*Mississippi State's last SEC road win was in 2000, at Kentucky. Since then the Bulldogs are 0-18 in league play away from home.
About the Crimson Tide: A year ago they were making all the clutch plays, leading the league and toting a top-ten ranking. This season? Just enough of those late-game plays are breaking the other way, they are middle of the conference pack, and getting no poll votes. Actually this says as much about the razor-thin margins year-to-year in the SEC than it does an Alabama squad still quite capable of playing with anyone and beating most everyone. In fact, with so much of the defense to rebuild and a new quarterback working behind a shuffled line, 6-3 isn't bad at all by most standards. Just not good enough for Tide standards, where a sub-.500 league record is cause for crisis. Opponents focus on the general youth here and worry more about what the future holds when these guys grow up.
Offense: Well, at least this unit is consistent. This week they rank in the 50s in NCAA scoring, rushing, and passing alike. The surprise is that Alabama isn't running the ball quite as well as anticipated with a couple of veteran backs any club would covet. Senior RB Kenneth Darby ranks third in all-time school rushing with almost 3,200 yards and is a Walker Award nominee. He's producing a steady 75 yards per week, yet that's just fifth in the league and he hasn't found the end zone in nine games. His alternate, soph Jimmy Johns, has a bit-better yards per carry rate and gives the offense all sorts of possibilities. Either one will follow the brutal lead-blocks of FB Le'Ron McClain; and Tim Castile will get the ball in short-yards and goal-line settings. After a year's apprenticeship John Wilson has stepped in at quarterback and done an efficient enough job with 1,809 yards and a 58% completion rate. He's also tossed a dozen scores against five interceptions, and shown a cool head in the process as well as a knack for big throws; five of his TDs covered 30 or more yards. He missed a half last week with an ankle injury, so backup Jimmy Barnes got some live experience in. Johns can also step under-center in some down-and-distance settings. The concern is how healthy are some primary targets. Junior Keith Brown (37 catches, three TDs) has missed two games with a knee injury but is back in the lineup this week. In the absence junior D.J. Hall, himself hurt at the start of the season, has more than picked up any slack. He had seven grabs at Tennessee giving Hall 48 catches on the year and 732 yards with five TDs. The front returned plenty of experience but few this week are in the same slots as they finished 2005, and UA has put eleven different starters on the field so far in '06. Former guard Antoine Caldwell has taken over the lone vacated job, at center, and is already a Rimington Award nominee. But Caldwell can go back to LG and let Evan (no relation) Caldwell take over as the hurry-up game center. The most experience belongs to junior RT Chris Capps, who played left tackle last year; and his backup Kyle Tatum, last year's starting RT. The shuffles partly result from the emergence of 348-pound true freshman Andre Smith at left tackle. He provides the bulk on an otherwise modest (by SEC standards) front otherwise averaging under 290 pounds. Maybe that's why the group has given up more sacks than usual. But what really matters is while there's only one senior in the entire line two-deep everybody has put in plenty of snaps already. The future, again…
Defense: Seven starters to replace? Several all-stars moved on to pro ball? Apparently it's no big deal here as Alabama has reloaded the lineup without skipping many beatings. They're 20th in NCAA scoring defense, giving up under 16 points a week, and 18th in total defense at 278 yards. Though, there have been breakdowns and a 5.0-yard allowed average, almost surely due to replacing some of those said big-play stars. Alabama isn't locked into one scheme, either. While the typical 4-3 set is their base the Tide defense is as comfortable either dropping into a 3-3 nickel or stacking the box. Both work nicely as related by the SEC's best turnover ratio, and you'd really rather not face third-and-long against this unit. If there's one real lack, it is a SEC-worst seven sacks in nine games. Though two starters are technically ‘new' for '06 it's still a pretty experienced front four, especially on the left side with 306-pound tackle Jeremy Clark and end Wallace Gilberry. They might not get big sack totals but they surely can pressure the passer. Junior Keith Saunders is having a strong year at right end and DT Dominc Lee helps stuff the middle. And the foursome has started all five games UA opened in a four-front. Replacing a couple of great linebackers wasn't automatic but with senior OLB Juwan Simpson it wasn't quite as difficult as some would find. He's tied for the team tackles lead with 56 and gotten in on the turnover fun both on the ground and in the air. Junior Matt Collins began the year at MLB but 255-pound frosh Prince Hall has taken over and paces the unit with eight tackles behind the line. He had to wait for a senior season to make his name but it's been worth the wait for SS Jeffrey Dukes, tied with Simpson for the tackles lead and with two interceptions to his credit. LCB Ramzee Robinson is the ranking vet with 46 games while junior Simeon Castille has successfully been promoted to RCB. He has five interceptions and three recoveries, contributing heavily to that SEC and #2-NCAA turnover rate. Soph Rashad Johnson has taken over at FS for the last two starts. There's plenty of depth available for those five- and six-man secondary setups, too.
