*The Bulldogs are looking to stop an eight-game SEC losing streak that began last fall at Alabama. They are also playing for their first SEC West victory since the end of the 2001 season, over Mississippi.
About the Crimson Tide: The roster still isn't as deep as normal, margin for error (or more realistically, injury) remains minimal, and the toughest challenges are coming up at the heartbreak-end of the regular season. But for Alabama the 2005 theme has to be so far, so very good. Focused recruiting during NCAA sanctions has paid off handsomely and now the team has matured to the point that a SEC championship is within sight, perhaps even within reach…though after tough breaks the previous two years Crimson Tide fans are excused for keeping fingers crossed that no key skill personnel goes down again. Regardless, Mike Shula clearly has a defense capable of claiming a title; and if the offense can keep scratching out those opportunistic points against the contenders left on the slate this team will be representing the West in Atlanta for the first time since 1999.
Offense: Perhaps the 2005 results should be split, into the games Before and After The Injury. To spectacular wideout Tyrone Prothro, that is, who was lost for the year late against Florida with a broken leg. Until then Alabama was averaging almost 30 points; since it's been 54 total points, 35 of that last weekend against Utah State. This lone loss might yet keep the Tide from their ultimate goals, but David Rader's offense has adjusted accordingly and made the most of a clever quarterback and hard-running tailback. Brodie Croyle might not have his favorite target to toss to but this isn't stopping the senior triggerman from enjoying a career campaign…and an injury-free one at last. Croyle has been viciously efficient, passing at a 62% rate with 12 touchdowns against only two interceptions and netting 227 yards each game. A Unitas Award candidate, he currently has the lowest turnover rate in the NCAA stats. And all numbers aside, the guy is simply the SEC's preeminent ‘clutch' quarterback. Prothro's absence has allowed other young playmakers to emerge in their own right and soph D.J. Hall has taken the lead with 34 catches, 537 yards and a corps-best four scores. Keith Brown (21 catches, 386, 3) is practically a bookend to Hall—both are 6-3 and 190 pounds—and his yards-per-catch is actually better. While these guys stretch the field Croyle is free to make shorter tosses to his backs, and talk about balance both fullback Le'Ron McClain and tailback Kenneth Darby have 14 receptions each. But of course Darby does most of his damage on the ground, with a SEC-best 105.8 rushing yards per game. How big a part does the durable 205-pounder play in the gameplan? He has 150 rushes through eight games; the next-most is 41 by backup Glen Coffee. The pre-season concerns at UA were up front with three linemen and the tight end graduated. Safe to say most questions have been adequately answered by a group that's young—only one senior starts—and obviously maturing fast on the job. The old guy is center J.B. Closner, who has no problems being flanked by a pair of freshmen guards in Antoine Caldwell and B.J. Stabler. Junior Kyle Tatum is the key blocker at right tackle and a two-year starter. Even the tight end, 245-pounder Nick Walker, is a freshman and new-for-'05 starter. That's why even after Croyle graduates there is every reason to project bigger things for Alabama's offense in seasons to come…especially if Prothro returns to full-speed. For now, they just get the job done as needed.
Defense: And so what if Alabama doesn't burn out many scoreboards? With a defense that ranks about the same in NCAA stats as the team does in the national polls, a couple of touchdowns—or even just a couple of field goals—has been quite sufficient for success. Read this checklist and shudder: 2nd nationally in scoring defense and the only SEC team allowing under ten points a game; 3rd in total defense at 262 yards a game, 6th in passing defense and 10th in rushing defense. It's not so surprising that this unit is so effective though, as besides obvious factors such as size, speed, and talent the Tide defense has near-unmatched experience going for it. Five senior starters have never missed a game, if only for a play or two, in their UA careers, and there are underclassmen with similar streaks going. Simply, this group knows exactly what everyone can and should do and it shows both on the field and in the stats. Especially behind the line where two of three linebackers and three of the four defensive backs are seniors and the only exceptions are junior veterans. Even on star-studded units some guys will stand out and SLB DeMeco Ryans certainly does with a team-best 57 tackles, nine behind the line and 3.5 for sacks. His partners, MLB Freddie Roach and WLB Juwan Simpson, are close behind at 45 and 44 stops themselves. FS Roman Harper wrote his name in UA history with that forced fumble against Tennessee, just one of his 50 total tackles. SS Charlie Peprah leads the team with 43 career starts. It's a younger four-man front than usual in Tuscaloosa but lone senior Mark Anderson more than makes up for any experience issues elsewhere. The 253-pound DE is fourth in the SEC in tackles for losses and tops his team with four sacks. 305-pound Jeremy Clark and 286-pound Rudy Griffin, both juniors, clog up the middle, while senior Anthony Madison and junior Ramzee Robinson cover the corners. Well, obviously, as Alabama is 6th nationally in pass defense efficiency and first in the SEC in third-down defense.
Specialists: Soph Jamie Christensen has emerged as the SEC's clutch kicker of the season, having booted the game-winners against Mississippi and Tennessee. For the season he's 10-of-15 with a long effort of 43 yards. Jeremy Schatz is averaging just 38.6 yards per punt but has the leg, as a 73-yarder against Arkansas showed. If there's any ‘weak' point it is a net-punting rank of 106th in this week's NCAA stats. Where Protho is also missed is in the return game, where he handled punts and kickoffs. Brandon Brooks and Hall respectively have taken over those duties, though obviously Hall doesn't get many chances to catch a kickoff.
