About the Crimson Tide: It could possibly have escaped your attention, but Alabama is under new management for 2007. Setting aside the silliness of his hiring process, bringing Nick Saban back to the SEC has been an undoubted success for the Tide program. They secured bowl-eligibility before October was out and have doubled their 2006 total of SEC wins already. It isn't your same old Alabama, either, featuring a high-flying air attack while more traditional aspects of defense and running are rebuilt. For all the frenzy Saban's arrival brought, there's been some signs of pragmatism from at least a few faithful about how long it will take to be ‘back.' This year's goal is regaining top-status in the home state; next fall they'll make a serious run at the SEC West…and go on from there.
Offense: This is not a patient bunch. Not only does the Tide strike early, scoring on first possession in seven games (four touchdowns); but they score quickly with 19 ‘drives' taking two minutes or less to go whatever distance required. That naturally points to the passing prowess of junior QB John Wilson, who will completely rewrite the school record before he's done…maybe before this season is done. He has 14 touchdown tosses this year against six picks on 55% efficiency, and is well-over 2,000 yards for a second season. His choice of targets is unnerving to a defense, though D.J. Hall could beat a lot of teams by himself. The senior has 52 grabs, six touchdowns, and gets over 16 yards each time the ball hits his hands. Then it's just a matter of whose turn it is to be the other one, two, or three wideouts on the field with Hall. Mike McCoy (24 catches, 7.2 yards) is the usual other starter while Matt Caddell (30, 10.4) and Keith Brown (12, 16.1, 3 TDs) rotate in and around the field. TE Nick Walker is getting more balls thrown his way lately, too, and has scored twice. Emphasis on the air game is at least partly because some key runners and blockers are sidelined, at least as of today. Redshirt Terry Grant gets most of the work and can turn a seam into a breakaway. He's got 720 yards and seven of the team's 17 rushing touchdowns. With Glen Coffee (413 yards, 5.8 average) apparently still out, either former Dog Jonathan Lowe or Roy Upchurch will back up Grant…who can certainly catch a pass, too. The core offensive questions have been up-front with just a pair of all-game starters in soph tackles Andre Smith and Mike Johnson. It's anybody's guess when C Marlon Davis and G Antoine Caldwell are allowed back in the lineup after suspensions; but the line is glad to have Jason Britt back at left guard after his October family crisis. The group definitely has lost both experience and cohesion, contributing to 21 sacks allowed this year. Yet save for that decisive sack-and-fumble last week this hasn't been an offense prone to turnovers, and Alabama is the least-penalized squad in the league by far.
Defense: They knew a rebuilding job was ahead, but it's been a bit bigger task than maybe expected replacing most of the lineup. Six foes have put up 20 or more points and the Tide is giving up almost 370 yards per-game; an unimaginable yield in years-past. It starts on the line here, too, where the odd-front has been somewhat vulnerable to power-running games. That's despite the formidable presence of senior DE Wallace Gillbery, a 34-game starter and sure all-star. Even in defeat to LSU he had three sacks, giving him a team-best 7.0 for the year and 15 tackles for losses to go with a dozen ‘hurries' credited. 283-pound Lorenzo Washington plays over the center but has gotten in on the sack-action himself, while either Brandon Deaderick or Bobby Greenwood—his year interrupted by an ankle injury--will start on the other end. Alabama will come with either three or four linebackers depending on matchups, but it's not as experienced a group as usual for a Tide defense. In fact lone returning starter Prince Hall, a standout last year against State, isn't even opening games this year as frosh Rolando McClain has taken the middle-spot and provided 54 tackles, second on the team. Senior Darren Mustin was the defensive star against Tennessee from the WLB slot, with junior Ezekial Knight at SLB where has 6.5 tackles for losses. Former defensive end Keith Saunders is now a ‘jack' linebacker when his extra 250 pounds is needed in run support. But in six games the Tide has opened in a nickel set, as the most experienced group is the secondary. FS Rashad Johnson tops the team in tackles at 64 and has busted up nine passes; five of them by interception, best in the league this week. Only one of the corners is a veteran, and they don't come better than senior LCB Simeon Castille (46 tackles, two picks, eight breakups). But frosh Kareem Jackson isn't playing like a rookie on the right corner. He's fourth in tackles at 47 and has intercepted three balls already. This defense relies on big plays as they still give up 242 passing yards per-game, same as their offense earns in fact. And opponents are completing 54% of throws with 16 touchdowns…against 15 picks. You throws the ball and takes your chances in this matchup.
