The trend is that when Lee hooks up with a target, the net gain is averaging double-digits. That actually is down from the typical 12-13 yard gains of State passers in 2007, but still usually serves to move the chains. The obvious reason is how Lee distributes the ball with backs getting as much—and at times more—attention than the wideouts. Lee knows why, too.
"If you don't have the deep ball don't force it," he said. "And when you just drop it off there's room for them to run and they can make some big plays." ‘Them' being a group of running backs State has increasingly routed into receiving roles. They will occasionally take a loss on short throws, hence the average; but more often can take the toss, make a move, and head upfield. Hopefully far, Lee said.
"Guys like Anthony and Christian and Arnil, you can throw them the ball behind the line of scrimmage and they can run 20 or 30 yards. When you can do that defenses have to respect that, it allows me if I don't have anything downfield to drop it off to them and get extra yards."
Such throws, in both direction and distance, suit Lee's own skills well. "It's one of the best things that Tyson does," Coach Sylvester Croom said. "He likes throwing to backs. We want him to throw the ball down the field a little bit more, but he's going to get the ball out of his hands and that's huge, it takes the pressure off the offensive line."
Make no mistake, Lee likes looking long and certainly has the arm to get the ball deep to Brandon McRae, Aubrey Bell, et.al., wideouts who have shown they can get open on post patterns in the right matchups. The limiting factor is usually how long Lee can wait before scrambling or unloading the ‘hot' throw. And he has taken 20 official sacks along with a whole lot of other hurries. Still when State tosses to a back, more often now than not it is by design. Besides, Lee notes, "In this offense you have a lot of things happen downfield, but when you give it to your check-downs it opens things up downfield even more."
Whether checking-down or going downfield, the Bulldog offense has to spot and use any opportunities this game. And Lee has left practice late both days, "Just trying to get in a few extra throws," he said, to make sure he didn't lose any timing over the open date. Not that he minded the brief break, or the extra days it gave last week to get started early on game-planning against an Alabama defense worthy of respect.
"They're just a great team. From their front four to the secondary they play physical, sound defense. And they play hard. They have a lot of playmakers on defense and we have to do as much as we can not to hurt ourselves, put ourselves in bad situations. And try to make plays for us."
EYE ON EIGHT: Speaking of playmakers, while Alabama thrives on the productive ground-pounding by Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram the Bulldog defense will have to protect a whole lot more territory than just around the line of scrimmage. State's secondary has its work cut out with some dangerous matchups…even miss-matchups.
"They've got a great group of receivers," CB Jasper O'Quinn said. Yes, but which Tide target has drawn the most scouting interest? "A good question!" O'Quinn smiles. "The main focus is Julio Jones, we can't lie and say it's not!" Indeed the Tide's freshman phenomenon has proven able to change games himself, both by making big catches or just drawing enough attention to leave openings elsewhere for cohorts to exploit. Which is why an Alabama offense built on running the ball is still comfortable and confident when it is time to toss.
So as tempting as it will be to double-up on Jones or at least lean the support that direction, Bulldog DBs will have to man-up and do the job. "They have a great group of receivers, not just him," O'Quinn said. "They have other players too so we can't spend our entire focus on him. We have to look at the entire group and work hard and put in a great strategy. And just go out and play them the best we can. Like every week, we have to look for things like splits, formations, recognizing where they line up so we can tell. We can eliminate certain routes by the splits, so we have to recognize."
What O'Quinn and other veterans also recognize is that a segment of the Tide roster is giving as much weight this week to revenge for State's consecutive victories in the rivalry as they are staying atop the standings. Either way the Bulldogs accept that there is no possibility of ‘sneaking up' on Alabama this time around. Too much is at stake.
"I mean, it's good that they're looking for us," O'Quinn said. "And they're not going to overlook us this year. But we're going to go in and give them a fight."
TOP OF THE CHARTS: Not that it would do any good to try otherwise, of course. But the Bulldogs are making no attempt to downplay the fact that the week's opponent sits on top of all the national polls and rankings. And without diminishing the inherent challenge, Coach Sylvester Croom wants the squad to approach this matchup as an opportunity. "A great opportunity for us as a football team," he said. "It's rare you get a chance to play the number-one team in the country during the course of the regular season. That opportunity has been afforded to us and we are going to prepare as best as we possibly can in hopes of winning the game, on the road, against the number-one team in the country."
‘Rare' is the right word. Considering the Southeastern Conference's prominence over the eras, Mississippi State has had surprisingly few meetings with top-ranked foes. Available—and admittedly incomplete—records from MSU and other SEC media guides show only five such games. And the only Bulldog win in such matchups was, of course, in 1980 when State stunned defending the national champs 6-3…still referred in fan circles as the ‘I Was There' game, though in the decades since several-times many more MSU folk claim to have been in Memorial Stadium than the actual capacity crowd.
The four losses to #1s were: Tennessee 1951, Auburn 1957, Alabama 1979, and most recently in the 1998 SEC Championship Game to Tennessee. All four times the victor went on to win the national championship. A loss this weekend would likely doom Alabama's chances in 2008 to add to their seven national title teams, not that the home team is counting on any such outcome.
And Croom, who was on the 1971 United Press International champs, isn't bothered about perceptions. "Even though everybody probably thinks we're the Washington Generals, it's still exciting," he said. More seriously, "You can't ignore that fact, they are the #1 team in the country and that doesn't happen by accident." But then neither do upsets usually. And besides, it is the Bulldogs with the two-game winning streak."
INJURY UPDATE: The Bulldogs are generally healthy this week, with only TE Brandon Henderson (hamstring) among the regulars limited in practices. OG Mike Gates benefited from the open date to rest his turf-toe and has worked every day this week, as the backup at both right and left guard.
And as of Wednesday the revised offensive line was the same as began the week, with RT Quentin Saulsberry, RG Craig Jenkins, OC D.J. Looney, LG J. C. Brignone, and LT Derek Sherrod.