Which means, Mississippi State is about as ready as practically possible for the next game. For the biggest game of the 2015 season so far, that is. Alabama is coming to town for a showdown on Scott Field (2:38, CBS).
The Crimson Tide arrives 8-1, 5-1 SEC and now leading the Western Division after thrashing one-loss LSU last week. Mississippi State is 7-2, 3-2 and still a contender in the West. One of five contenders that is, with four of them playing each other this weekend. By Sunday two will have been effectively if not mathematically eliminated.
Coach Dan Mullen doesn’t use the ‘peaking’ word about his Bulldog either. A four-win streak though should signal a State squad prepared for this opportunity.
“I know over the last four games we have seen significant improvement from week to the next,” Mullen said. “We’re going to have to take another huge step forward this Saturday and play at an extremely high level to put ourselves in a position to win.”
As for high levels, Alabama is almost as high as a club can get in the polls. Most specifically, the College Football Playoff rankings. The Crimson Tide moved up to #2 this week, replacing LSU and solidifying post-season position as the leading one-loss team in the land. But another setback would leave Alabama likely outside the final four, perhaps even cost the SEC a playoff participant.
Mississippi State isn’t quite on that level. At #17 CFP this week Mullen’s team has revived ambitions of earning a New Years Six bowl game berth like last year. Of course a year ago at this time it was State going to Tuscaloosa atop all polls, CFP included. Alabama knocked the Dogs off 25-20.
Or did the Dogs do themselves in? A completely uncharacteristic first half dug State into a 19-3 halftime hole, and Alabama made just enough second-half plays to assure no real rally. A year later and both addresses and roles are reversed, sort of.
It is an interesting emotional situation Mullen sees from his ’15 squad with so many veterans of ‘14’s failure on the big stage. “I think we are two different teams,” Mullen said.
“But I think our guys look at it the same way. I think the confidence part with our guys is maybe the disappointment, that if we would have started better maybe we would have a good chance to win last year. The guys who played in the game last year, it will stick with them.”
One of those guys is middle linebacker Richie Brown. He agrees that last year’s slow start came from a tight team not quite comfortable with its #1 ranking. Or as he said, trying not to lose more than playing to win.
This time? “Everybody is much looser and relaxed. I don’t think we’re focused on who it is we’re playing, we’re just trying to play our game.”
Game-planning might not be as fine-tuned as many a MSU matchup. This is Alabama, and they play a successfully simple game of their own. The Tide has big bodies on both lines of scrimmage who can and do move. Everything else proceeds from winning the point of contact.
“A very physical team,” summarized defensive end Ryan Brown.
“They have all-star offensive linemen,” said Mullen. “They have the best defense in America to go along with it.”
Alabama certainly has the SEC’s best statistical defense, allowing only 265 yards a week. Scoring defense is a bit distorted by a couple of games but only Florida has been better in stopping red zone touchdowns…and the Gators play on the easier East side.
The offense is sometimes and even better defense. Because with 242-pound back Derrick Henry crushing out 139 rushing yards a game opponents inevitably stack the front. That’s when Jake Coker shows he’s much more than a caretaker quarterback, completing 65% of his passes with his targets nigh-always in single coverage.
“They have a pretty explosive offense and great playmakers in the perimeter,” Mullen said. “Their quarterback manages in the right situations.”
But is there a better game manager in the league, even country, than Dak Prescott?
The senior season has not been as spectacular for Prescott plays. Instead it has been more efficient, but in no way low-key. Prescott has completed 66.7% of his throws so far, obviously a program record, and most of his other single-season marks are in danger. Those that aren’t reflect the fact he is not running the ball nearly so much in 2015.
Whether by design or by defense, or just to minimize damage, Prescott has ‘only’ 418 rushing yards through nine games. This would be a great season for most of his predecessors of course. And, Prescott is now showing signs he will tuck and tote a little quicker than the first two months.
But, why should he? Prescott’s senior season coincides with the deepest and best collection of receiver talent ever at MSU, and he is using them quite well thank you. Passing plays account for 53% of State’s snaps, but over two-thirds of the yardage. Plus it appears everyone will be healthy in this unit at last.
The other, less comfortable aspect is lack of a productive ground game. State is not last in SEC rushing or running for touchdowns even. It just is not the typical Mullen running game other than Prescott keepers and scrambles.
Which might not be an entirely bad thing this week.
Against an Alabama team built to crush even great runners (re: Leonard Fournette last week), State should be pretty selective how often real running plays are called. If at all. Put another way, the program record for passes tossed in one game is 62, in 1997 and then last season against Texas A&M. Both resulted in wins.
The most throws by one Bulldog is 53 by Joe Reed (LSU, 1970), though Prescott put it up 52 times in this year’s meeting with the Tigers too. And Prescott does hold the completions record, 33 in the Orange Bowl. But fans also note all of those were in losing causes. So going all-air is no sure recipe for success.
It just may be the only practical approach to Alabama. And while he isn’t concerned with individual records or honors, a victory would surely catapult Prescott into the Heisman Trophy talk mainstream.
Or, it could accelerate Henry’s late-season run at the top trophy. The Bulldog defense struggled early on with Fournette seven games ago but Richie Brown said lessons were learned.
“We’re going to tackle the way we’ve been tackling, use our fundamentals and gap it out. And not try to do anything special, because that’s when you make mistakes.”
However, if Mississippi State pulls off the first victory over Alabama since 2007, a special November would become possible. Even a championship season? Prescott says it will all settle-out on Scott Field.
“They’re a solid team, and we’re a good team. We’re ready for a good game.”