Specialists: There's notable improvements in these areas, most obviously in the return game where Javier Arenas ranks 2nd in the SEC, 6th nationally with 17 yards per punt-return this year with three touchdowns on his career. He has five returns, kickoff or punt, of 50 or more yards this fall. Leigh Tiffin has taken the placekicking job from proven game-winner Jamie Christensen, and he's 17-of-24 on field goals this year as well as perfect on PATs. A 38-yard punting average for P.J. Fitzgerald doesn't look like much but he's shown 50-yard range often enough; besides, he's even with MSU's Blake McAdams at downing punts inside the 20-yard line at 14 apiece, pointing to good Tide coverage.
The Series: Mississippi State's longest active series began with a game at Alabama in 1896. The hosts won that meeting and have dominated the rivalry of nearest-SEC neighbors since, the score currently standing at 71-17-3. Only four times has State put together consecutive wins, and twice (1912-14 and 1996-98) three-straight wins. Only since 1986 has State brought this series to campus, though Alabama still owns a 14-3 bulge in all Starkville games. State's last win on the home field was in 2000. Sylvester Croom is 1-2 against his alma mater, while Nick Saban is 5-0 against State, all when he was coaching LSU.
The Last Time (November 4, 2006): Mississippi State gave Coach Sylvester Croom his first SEC road success at the expense of his alma mater, by scoring a 24-16 win over Alabama at Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide put up the first points, on a short field goal by Jamie Christensen at 9:52 but the Bulldogs made a point by keeping them out of the end zone from the two-yard line. Then for the first time all season State's offense drove for a touchdown with their initial possession, going 70 yards in nine plays; the last a 25-yard toss from Mike Henig to Tony Burks. Adam Carlson began the second quarter with a 39-yard field goal, then Alabama erased the MSU lead with a 24-yard interception return by Jeffrey Dukes. But State and Henig shook off the mistake immediately with a 78-yard drive capped by a 13-yard touchdown throw to Jamayel Smith. Then the Dog defense delivered the game's crucial plays. First was an interception and 51-yard touchdown return by linebacker Quinton Culberson at 2:51. Then it was a three-Dog stop of Tide quarterback John Wilson as he tried to score himself from two-yards out on the last play of the half, a play that withstood review. State's offense did not score anything in the second half but did move the chains often enough that the defense got a few breaks between more superb stands. The Tide settled for two third-quarter field goals, of 26 and 31 yards, and was entirely shut down in the fourth period. Alabama had a small edge in overall yards, 288 to 274. Halfback Anthony Dixon was the top ground-pounder with 121 yards on 25 carries, while Henig was 9-of-23 for 143 yards and the two touchdowns against his home-state team. Wilson was 19-of-39 for 187 yards with a pair of picks.
Did You Know? Alabama has played more games against Mississippi State than any other opponent. And 46 of these games have been played on the UA campus, compared to only 17 games at Starkville over the 110 years.
Bulldog Player Notes: After being shut out for three weeks, the Bulldog defense got back on the sack-track by bagging the Kentucky passer three times. The senior DEs combined for all three, two by Avery Hannibal and one for Titus Brown. Between them, they have 9.0 of the team's 14.0 total sacks; 17.0 tackles for losses, and 20 of the 35 quarterback ‘hurries.' In fact these two DEs have more hurries between them than all State opponents with 16 in nine games.
*Brown now has 17.5 sacks for his career, still 7th-best on the MSU list behind Greg Favor (19.0, 1994-97). He needs two more for a top-ten season at State. Brown has made a tackle behind the line in 15 of his last 17 games and leads the team at 11.0.
*The Dog defense has already matched its 2006 season interceptions with 12 through nine games. The three picks at Kentucky tied the total at Auburn this year. A trio of defensive backs have two interceptions this year: S Derek Pegues (Auburn, South Carolina); CB Anthony Johnnson (Auburn, UAB); and S De'Mon Glanton (GW, Kentucky).
*Four of State's interceptions have been returned for touchdowns; by LB Gabe O'Neal (Tulane), Pegues (Auburn), Glanton (GW), and Johnson (UAB).
*Johnson has the team lead in passes broken up with seven, one ahead of Glanton. They have 13 PBUs, and the rest of the defense 17.
*Pegues has seven career interceptions and needs two more to break into the MSU top-ten list. But his three touchdown-returns off interceptions are a career record. He also holds the season record with two pick-six plays in 2006. Pegues averages 19 yards in returns every time he picks off a pass.
*Put back on kickoff return duty, Pegues was given two chances at West Virginia and netted 74 yards before WV kicked away from him. So did Kentucky all game, so Pegues holds at second place for career returns (70) and yards (1,548). He's eight returns behind Tony James (1989-92) for first after just three seasons.
*The team tackle-lead is still a three-way affair between the starting linebacker trio, but an ankle problem to MLB Jamar Chaney has shaken up the order again. WLB Dominic Douglas has moved back in front at 57 total stops (30 solo, 27 assists), while SLB O'Neal and Chaney are tied now at 54 apiece. O'Neal has the most solos on the squad at 35, while Douglas is behind only Brown and Hannibal in TFLs at 5.0.
