171 yards. But it took the Bulls 46 carries to reach that total, and about 45% of their yardage came off of four runs. It wasn’t exactly an impressive display of rush offense.
I mentioned earlier that Texas failed to ever get their rushing attack going in Tuscaloosa. Even when the Tide played with a light box, they managed to stop the Longhorns. Here we have Texas in a 2×2 spread set on 3rd & 8. It’s an obvious passing situation, and Bama puts just five defenders in the box, just two being defensive lineman. Rather than passing, Texas calls Wide Zone.
Texas sees this as an opportunity to get easy yardage by running the ball. Pick up at least five yards, and give yourself a chance to go for it on 4th & Short in Bama territory. But Bama has other ideas. They clog up the gaps at the point of attack and don’t allow Texas to get any push up front. They make the stop for a minimal gain, and Texas punts.
Pass rush has been strong for Alabama, as well. They’re averaging 3.25 sacks and 4.5 QB hurries a game. Leading the way is junior OLB Dallas Turner. Turner is having a monster year. He’s already posted 4.5 sacks, 6.5 TFL, seven QB hurries, and two forced fumbles from his edge rush position.
He was huge against Ole Miss, recording two sacks in that game. Here’s the second on a crucial play late in the game as Alabama looked to seal a victory. Turner easily gets by the LT to quickly take down QB Jaxson Dart and force a fumble. Ole Miss recovered, but the lost yardage killed what slim chances they had of a miracle comeback.
Mississippi State has had major issues along the offensive line. Last week they failed to get their ground game going against a pretty weak South Carolina defensive front. It’s hard to imagine that improves against Alabama. And while State’s passing game figured some things out last week, I have my doubts any of that translates over against Alabama, particularly when you consider how poor their OL has been in pass protection. That spells trouble with Dallas Turner on the other side.
I’ll state the obvious that it’s always going to be incredibly difficult for Mississippi State to actually challenge Alabama. But for this season in particular, it seems several of Bulldogs’ biggest weaknesses play right into Bama’s strengths.
This might be a rough one.