Specialists: Placekicking problems led to at least one loss and lots of controversy, but Alabama seems to have it together now that Jamie Christensen is recovered from an early groin injury. He's converted on 8-of-10 field goals and also kicks off. Meanwhile freshman Leigh Tiffin, the hard-luck guy of September, is 8-of-13 himself. So UA has choices at least. The punting has been put on freshman B.J. Fitzgerald's foot and he's hit a consistent 38.5-yard average, 6th in this week's SEC standings, but the team's net-punting is under 34 yards. True frosh Javier Arenas runs back both kickoffs and punts and has scored one of the latter.
The Series: This is Mississippi State's oldest existing series, dating back to October 1896 and the second year of MSU football. Since then the schools have played 91 times, with Alabama holding an official 71-16-3 lead. The Crimson Tide was forced to forfeit their 1993 win. They currently have a five-year win streak over State, after the Bulldogs took four of five games from 1996-2000. Alabama also has the longest streak of any MSU opponent, taking 22-straight from 1958-79. The home team is 38-8-1 in Tuscaloosa games. Sylvester Croom is 2-0 against his alma mater, and Mike Shula is 3-0 against State.
The Last Time: November 5, 2005 – Alabama didn't score an offensive touchdown and didn't need to, earning a 17-0 decision at Scott Field by taking full advantage of Mississippi State miscues. The Bulldogs could not do the same in the first half, failing to score after either an interception of UA's first series or on a later fumble returned to the Tide 18-yard line. MSU failed to convert on fourth down at the ten and the only points on the board at halftime were off a 38-yard field goal by Alabama's Jamie Christensen. But Bulldog Derek Pegues had his quarter-opening kickoff return knocked loose, with UA's Matt Miller recovering and running into the end zone at 14:53. State kept the next kickoff but under pressure quarterback Mike Henig's ill-advised heave went right into the hands of defender Rudy Griffin for a 17-yard return and touchdown at 12:46. The Bulldogs were held to only 103 total yards and eight first downs on 55 snaps of the ball. Alabama produced 298 yards, 182 rushing with Kenneth Darby netting 122 of those on 21 carries. MSU's Jerious Norwood was held to 39 yards on 18 attempts.
Did You Know? Alabama leads the SEC in time-of-possession at 32:52 minutes, almost a full sweep of the second hand ahead of Auburn's 31:55.
*Bryant-Denny Stadium has been expanded three times since 1988, and now has a capacity of 92,138. That is seventh-most in the country, but just fourth-largest in the SEC behind Tennessee, Georgia, and LSU.
Bulldog Player Notes: Junior WR Tony Burks has tied the program record for 100-yard games in a season, with five…all in the last seven contests. He had the fifth-best game in MSU annals with 192 yards, on a season-best seven grabs, against Kentucky. That pushed Burks into first place in the SEC for yards-per-catch at 26.6, and he is fourth in yards-per-game at 77.5. In his previous four 100-yard outings Burks got there on just four catches each time. His longest catches so far are 78 yards against Tulane and 75 against UK, both for touchdowns.
*Burks also had two touchdown catches in the UK game, giving him three for the season. He would have four if not for a goal-line fumble at LSU, with teammate WR Lance Long recovering and getting credit for the score without having to catch the pass.
*Sophomore CB Derek Pegues did not pick off a pass in the Kentucky game, so he is holding at four for this season and is tied this week for third in the SEC standings. In MSU records, Pegues is already tied for both the season and career marks in interception-touchdown returns with two, having scored on picks this year at LSU and against Jacksonville State. He has five career picks.
