Crimson Tide Outlook:
Objectively, things are looking up again in Tuscaloosa. Paroled after a two-year stay in the NCAA's jailhouse and free to compete for bowl berths again, Alabama has already surpassed the four-win total of 2003 and hopes to lock up a winning record this week. But this resurgent outlook has been dimmed by painful might-have-beens; offensive injuries have crippled Crimson Tide chances of making a serious upstart SEC run this year, leaving more load than even this marvelous defense can carry against league heavyweights. The personnel losses have also emphasized effects of NCAA scholarship sanctions that will continue to slow, but not stop, the rebuilding process. Rivals had best get their shots in now, because Alabama is on the way back.
Oh, what could have been if not for the injury virus striking Alabama with a vengence…with a taste for offensive backs. The entire season-starting backfield of QB Brodie Croyle, TB Ray Hudson, and FB Tim Castille have been lost with knee surgeries. Before going down, in different games, they had accounted for 17 touchdowns. That's a huge void to fill, but some younger guys are doing their parts admirably. Junior Spencer Pennington has taken over at quarterback after Miami transfer Marc Guillon lost starts against Arkansas and South Carolina. Pennington, recruited by MSU baseball, is 27-of-56 passing with one touchdown against four interceptions and 272 yards. Guillon was a 47% thrower with a 1-to-3 ratio and 191 yards. Stats like that reflect both a cautious approach using uncertain passers, and the still-stout ability this team has at pounding the ground. Despite losing two starters the Tide still paces the SEC rushing chart at 226 yards a game (15th nationally). In their last two wins 114 of 134 snaps have been rushes…a good reason Alabama has the SEC's best time-of-possession rate. Soph Kenneth Darby (752 yards, six TDs) has stepped into Hudson's place and is 5th in SEC running at 91.6 yards a game. Rookie Aaron Johns now backs Darby, with Le'Ron McClain now at fullback. Fortunately for the offense the blocking has stayed healthy and gotten better every week. The left side of tackle Wesley Britt and Evan Mathis are the veteran strength of this group, and RG Danny Martz joins them as the third senior on an excellent SEC front that gives the backs room to run. Flanker Tommy Prothro (15 catches, 192 yards) and ends Matt Caddell (8-168) and Keith Brown (9-144) don't get as many balls thrown their ways now with Croyle out, but they can keep defenses honest. The offense isn't as multiple as in September, and has slipped in scoring and yards. But the Tide can roll as needed, and this team does not turn the ball over or give up sacks.
And who needs a high-scoring or quick-striking offense, with one of the truly outstanding defenses in the land setting the tone every weekend? The rankings speak volumes, in low numbers—such as ‘1,' where Alabama stands in the nation in total defense, passing defense, and passing efficiency defense. Scoring? A mere 9th (2nd SEC to Auburn) at just 13.5 points allowed. Teams just struggle to do anything in the air against the Tide, producing just 107 yards a game—less than half of what the unit was giving up this time last year. There's nothing particularly exotic about this unit, running out of a standard 4-3 scheme. What makes Alabama special is that this whole group literally runs, with speed that even peers at LSU and Florida have to respect. The linebackers are just great, period. MLB Cornelius Wortham is over 200 tackles for his career and has 53 this year. He's flanked by WLB Freddie Roach (34 tackles, five for loss) and SLB DeMeco Ryans (41, 3) in a trio that looks to have been stamped out of a 6-2, 230-pound mold. Backing up the ‘backers are a couple of juniors that seem to have been at safety(s) forever, SS Charlie Peprah and FS Roman Harper (49 tackles, 6 for loss, two interceptions). The corners are solid, as Anthony Madison and Simeon Castille have 14 deflections between them. The even-man front is not the biggest in the league but it can move, hit, and tackle. DE Todd Bates is the attacking end with five tackles behind the line and 2.5 sacks. It's been over a year since Alabama has not forced a turnover. Maybe the most remarkable stat is 55 times this defense has forced a three-and-out, with UA leading the SEC in allowing first downs and third-down conversions. And now for the really scary part: just four of the current starters are graduating.
Alabama features the nation's best returning team, producing 32.6 yards every time the opposition kicks off (which is not too often) to Prothro (35.4) or Brandon Brooks (29.8). Brooks takes care of punt returns. Bo Freeland is punting the ball the best of his career lately and has raised his season average to 42.0 yards. PK Brian Bostick is 38-of-41 on PATs and made 10 of his 13 field goals. He's 2-of-4 in the 40-yarders with a long kick this year of 47 yards. The Series:
It's not the most-played Bulldog series (trailing Umiss and LSU), but it is the oldest, going back to October of 1896. It is also the most one-sided of State's traditional rivalries with Alabama holding a 69-16-3 lead. Things were relatively even early on until Alabama reeled off 11 wins of 12 games between 1919-34, and the scoreboard became completely lopsided with a 22-year Tide winning streak from 1958-80. State's only ‘streaks' were three-year runs in 1912-14 and 1996-98. Alabama has won the last three games, two of them in Tuscaloosa where the home team holds a 37-8-1 lead. Mike Shula is 1-0 against State, while this is Croom's first time to coach against his alma mater.
