Scouting the opponent: Mississippi State

Hopes were high in Starkville to start the year, mostly because of the excitement generated by the hiring of Alabaama alumnus Sylvester Croom as the replacement for another former Tider, Jackie Sherrill, as head football coach at Mississippi State. Croom had a rough go of it to start the season, with the Bulldogs dropping five straight games over an opening win against Tulane.

One of those losses included a 31-13 trouncing by perennial SEC cellar-dweller Vanderbilt. But even that defeat paled in comparison to a 9-7 home loss at the hands of Division AA Maine. Then MSU did what few believed possible two Saturdays ago; a heavily favored Florida Gators came calling in Starkville, and the Bulldogs responded by giving Croom his first SEC win with a 38-31 victory over the Gators. While Alabama was getting some rest with its open week, MSU got its second consecutive SEC win by beating Kentucky.

One of the first problems that Croom had to solve when he arrived in Starkville was the "quarterback equation." Kyle York (6-0, 207, Jr) was expected to be the starting signal caller for the Bulldogs, but a kink was thrown into his plans when he had to undergo surgery to correct an injured shoulder last winter. With York out of commission for spring training, Omar Conner (6-0, 203, So), who had 14 catches for 211 yards last year as a wide receiver, returned to his high school position and won the quarterbacking job. Conner injured his knee (MCL sprain) against LSU, and did not play in Bulldog losses against Vanderbilt and LSU. However, he returned against Florida in fine form, completing 15 of 24 passes for 158 yards, a touchdown, and no interceptions. He also rushed the ball 13 times for 52 yards and a score. In the five games he has played in this season, Conner is averaging 133 yards through the air, and has tossed a total of three touchdowns and four interceptions.

The top Bulldogs receiver this year has been sophomore Will Prosser (6-3, 205). A big target for the slightly diminutive Conner, the Starkville native leads the team in both receptions (17) and receiving yards (259). After a slow start to the season, a familiar name to Bama fans has stepped it up as of late. Tee Milons (5-9, 171, Jr), younger brother of former Tide receiver Freddie, didn't even see action in the season opener, but has since responded with 16 catches for 162 yards. Redshirt freshman Eric Butler (6-2, 246) came into fall practice listed as third string tight end, but worked his way into a starting job. Butler has taken full advantage of the opportunity by grabbing a team leading three touchdown passes.

Although the MSU passing attack has been improving, there is no question that the top threat on the Bulldogs offense is tailback Jerious Norwood (6-0, 202, Jr). Norwood has 656 yards and five touchdowns on the ground, with one of those scores proving to be the nail in the Gators' coffin last weekend. The Bulldogs like to run Norwood behind the experienced right side of its offensive line, which is anchored by seniors Will Rogers (6-4, 329) and David Stewart (6-6, 317).

The MSU defense is led by Clarence McDougal (6-1, 220, Jr), who has a team leading 31 solo tackles, with four of those resulting in a loss of yards. The weakside linebacker also has an interception. True freshman Titus Brown (6-3, 223) has stepped into the starting role as middle linebacker; Brown will surely be fired up for next Saturday's "homecoming," as he spent last season making tackles for Hillcrest High School in Tuscaloosa. Jeramie Johnson (6-0, 207, So) is the top Bulldogs pass defender with three interceptions, although he shares the strong safety position with Darren Williams (6-2, 209, Jr), who is the better tackler.

Keith Andrews (6-0, 195, So) handles the placekicking duties for MSU, and has been streaky. He is 0-2 from the 30-39 yard range, but has connected on all three attempts from 40-49 yards. Brooks Crabtree (5-10, 174, Jr) punts for the Bulldogs, and is averaging 36.1 yards per punt. Tide return specialist Brandon Brooks (5-5, 160) won't be the only little guy catching kicks in Bryant-Denny next Saturday; Jonathan Lowe (5-7, 165, Fr), son of former Tide great Woodrow, returns kicks and punts for MSU, and looked good doing so on a 73-yard touchdown return against the Gators.


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