After nine straight games, including a double overtime game earlier in the season and a five overtime marathon in its last outing, Alabama had good use for the 'bye week,' the open date before taking on Mississippi State in Starkville Saturday. And as a measure of the luck that Bama has had this year, when the Crimson Tide finally has its first open date it will then play a game against a team that had the same week open. Yes, the Bulldogs also took off last weekend.
Just as Alabama was disappointed to lose a game it could have won in its last competition, the Bulldogs' last game showed a promising start when MSU jumped out to a 17-0 lead over Kentucky. However, the home-standing Wildcats kicked themselves into gear and scored 42 unanswered points to take a 42-17 victory. The loss dropped Mississippi State to 2-6 on the year, with their only victories coming in back-to-back weekends against Vanderbilt and Memphis. Aside from Kentucky, the Bulldogs have also fallen to Oregon, Tulane, Houston, LSU, and Auburn. State is 1-4 in Southeastern Conference games.
To even out the latest change in the SEC's league schedules, the last two games between the two schools were both played in Tuscaloosa. Traditionally the Tide has performed well in Starkville. But after winning its first 12 games on State's home field, the Tide has lost the last three meetings at Scott Field. MSU will be looking for its third straight win at home, something the Bulldogs haven't accomplished since the latter part of the 2000 season.
Coach Jackie Sherrill announced recently that this will be his final season at the helm of the Bulldogs, so this almost certainly will be Sherrill's last tussle with his alma mater. The 1966 Alabama graduate is in his 26th year as a head coach and has a career record of 180-116-4. Sherrill is the only alumnus of Alabama on the Bulldogs coaching staff, but he employs two men who once drew a paycheck from Bama. Tuscaloosa County native Curley Hallman, who handles defensive backs for MSU, was an assistant coach at Alabama from 1973 to 1976. When Alabama Coach Mike Shula was wearing a helmet instead of headphones at The Capstone, Rockey Felker was roaming the sidelines as a coach for the Tide (1983-85). Felker is now MSU coordinator of football operations.
When Alabama takes on Mississippi State, the Tide will face another all-star placekicker. Brent Smith (5-10, 208, Sr) was named second team All-SEC last fall and is currently on the watch list for the Lou Groza Award. This season, Smith has hit 6 of 7 field goal attempts, with his only miss coming from an attempt that was over 50 yards. Not only has Smith been an accurate kicker, but two of his 16 connections last year were among the longest in school history.
Speaking of all-star candidates, MSU has a linebacker on the Butkus Award watch list. Senior T. J. Mawhinney (6-1, 235) has 74 tackles from his middle linebacker position, with three of those hits being for a loss. Mawhinney was credited with 10 tackles against Kentucky, the eighth time in the past 12 games that he has made at least 10 stops in a game. He finished second on the team in tackles his sophomore and junior seasons.
The Bulldogs offense has moved the ball pretty well this season, scoring 28 or more points in five of their eight games. SEC Western Division opponents have had the most success stopping the MSU attack. The Bulldogs managed six points against LSU and 13 against Auburn. The strength of the offense is quarterback Kevin Fant (6-2, 207, Sr), who has thrown for 1,745 yards. He has 13 touchdown passes, but also has thrown an interception for every touchdown he has tossed.
Fant's 12 completions against Kentucky give him 411 for his career, second on the school's all-time passing list. He now has 5,225 passing yards, fourth all-time for State. Fant is third on the school's list for touchdowns. His 13 TD passes this year are a single-season mark for MSU.
Fant's protection has also been shaky this year, as he has been sacked 23 times. But it's not because of a lack of size. The offensive line, tackle-to-tackle, averages 6-5, 315 with freshman right guard Donovan Davis the biggest at 6-7, 335. Tight end is Aaron Lumpkin (6-4, 259, Sr), and he's backed by 6-5, 305-pound freshman Brian Anderson.
When Fant does get time to throw it, he most often looks to fellow senior Justin Jenkins (6-1, 210), the third leading receiver all-time at MSU. Jenkins has 50 receptions on the year and has grabbed eight of Fant's 13 scoring passes. Nick Turner (5-10, 182, So) and Jerious Norwood (6-0, 192, So) split time at tailback for the Bulldogs; Turner has been the most productive with his 579 yards and 7 touchdowns.
With his three catches against Kentucky, Jenkins now has 127 career receptions, third on the school's all-time list. His current total of 1,855 yards receiving ranks fourth all-time. His 16 career touchdown catches are second-best for the school. "Jenkins may be the best receiver in the conference right now," Tide Head Defensive Coordinator Joe Kines said.
In a "Where Are They Now: Family Edition" note, Tee Milons (5-9, 165, So), brother of former Tide wide receiver Freddie Milons, has nine catches for 83 yards and one touchdown. He has seen action in seven games. In "Where Are They Now: Transfer Edition," former Tide fullback Nick Signiago (6-1, 246, Jr) is third on the depth chart. He has played in seven games and has made six tackles on special teams.
The Mississippi State defense is led by T.J. Mawhinney, but he is joined by some hard hitting defensive backs. In a statistic that is very uncommon, a cornerback, Odell Bradley (5-10, 180, Sr) is the second leading tackler on the team with 55 hits. Bradley might just be the most dangerous threat on the Bulldog defense, as he also leads the team in interceptions with two picks on the year. The senior is joined in the secondary by a freshman and two sophomores.
The four-man defensive front includes three 300-pounders and averages 6-3, 292. Tommy Kelly (6-6, 303, Sr) is the most athletic, leading the unit from defensive end.
With Brent Smith handling the placekicking, punting is left to senior Robert Wallis (5-10, 190). He is averaging a very respectable 43.8 yards a kick and had one punt sail 59 yards. Tailback Nick Turner also drops back to receive punts and kickoffs; the sophomore has 461 total return yards on the season. Turner leads the SEC in kickoff return average (25.9) and is third in all-purpose yardage (134.5) per game. Turner also ranks sixth in the league in rushing and seventh returning punts.