The Last Time: November 8, 2003
Alabama was visiting Starkville for the first time in three years, and Jackie Sherrill was coaching against his alma mater for the last time. Neither fact helped the home team much as the Bulldogs merely went through the motions and took a 38-0 whipping. Any illusions that State was going to put up a fight faded on the first two Tide turns with the ball. On the third play of the day Brodie Croyle hit Zach Fletcher for a short pass that turned into a 86-yard touchdown dash at 13:19. A tipped Kevin Fant pass was intercepted and again it took only three snaps for a score. This time Croyle threw 17 yards to Tommy Prothro to put State down 14-0 by 11:28 of the opening quarter. Alabama added a field goal and another Croyle touchdown toss, 32 yards to Fletcher, for a 24-0 halftime margin. Nobody scored in the third quarter, but Alabama added some icing in the fourth on short runs by Shaud Williams and Tim Castille. The yardage was as one-sided as the score, 401 yards to 152, as State managed just 24 yards on 20 runs. Croyle was 9-of-14 for 183 yards and three touchdowns, while Fant was 14-of-29 for 100 yards.
*Ummm, we might hear it mentioned just a time or two that Tuscaloosa native Sylvester Croom used to play and coach at Alabama. The balance of his assistant staff also has spent time in Tuscaloosa either as athletes, coaches, or both, including Brick Haley, Ellis Johnson, Amos Jones, Freddie Kitchens, Woody McCorvey, and Rockey Felker.
*Felker was on the Tide staff with current UA offensive coordinator (and his former MSU aide) in the mid-1980s when Mike Shula played quarterback. And current UA tight ends coach Sparky Woods was MSU's offensive coordinator in 1999-2002.
*Ten Bulldogs hail from Alabama hometowns: QB Mike Henig and WR Keon Humphries (Montgomery), RB Brandon Thornton (Birmingham), WR Jonathan Lowe (Phenix City), LB Titus Brown (Tuscaloosa), RB Carlton Rice (Huntsville), OT David Stewart (Moulton), OL Jeffrey Farr (Pell City), OC Avery House (Springvale), and OG Brian Anderson (Butler).
*MSU reserve FB Nick Sigaigo signed on and spent two years (2000-01) at Alabama before transferring to State in 2002.
*Four Mississippians are on the current Tide roster: WR Keith Brown and K Mike McLaughlin (Gautier), OL Travis West (Laurel), and LB Cornelius Wortham (Calhoun City).
Did You Know?
*Mississippi State is the most-played opponent for Alabama, with 88 games one more than the series with Tennessee. The teams have played at eight sites besides their campuses, including: Birmingham, Montgomery, Jackson, Columbus, Aberdeen, and Meridian.
How They Compare:
Will we see the Conner of the Florida or Kentucky games? The former is the play-maker State needs. Pennington and Guillon are asked more to not-lose than win it.
Running Backs: State
It would have been an even matchup if Tide starters were healthy. As it is, State has the higher pair in Norwood/Reid. But running won't be fun for anyone on either side this week.
Offensive Line: Alabama p> Bulldog front's gelling is the second-half story of this season. Alabama blockers fit new college mold of slightly leaner, more agile linemen.
Oh, if only State had a real deep threat to stretch this defense. Let's also hope they play more like the Florida, not Kentucky game. Bama picks it's passing spots carefully.
Defensive Line: even
UA has no weak points on defense, but this is where State is most comparable. And, has to play best if MSU is not to stay on the wrong side of field position.
Folks in Gainesville or Auburn might argue, but right now the best group of SEC ‘backers are wearing Crimson. State's kiddie korps has helped put a spark in the entire defense.
As if UA needed a great secondary with that front-seven. You have to like how Dog DBs are coming together and catching on, and a healthy Bobo is welcome.
These units could put on a fun contest between themselves. Alabama's specialists might—might—be a little more consistent. And they can always let that defense save the day.
But not for emotional or psychological reasons, as the Dogs are feeling newly-confident and the pressure is on the home team to defend the home folk's decision. No, it's just because Alabama is coming off an open date and is fresh, while their two big wins have taken a physical toll on a State team with no margin to spare.
Judging by all the pre-game hype, it would seem Sylvester Croom is striding into his hometown ready to wreak revenge. Forget it, the man has spent all week preparing his team to play a game. And as he's said, he is not playing Saturday and come kickoff none of that noise matters anyway. The oddsmakers' verdict is surprisingly large, since both coaches expect a defensive brawl. And while that kind of old-school game might still favor Alabama, it should also keep things tight to the end. So look for this one to come down to who plays harder and better. Which is exactly how Croom wants it.