Even though Alabama is currently fourth in the BCS compilations and in all major polls,the Crimson Tide's head coach said, "If I'm thinking about that, I'm not thinking about what I should be thinking about, which is getting our team ready, and then I'd be cheating our players."
And Mike Shula does think about his players. He was asked what the most pleasant surprise of the season had been. After answering, "Winning," he said, "The offensive line was the biggest question mark coming into the season. They have gotten better and they are going to continue to get better."
The Tide head coach noted that offensive linemen sometimes don't get enough credit. "They gave up a sack and the head coach was yelling at them," Shula squealed on himself regarding Alabama's 35-3 homecoming win over Utah State. "He should have been over them congratulating them after those two quick touchdown drives."
He said he had expected the defense to be good, "and it has been," and that he has also been pleased to have two game-winning field goals from Jamie Christensen and the special teams.
Regarding the defense, Shula gives much credit to Defensive Coordinator Joe Kines. "He is all about helping the kids become the best they can be," Shula said. "The players love to play for him because he is smart and works hard and is funny. He has great stories. He tries to stay one step ahead of the offenses."
Shula said that regardless of what schemes Bama might use defensively, "We are having success because we have experience and speed on defense, and the players take a lot of pride. We have been very good in the Red Zone. We've been good, but we haven't been perfect. We want to tackle better and get off the field quickly with better field position."
This week Mississippi State will be starting a redshirt freshman quarterback, Mike Henig, who will be making his first stop. Shula was asked if that would mean that Bama might blitz more.
He said, "We want to get better pressure without the blitz, but we might blitz more this week. We'll mix it up and try to keep him from being in a comfort zone."
Shula said, "We have watched Mike on tape in the Kentucky game. He came in early in the ballgame and did a great job. He's got a strong arm and he is very unafraid to just go out there and play. He is not afraid to make mistakes. Because of that he threw for around 200 yards last week and had a chance at the end to take the lead. He did a lot of good things for a redshirt freshman. He is a little different than Omarr (regular starter Omarr Conner), maybe not quite as mobile."
Shula added, "There will be a couple little things that we need to make sure we cover, but basically their offense is the same. They do a really good job running the football. They tie in the play-action passes with it, whether it be in or out of the pocket or some misdirection things. They do a really good job with formations and personnel to try to create more running lanes in the running game."
Although Mississippi State has a poor record, Shula said that he doesn't expect his team to overlook the Bulldogs. "We have to expect their best game," Shula said. He said that because Alabama is winning and ranked high, "We have a bullseye on our chest. We need to get better, because if we don't, it's going to cost us. We're the same team we were on the first day of fall camp, except we don't have one key player [wide receiver Tyrone Prothro]."
The Tide coach said, "You can throw the records out. A lot of our kids know theirs and vice versa and so do the coaches. Being so close to each other, you just have to focus in on this game.
"When you are in preparation, you are not really so much watching the score, you are watching the guy that each of our players will have to face for 60 minutes and how they can beat that guy and help our football team win.
"They have a good pass rush, I think (Willie) Evans is leading the SEC in sacks. They will blitz a little bit defensively with linebackers that are playing pretty well for them. Offensively, they have got a good back. They will run the football and they will try to pound it at us and mix in the pass offense."
Shula said, "We are back at it this week, back on the road in the SEC against a team that in our game last year played us close until about midway through the fourth quarter. Our focus this week is going to be on working to get better in all three phases. We know we have to do that, we know we can do that, because we feel like we still haven't played our best game. It's going to be difficult this week, we are going up against one of the premier running backs in the SEC in (Jerious) Norwood. Mississippi State has got some top players on defense as well.
"Playing on the road in the SEC, especially when you are a young football team, means you have got to have three good days of practice to get ourselves prepared to be at our best."
The big news in special teams play last week was Alabama going to a double return on punts, both Brandon Brooks and Simeon Castille back deep. Shula said it might stay in the plan. "There are pluses and minuses," he said. "It fits with our scheme."
Shula has been very pleased with the return to full speed of halfback Kenneth Darby, who was injured late last year and had off-season surgery for a sports hernia. The Tide coach admitted he held his breath a few times in fall camp as Darby got back into the flow. He said that Darby, who is averaging about 20 carries per game, might get a few more per game as the Tide hits the home stretch. And Shula noted that he thinks Darby "has more confidence in his speed" this year.
Shula has been pleased with the work of wide receiver D.J. Hall, who has become the "go to guy" since the season-ending injury to Prothro. "He works to do things right," Shula said. "He has been productive. When his number has been called, he has made the plays."
Shula said that fullback Tim Castille might be questionable for this week's game after spraining an ankle against Utah State. But, Shula noted, "He's a quick healer, and we need him to be ready." He said he expected wide receiver Keith Brown, who was held out of last week's game with a thigh bruise, to be ready to play against Mississippi State.