*P Blake McAdams had a consistent October, averaging 40.3 yards on all his punts and in three games hitting at least one for over 50 yards. But the average is impacted by something more meaningful to the Dog defense. Six of his October kicks were downed inside the opponent's 20-yard line, giving him 14 ‘red zone' balls on the year against just one kick into the end zone.
*McAdams is 5th in career punts at 185, with the next milestone the 198 punts of 4th-place Jared Cook (2001-04). He's also fifth in career punting yards at 7,428, with a 40.2 career average.
*Senior WR Tony Burks ran his streak of games with at least one reception to 17, with two short grabs at Kentucky. Those dropped his season average gain to 13.8, compared to the SEC-best 24.3-avearge of his junior season. Burks has yet to post a 100-yard game this season after getting a record-tying five in 2006. He still leads the team in receptions with 24.
*Wideouts Jamayel Smith and Aubrey Bell are the main reasons for Burks not getting bigger totals with significant contributions of their own. Smith is second in catches (17) and yards with a nearly-even 13.4-yard average; while Bell is getting 16.0 yards when he pulls in a pass. The trio have four of State's seven touchdown receptions.
*Senior TE Jason Husband joined the touchdown list for '07 with his 11-yard scoring catch at Kentucky. It was the first touchdown for a State tight end this season.
*FB Eric Hoskins has become another option in the Bulldog air attack. In his four starts the walk-on has made seven receptions, for 55 yards. And four of his catches have produced first downs, twice each at West Virginia and Kentucky. Fellow fullbacks Jeremy Jones and Brandon Hart have five catches and 21 yards between them. But, Jones has the only touchdown for either a fullback or tight end this year, on a eight-yard catch at Tulane.
*Less than two seasons into his Bulldog career, HB Anthony Dixon broke into the top-20 rushers in MSU history. The sophomore now has 1,498 yards, good for 19th place on the list after just 21 career games. He has six 100-yard games, four of them this season.
*With 830 yards this year, Dixon is on pace to post the ninth 1,000-yard season in MSU history.
*Dixon is making even faster progress up the career rushing touchdown chart. His six-point run at Kentucky gave him 21 touchdowns which is tied for sixth place already with Don Smith (1983-86). One more touchdown via the ground moves Dixon into a tie for 5th place with Dontae Walker (1999-02). The all-time State standard is 27 by Michael Davis (1991-94).
*Dixon is also closing in on the season rushing touchdown record of 16 (Jackie Parker 1952). He has 12 in nine games this season.
*Though his forte is running the ball, Dixon got his first touchdown catch on a two-yard toss in the Kentucky game.
*HB Christian Ducre has been a productive counterpart to Dixon. He has scored three rushing touchdowns this sophomore season, two of them in SEC games including the winning points at Auburn. He has 398 rushing yards this year and his average gain of 4.9 yards is better than Dixon's 4.0.
*Freshman QB Wesley Carroll has already achieved a Mississippi State record; or records rather. He has thrown 137 passes this year without an interception, which is both a season and an all-time Bulldog standard. The old marks were 96 for one season, 122 over two seasons.
*If Carroll can throw two more passes that aren't picked off, he will set the NCAA record for consecutive passes without an interception to begin a college career. The mark is 138 by Mike Gundy of Oklahoma State in 1986.
*Carroll is 75-of-137 for this season, 54.7%. His completed passes are netting a 9.4 yard average gain.
*Carroll's four touchdown tosses have been spread around to two wideouts (Burks and Smith against Tennessee), and a tight end (Husband) and halfback (Dixon) in the Kentucky game.
*PK Adam Carlson made his lone field goal attempt at Kentucky and is now 6-of-9 for the year, 14-of-25 for his career. And after his 47-consecutive PAT streak ended in the UAB game Carlson has been good on the last eleven tries.
*Two Bulldog seniors hold the team lead in career games played. Both TE Dezmond Sherrod and DE Avery Hannibal have gotten on the field in 43 contests through four seasons. The consecutive-start lead belongs to P Blake McAdams at 32. C Royce Blackledge is first among the non-specialists in starts with 27-straight.
*A total of 42 Bulldogs have started at least one game this season. Only 11 players have started every game of 2007, including the two specialists.
*This year six true freshmen have played: LB K.J. Wright, QB Wesley Carroll, ST Karlin Brown, S Zach Smith, DT Lamarcus Williams, and OT Derek Sherrod.
*True freshmen who have not played are QB Chris Relf, S Wade Bonner, HB Robert Elliott, HB Marcus Green, LB Jamie Jones, CB Damein Anderson, LB Terrell Johnson, OL Addison Lawrence, OL/SN D.J. Looney, OL Dakota Merritt, PK Eric Richards (injured), DL Quentin Saulsberry, and FB Ethan Stockett.