*Pegues has fallen somewhat off his mid-October pace in returns, but still ranks third in the SEC and 9th nationally in punt yardage (14.8) and fifth SEC, 36th NCAA in kickoffs (24.4). Pegues has run back one punt this year for a touchdown, 81 yards against JSU; his longest kickoff so far this season is 61 yards against Tulane.
*With his returns of all sorts, Pegues ranks 9th in the SEC and 90th in the NCAA in all-purpose yards…which becomes more impressive as he is the highest-ranked defensive player on the list.
*Senior FS Jeramie Johnson has knocked five balls loose this season, and is still on top of the SEC chart after nine games. Johnson had forced only three fumbles in his previous three seasons. Johnson is still awaiting his first interception of '06 though, needing two more to make the career top-ten. He has seven so far.
*Senior LB Quinton Culberson just missed a fifth double-digit tackle day when he tallied nine stops against Kentucky. That was still enough to push Culberson over 250 career tackles, to 254, in 39 games. This season he is currently second in the league in tackles at 78 and has moved up a rung to third in tackles-per-game at 8.7.
*The team sack-race is between both starting defensive ends, and senior Michael Heard (6.5) has moved ahead of junior Titus Brown (6.0). The rest of the Dog defense has 6.5 sacks among them. But Brown has taken the lead in total tackles-for-losses from Heard, at 11.5 to 10.0. Senior DE Deljuan Robinson is third at 9.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage.
* Brown is now third in the SEC in tackles for losses, with ten for the year so far and 1.28 per game. *Soph QB Mike Henig has been on a passing tear the last three weeks. After throwing for 183 yards against JSU, he added 234 more at Georgia. And this past weekend Henig posted a career-best with 384 yards, the fourth-most yards ever passed for by a Bulldog quarterback. Henig also set personal game-marks with 22 completions and three touchdowns Saturday.
*In just the last two games, Henig has thrown for almost as many yards (618) as he did in all of 2005 (630).
*Limited to a brief appearance by injuries to a toe and a knee, junior TE Eric Butler did not get a catch in the Kentucky game. It leaves him with six grabs this season, for 120 yards (a 20.0 average) and one touchdown in eight games. Butler had four scores in 2004 and three more last season, with 29 catches his first two seasons. He has a career average gain on catches of 13.5 yards.
*Soph WR Aubrey Bell has made his mark since being activated three games ago. He has six catches for 135 yards, a 22.5 average. His only grab last week was good for 49 yards. In 11 freshman year games Bell had just two catches for 25 total yards.
*Freshman HB Anthony Dixon only netted 14 yards last week, on ten carries, but did add another touchdown to his rookie year total. Dixon has scored seven times in nine games. He needs three more this year to have a top-ten season at State. With 333 yards Dixon leads State in rushing, and he could become the first MSU freshman to do so for a season since Kenny Roberts (1989).
*The Bulldogs have scored 90 total points—whether offense, defense, or specialists—in the last three games. It's the most productive three-week stretch for State since the first three games of the 2003 season.
*The best quarter for State scoring is the fourth, with 71 of the team's total 166 points coming in the final period of regulation play. The Bulldogs have only scored two touchdowns in first quarters, and just one of those was by the offense.
*Three Bulldogs top the varsity roll with 43 career games-played: CB David Heard, S Jeramie Johnson, and DS Russell Cook. All also have started 28 games.
*Culberson holds the team-lead in total starts with 33, out of his 40 career games. It would be more if not for missing four games in 2002 with a broken ankle.
*Senior OG Brian Anderson has the most consecutive starts with 27, while David Heard and Culberson are both at 25-straight.
*There are 48 players on the current roster who have started at least one MSU game since 2004, including specialists. The latest to join the list is FB Casey Rogers, this past week against Kentucky. A total of 72 Dogs have played in at least one career game on this roster.
Redshirt Report: Twenty-three Bulldogs have made their college-game debuts this season, including seven true freshmen. First-year rookies yet to play and by now almost certainly not to are: OG J.C. Brigone, WR Alex Carpenter, DL Brandon Cooper, DS Aaron Feld, TE Chris Herrera, TE Brandon Henderson, OT Mark Melichar, WR Keith Mills, DT Reggie Odom, and DE Rodney Prince. Mills was dismissed from the team this week.