Saban Sounds Alarm On State Game

In the preseason, before it was known that Alabama would be 9-0 and among the nation's very best teams, most would have penciled in a Crimson Tide victory over Mississippi State. Even if you didn't know that Bama had a 73-17-3 record in this "rivalry" and even if you didn't remember that the Tide was a 32-7 winner over the Bulldogs last year, you would have picked Alabama.

Alabama, which wrapped up the Southeastern Conference Western Division championship last Saturday, goes to Mississippi State this Saturday for a 6 p.m. CST game that will be televised by ESPN. While Bama is 9-0 overall and 6-0 in SEC games, the Bulldogs are 4-5 and not expected to get another victory. MSU is probably going to be the only SEC West team that doesn't go to a bowl game.

The Bulldogs are under a new coach, Dan Mullen, the former offensive coordinator at Florida. He's there because State went 4-8 last year, including a 2-6 SEC record.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban said he was pleased with Bama's 24-15 win over LSU last Saturday, "and now we look forward to the challenge that we have with Mississippi State. Dan Mullen has done a really good job with this team. Of their five losses, every team has been a top 25 team that they have lost to and four of them are currently ranked in the top 10 or 12, or something like that.

"They have sort of a Florida spread philosophy and it's a little difficult, different preparation, so our players are going to have to have to do a really good job of getting prepared."

There is interest in this offense for more reasons than Mississippi State. Auburn, Bama's final regular season opponent, runs a version of the spread. More important than that is that Florida is Bama's opponent in the SEC Championship Game on December 5.

A primary difference in the Florida and Mississippi State spread formations is personnel. There is no Tim Tebow at Mississippi State.

Saban said that Mullen's offensive philosophy may be the same as it was at Florida, but that it is molded by personnel.

I think the core, the philosophy, the zone dive, zone option, counter plays and quarterback reads are the same," Saban said. "They also have No. 14 (quarterback Chris Relf) that they use more as a running quarterback when they put him in there. (Tyson Lee) can run the ball. He makes yards running it. He is a great competitor, does a very good job of executing their offense and does a good job of reading for them. I think philosophically they are the same. I think the way they utilize their personnel is a little bit different."

Alabama can expect to have its hands full with Mississippi State running star Anthony Dixon. Saban called him "a really, really good back. These guys run the football probably as well as anybody we've played against this year.

"Their defense plays hard, very physical and tough. They've got a pretty good secondary and they really do a good job of coaching in special teams. They really try and play good defense, don't turn the ball over, score in the red area when they get the opportunity, which most good running teams can do that, and play really good defense. I think this team does all those things. It will be a challenge for us."

Saban was asked if the nickel defense, which Alabama employs with regularity, is "almost the base defense" against the spread. Not necessarily, said Saban.

"I think every team goes about it a little bit differently," Alabama's coach said. "I think some teams still play the spread with regular people. We can do it both ways and we always make a decision on how we feel like we can adjust best to what they do, relative to the players that we have. The most difficult thing in regular people, depending on your system and scheme, is not the basic formations, but how you adjust to all the other formations. It's a lot easier when you're in nickel and have five defensive backs to adjust to formations like multiples, empty, four wide outs and those types of things and not get linebacker-type guys spread out in space where they are not used to playing. We always have to make those decisions based on those types of things. When you play a really good running team like this team, there is certainly a consideration to just leaving your big guys in there and just playing with them."

Although much of Monday's conversation in Saban's press briefing was spent on what State might do, the Tide coach is far more interested in what Alabama might do. To that end, he said Bama needs to be making improvements and corrections.

Saban said, "What we're all about right now is to correct those things we haven't been doing well, capitalize on the opportunities when we have them in the game and be more consistent in taking advantage of the opportunities that we have, and be smart enough about understanding the paradox of success that you take one step forward in being successful and that you're always at the risk of losing that in the next step that you take. So, the most important thing is to stay focused on the task. It's almost like one season is over and new season is beginning and each one of those games is very, very important to our team and that's the way we'd like for our team to approach it."

No one was surprised that the first question for the Tide coach was about those things Saban thought Bama had not done well.

"I think it's fairly obvious that we need to play better in the red area on both sides of the ball," Saban said. "LSU was 2-for-2 both times they got down there and we have not been as productive as we would like, in terms of scoring touchdowns in the red zone. I thought we played a lot better on offense in this game. I thought Greg (quarterback Greg McElroy) did a good job. We had great balance in the game. We were able to run the ball, but also throw it and make some explosive plays. I was very pleased with the way we played offense, but again, it's finishing drives. It's sort of like shooting yourself in the foot. Last week, I talked about a penalty on the three-yard line, first and three at the three, I talked about fumbling a snap from center. This time we get third-and-one at the one and we get 12 guys in the huddle. That's really not something that the other team is doing, We need to correct what we do. I think it's consistency and performance, better communication, better execution and little more discipline in what we're doing. I think those little things will help us get better results."

Saban was asked about his team buying into "one game at a time."

"So far, so good.," he said. "The challenge is the next game and how are you going to respond to the next game. I think it gets more and more difficult to maintain that level of consistency, mentally, because each and every team that we play is capable of beating any team on any given day."

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