Alabama, 3-6 overall and 1-4 in Southeastern Conference games, will play at Mississippi State, 2-6 overall and 1-3 in the conference, at 11:30 CST Saturday. The game will be regionally telecast by Jefferson Pilot. Both teams had open dates last Saturday.
Alabama has played no opponent more often than Mississippi State. This will be the 88th meeting between the teams, whose campuses are fewer than 90 miles apart. Alabama has a 69-15-3 lead in the series. While Bama has won three of the last four meetings against the Bulldogs and has a two-game winning streak against Mississippi State, those last two wins were both in Tuscaloosa. Bama will be attempting to break a three-game losing streak in Starkville. Alabama has not won at Mississippi State since a 29-25 decision in 1994 that clinched the SEC Western Division championship.
On Wednesday the Tide worked for about 90 minutes, some of the practice in a light rain. The forecast for Starkville Saturday is clear and slightly cooler.
Coach Mike Shula said Brodie Croyle has had three good days of work in preparation for the Bulldogs. "He's looked good," Shula said. The coach added, "It means a lot to me because the game means a lot to him. He has earned the respect of his teammates. He is more and more a leader. And he will continue to get better and more production."
Croyle, Shula said, "has been pretty good" even while playing hurt. "He's making plays, but he needs to be more consistent," Shula said. "He's going to make plays b ecause he's got good arm strength, he's accurate, and he has a good mind. It's just a matter of him being more consistent."
Croyle will be backed by fellow sophomore and shoulder-injury victim Spencer Pennington. "Spencer is kind of getting back into a rhythm," Shula said. "It was good for him to get some work last week, even if he wasn't 100 per cent. He may not be 100 per cent now, but he can operate the offense."
With the suspension for the remainder of the season of number three quarterback Brandon Avalos, freshman Michael Machen–who is expected to be redshirted this year–is technically the number three quarterback. Earlier this year when the Tide was short in quarterbacks due to injuries, Shula indicated if another quarterback was needed that the Tide had "a plan," presumably to use some player who had quarterback experience in high school, not Machen.
But even though Machen has had almost no practice time in Alabama's offense, Shula said, "He's a conscientious guy. If he's got to go in there, he'll know what to do."
While Alabama's quarterbacks are getting healthier, there are concerns about a lack of depth in the offensive line. In Bama's last game the Tide lost three-year starting left tackle Wesley B ritt for the rest of the season with a broken leg. His place has been taken by Atlas Herrion. Right guard Dennis Alexander suffered a severe ankle sprain in the Tennessee game and has not practiced this week. If he is not able to play it is expected that Danny Martz would start in his place. If Alexander cannot play, Alabama would have only seven offensive linemen who have any experience whatsoever–left guard Justin Smiley, center J.B. Closner, right tackle Evan Mathis, Herrion, Martz, and back-up center Matt Lomax and back-up tackle Von Ewing. Shula said some who have not played would be on the Saturday travel roster as a precaution.
Shula said that back-up linebacker Juwan Garth has also been out of practice with an injury this week and would likely be a "gameday decision."
Shula said it is normal to try to keep offensive lines working together as a unit. "B ut we don't have two full groups," he said. "We've been trying to give them a lot of reps working them in."
One area where there could be a change is in holder for extra points and field goals. Shula acknowledged that Gabe Giardino, who has had the job all year, "had kind of a rough last game." He said both Giardino and Alex Fox (both are back-up place-kickers) had gotten practice and that place-kicker Brian Bostick has confidence in both.
Shula said the Tide got a little head start in its preparation for Mississippi State because of the open date. "With the extra day on Sunday, today was our third day, and we have gotten a lot of good reps in this week," Shula said. "Tomorrow will be a normal Thursday. I think our guys have a good grasp of what we are trying to get done."
Shula noted that his team has worked on a number of things this week in preparation for Mississippi State, who has tried a number of different things in all three phases of the game throughout the season. He said, "We are playing against a team that does a lot of things in all three phases and you have to be prepared for a lot. Defensively they have done different things almost every week, so if they give us something we might not have seen we have to make sure we follow our assignments and make sure we know what we are doing.
"Special teams give you a lot of looks with the possibility of a gadget play, and they are good at those. So, we have to make sure our guys are ready for that.
"Offensively, they play solid football with two good backs and they keep giving them opportunities to make plays. It's going to be a good ball game."