The series resumes Saturday when the Crimson Tide hosts Mississippi State at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. Kickoff will be shortly after 11:30 a.m. with television coverage on the SEC's Lincoln Financial network.
Alabama is coming off a pedestrian 38-3 homecoming victory over Florida International. Bama is now 6-3 overall and the Crimson Tide is 2-3 in SEC games. Mississippi State lost a 34-31 decision at the hands of Kentucky in Starkville Saturday. The Bulldogs of Coach Sylvester Croom are 2-7 overall and 0-5 in conference games.
Mississippi State and Ole Miss are the only two SEC teams who have been eliminated from bowl eligibility. Alabama became bowl eligible with its win Saturday. Seven league teams have the minimum of six victories necessary to be eligible for post-season competition. South Carolina needs one win and Kentucky and Vanderbilt need two victories.
In his regular Sunday teleconference with sportswriters, Alabama Coach Mike Shula said getting bowl eligible "is kind of your first goal each season, to get that sixth win and be bowl eligible. But right now it's on the back burner. We've got three big games in the SEC against three teams that have played real well. We try to get a win each and every week. The more wins you get the more opportunities you have for different kinds of bowls."
Most are now projecting Bama to either the Music City Bowl in Nashville or the Independence Bowl in Shreveport.
Mississippi State's troubles this season notwithstanding, Shula said Sunday that he expects to get a tough game from the Bulldogs. That's in part because even though Bama has a good history of winning against State, the game is only rarely one-sided. For instance, last year Alabama won by 17-0, but the Crimson Tide got one touchdown on kickoff coverage when Jimmy Johns forced a fumble and Matt Miller picked it up and ran it in, another when defensive tackle Rudy Griffin intercepted a pass and returned it for a score.
Shula said, "Mississippi State is a team that has played us well defensively the last couple of years. Now they are scoring some points. This is a big game for us and a big game for them. We will see their best effort this week."
One reason the Bulldogs have not had a good season is because the State quarterback, Michael Henig of Montgomery, missed much of the year with an injury. Henig is playing again and Mississippi State has come up just short in games against Georgia and Kentucky the past two weeks.
Last year Henig completed 9-28 passes for 78 yards but suffered three interceptions against Alabama. "He' like most young quarterbacks in that he's getting better now that he's getting some experience," Shula said. "He's an accurate thrower and he makes good decisions. He will have learned from the experience he had against us last year. We have to be sound on defense. We have to get pressure on the quarterback."
He's going to learn from his experience last year against us. We have to be sound on defense. Have to get pressure on the quarterback.
Most quarterback talk this week will center on the Alabama situation. Bama starting quarterback John Parker Wilson reinjured his left ankle against FIU. Although he returned briefly in the second half, Shula said, "He's probably going to be sore. I actually didn't think he'd be able to go back in and when he did go back in he was limping. I don't know how much swelling there is."
When Wilson went out he was replaced by Jimmy Barnes, a redshirt freshman who had basically no experience prior to Saturday and who has been given very little practice preparation. Shula said, "I thought he did a good job, probably better than I expected. His first pass he kind of just threw it away. I'm sure he was nervous. He did some good things. He made a fourth down play. He had another good third down conversion pass completion. And he had the touchdown pass, so he did some good things. He made some good reads. He had a drop on one ball and could have had a big play on a touchdown pass that Nikita couldn't handle. He had one play that he called wrong and it resulted in a sack, but anytime you go in and throw passes for the first time–I don't care who you are–you're going to be a little nervous. But I thought he did well."
First half kind of thorwing it away, nervous. Did some good things. Made the fourth down play. Had another third down conversion. Had the touchdown pass. Did some good things. Made some good reads. Had the drop on one side and could have had a big play that Nikita couldn't handle. Had one play called wrong that resulted in a sack. But anytime you go in and throw passes I don't care who you are you're going to be a little nervous, but I thought he did well.
Alabama has played nine consecutive weeks and has three more games with no open date. Is Shula beginning to see that take a toll on his team?
"It does a little," Shula said. He also said he'd entertain the notion of starting the season a week earlier in order to provide a mid-season break, although Alabama will get that bye week beginning next year when the Alabama-Auburn game is moved back a week.
Shula said that practices would be structured "over the next few weeks as they have in other weeks so guys will be more fresh. We're not going to use it as an excuse, but, yeah, you'd like to have Keith Brown (junior wide receiver who has been out the last two weeks) against Tennessee."
Shula noted that last week the Tide was able to hold out first team right guard B.J. Stabler, who has come back from a knee injury, "because Marlon Davis has gotten better. That's made the offensive line more solid."
Shula said that Bama reduced the number of carries for running backs Kenneth Darby (10 against FIU) and Jimmy Johns (9 carries). He said, "You want your guys as fresh as fresh as they can be every week. We're going to need guys down the stretch. We do the same thing on the defensive line, rotating guys so the starters are fresh in the fourth quarter and fresh for the rest of the year.
"We had some guys who were nicked up a little, and we didn't want to do anything to make it worse. We wanted to win the game and get out of it as injury-free as possible. Unfortunately, we did get a couple of ankles and Javier's shoulder."
Kick return specialist Javier Arenas, whose 65-yard punt return for a touchdown was a big play in Bama's win over FIU, suffered a shoulder injury in the game. Shula said he did not think it was serious. He said center Antoine Caldwell, who suffered an ankle injury, "is like John Parker; he's going to be real sore and we may have to rest him Tuesday."
Shula said Arenas "was recruited to be exactly what he is. He was also a wide receiver and defensive back. Dave Ungerer had been recruiting him. We looked at tape and saw him making plays all over–offense, defense, and, of course, special teams. One reason for signing him was thinking he could give us some play-making ability in the return game, and he's done a good job." Arenas also works as a defensive back and on some kick coverage teams in practice.
Also on the kinjury front, Shula said defensive end Zach Knight, who has missed over a month of work, is still being tested to determine the cause of dizziness.
Shula said he was pleased to get the homecoming win, despite a slow start offensively. He said the Tide was good on defense "except for one play" (a 68-yard pass completion that led to FIU's only score, a 37-yard field goal) and added "the kicking game got us some things."
That slow offensive start included the Tide failing to score a touchdown in the Red Zone, a season-long problem. On Bama's first possession Shula elected to go for the touchdown on fourth at the FIU one, and the run came up short.
Shula was told that some players said they thought the coaching staff didn't have confidence in the players to score in that situation. The coach said, "I would be really disappointed if any of our players ion a fourth-and-one would say, ‘No, I'd rather kick it.' I think players are always going to want to go for it. As a head coach you have to make a lot of decisions. If they work, good. If not, it was bad. Depending on how they work is whether you get second-guessed. We have confidence in our players. Every decision you make as a head coach you make because you think it's the best decision you can make for your team at that time."
Asked if he could hear his players asking him to "Go," Shula said, "It's hard to hear them over 90,000 fans" offering the same encouragement.
Shula said that back-up defensive linemen Brandon Fanney, Lorenzo Washington, and Brandon Deaderick, who got some mop-up playing time against FIU, "are starting to practice better and getting themselves ready for more playing time. they are on the pace we need them to be on. We look to see them get more playing time, and maybe some more quality playing time."