The Series: This is Mississippi State's oldest active series, dating back to October of 1896. Alabama won that first round and has been in control ever since with the scoresheet now standing at 70-16-3. The last time the teams did not meet was in 1947. The Tide strung together winning streaks from 1958-79 and 1981-95, though the 1993 game was later ruled a forfeit. State twice has won three-straight games; in 1912-14 and 1996-98. Alabama has won the last four meetings, and owns a 13-3 record in games played in Starkville.
Connections: It's almost too many to count on the MSU side(line). The most obvious case is former Tide All-America center Croom, a Class of '75 alumnus and assistant coach from 1977-86. UA head coach Shula was a Tide player the last three years of Croom's stint there. Besides Croom, two more MSU coaches are Alabama alumni and former players: linebackers coach Amos Jones ('80) and running backs coach Freddie Kitchens ('97). Offensive coordinator Woody McCorvey coached there from 1990-97, and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson from 1990-93 and 1997-2000.
*On the other sideline, Tide offensive coordinator David Rader held that job under Felker at State in 1986; and running backs coach Sparky Woods was State's O.C. from 1999-2002. Alnd of course along the way a number of assistants on both staffs have worked together at other programs in other conferences.
*Meanwhile there are 17 Bulldogs with home addresses in Alabama; while only three Tide players hail from Mississippi high schools: FL Keith Grown (Gulfport), RB Jimmy Johns (Brookhaven), and FS Jeffrey Dukes (Oxford).
Did You Know? Mississippi State's 1996 victory over Alabama was the first time a Bulldog team had ever defeated the Tide in Starkville.
*Alabama is going for a season-sweep of games against Magnolia State teams, having already defeated Mississippi Southern 30-21 and Mississippi 13-10.
*MSU director of football operations Rockey Felker was an offensive assistant on the Alabama staff from 1983-85, the first three years of Mike Shula's playing career with the Tide.
Bulldog Record Watch: Senior halfback Jerious Norwood hasn't enjoyed many wins but he will leave Mississippi State with the career rushing record. Through 43 career games Norwood has netted 2,888 yards and surpassed the standard set by Walter Packer three decades ago. Packer had 2,820 yards from 1973-76. Norwood broke the record early in the fourth quarter at Kentucky, and now has three games to become the first 3,000-yard runner in Bulldog history.
*Norwood also now has an even dozen 100-yard rushing games, which ties Packer's record. He has gained over 100 yards in three consecutive games now, and in the second one of that streak set the school game-rushing record of 257 yards, against Houston. He joined James Johnson (1998) and Kevin Bouie (1994) as the lone Dogs to gain 200 or more yards in a game.
*Norwood now has shots at other records this season, such as the 578 career carries by Michael Davis (1991-94). He has 507 with three games left and ranks third on the chart behind Davis and John Bond (572), 1980-83). He is 333 yards shy of matching Johnson's single-season rushing record of 1,383 yards, and 41 rushes from Johnson's other season mark set in 1998. Johnson holds the season rushing average mark of 115.3 yards, while Norwood is averaging 100.3 now (3rd-best in the SEC).
*Senior Willie Evans added one more sack to his career total at Kentucky, giving him 19 in four seasons. He is now a half-sack behind Greg Favors (19.5, 1994-97) for fifth place on the ladder. The career record of 49 by Billy Jackson (1980-83) is out of reach and likely always will be, though 25 years ago the statistic was judged very differently.
*Evans was able to stretch his SEC lead in sacks average a bit. His 9.5 rate through eight games is well up on Georgia's Quentin Moses at 8.0. Evans and Moses are now tied for the league lead in average tackles-for-loss at 1.69 each per game, or 13.5 total each in the same number of contests.
*Junior flanker Will Prosser now has 28 receptions for the season, surpassing the 24 that led the team in 2004. He also tops this season's chart for catches, with Tee Milons second at 17. Prosser had a career-high five catches in the Kentucky game.
*Tight end Eric Butler snapped a catch-less streak of three games with one reception, for 27 yards, at Kentucky. It was his first and only snare of October. That gives the sophomore 11 catches on the year, after a 15-grab freshman season. In September Butler had ten grabs with three for touchdowns, giving him seven career scoring catches—the MSU record for his position.
*Placekicker Keith Andrews is doubtful for this weekend's game with a groin strain, and did not travel to Kentucky. Andrews is now 11-of-18 on field goals for two seasons; and his career PAT mark is 28-of-28, leaving him nine shy of the school record. Kinney Jordan set the standard in 1975-76 by making 37-of-37 points-after.
*True freshman punter Blake McAdams' average fell off in the Kentucky game and now stands at 42.6 yards. He also slipped one spot in the SEC standings, to third. Auburn's Kody Bliss is still setting the SEC pace at 44.9 yards.
*Junior flanker Will Prosser has 23 receptions to lead his team. In fact the next two on the list, Tee Milons and Norwood, have 25 combined catches and 233 yards to Prosser's 208 yards.
*The team tackling lead changed hands at Kentucky when linebacker Quinton Culberson was credited with a dozen stops (11 solo, 1 assist). That gives the junior 59 tackles through eight games. Safety Jeramie Johnson had led the tackle list for all October but now trails Culberson with 55. Linebacker Clarence McDougal is third with 42 tackles. Culberson is ranked 11th in the latest SEC tackles list.