*The Bulldogs have won their last two meetings with Alabama; in Tuscaloosa in 2006 and at Scott Field in '07. A victory this year would make only the third three-year streak in program history, along with 1912-15 and 1996-98.
About the Crimson Tide: It's been a while since Alabama claimed the SEC's high ground. But with two dates left in the regular schedule the Crimson Tide is looking ahead to playing for their first league title of the decade and, if successful in Atlanta, a January showdown for the B.C.S. crown. That's assuming no stumbles the rest of this month of course, but based on the ten preceding victories Alabama is justifiably confident there will be no repeat of last November's collapse. Sure, Nick Saban's second team has been kept closer than necessary in some contests, yet they've always had the right response for the situation. And in big games, Bama has been at its best. Besides, despite that top ranking there've been enough TV talking heads projecting a loss in Atlanta to keep the emotional edge sharp. Letdown? Not likely now.
Offense: Other SEC outfits have more flash. But when you can pound the other side into submission, who cares about style? And pounding is what Alabama does very well indeed behind the best offensive front in the region. With the line consistently creating running room right from the snap a back would have to stumble not to gain at least a yard or two. They obviously do better than that with an average gain of almost five yards per-rush, and Alabama is 2nd SEC (23rd NCAA) in team running with 25 ground touchdowns. Not surprisingly the Tide rolls to their left where LT Andre Smith is leading the surge, but opposing coaches acknowledge the key is a great man in the middle. And senior Antoine Caldwell is that, the league's leading center. The group isn't just big, with everyone 300 pounds or better, but experienced with two upperclassmen and three juniors. The chief beneficiary of such strength up-front is junior Glen Coffee, averaging 102 yards a game and 6.3 per-tote. He'd have league-leading stats if not for sharing duty with stout freshman Mark Ingram, who nets 54 yards and 5.4-per himself. And both have eight rushing touchdowns. The first three seasons under-center were statistically productive but not entirely satisfying for John Wilson. Now the program's all-time passing champ, holding 12 season or career records, doesn't have to throw nearly so often; instead Wilson can pick his spots and make the tosses count at a 59% rate with eight scores. Of course if Alabama wanted to make a living on aerials, they likely could given the precocious presence of rookie wideout Julio Jones. The land's elite recruit has more than lived up to billing, with 40 catches already for four touchdowns and 634 yards. Jones' sucking coverage his way opens room for Mike McCoy (16, 191, 1) to work from either split or slot spots; while the real threat is often TE Travis McCall with 24 more grabs and two TDs. Which means this is a complete package for moving the ball and, more to the point, scoring it with an average four touchdowns each contest. And not that more motivation should be required under the season's circumstances. But it's safe to assume that this group has been reminded a few times that they haven't scored a touchdown on Mississippi State since 2004. All will know early what the Tide's mindset is, because Alabama has outscored victims 115 to 20 in first quarters this year.
Defense: While Alabama's offense thrives on the ground…foes don't. To put it mildly. This defense simply dominates action on the turf, ranking 4th nationally allowing just 79 yards of progress and only three rushing scores all season. In fact lesser opponents have almost stopped trying to move the ball afoot, since the typical ‘gain' is under three yards. And this is definitely not a group to get caught in third-and-long because Alabama is allowing conversions of any sort at just a 25% rate. The scheme is nominally a 3-4, but when the guy in the middle of everything takes up three entire line-slots himself the challenge is clear. 365 (or thereabouts)-pound NG Terrence Cody has transferred in a lot more than pure bulk, too, agile enough to get side-to-side as needed or just bull into the backfield. Two missed games to injury cut into his stats, but make no mistake who offenses must account for first. And 305-pound Josh Champman is no mere backup but a stout nose-man in his own right. The defensive ends don't just look like bookends, they play that way. Senior Bobby Greenwood and junior Brandon Deaderick both have 3.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for losses, and have combined for eight hurries. MLB Rolando McClain tops the tackle chart this week at 66 stops, eight of them for losses which is the same as ‘jack' linebacker Brandon Fanney. It's not just a statistically-stout crew but physically imposing as well at 257, 250, and 249 pounders backing the line. Not that they need much help of course, but senior FS Rashad Johnson is mighty handy in support or security. With three picks last week he's jumped to the top of the SEC's ‘passes defended' list with five interceptions and 10 deflections; combine that with 62 total tackles and you have another all-American defensive back. Yet SS Justin Woodall is worth of nomination in his own right with four intercepts and seven breakups. Meanwhile corners Javier Arenas and Kareem Jackson have gotten in the way of 13 combined throws more. Which is why opponents have such a painful choice each play-call: butt heads on the ground to little gain, or put it up in the air and risk the turnover. Either way you're challenging this week's #4-ranked NCAA defense. Good luck.
Specialists: Yet another SEC return-ace will be fielding Bulldog kicks this week. Arenas' straight stats are OK, 12.8 yards on punts and 22.6 yards on kickoffs, but the potential for much greater damage is always there. It's not Leigh Tiffin's fault that regulation field goal was blocked by LSU, and he is 13-of-19 on kicks not obstructed with a 54-yarder on the resume. P.J. Fitzgerald has three 50-plus-yard punts to his credit this season and an average of 41.8 with 11 fair-catches.
The Series: This is Mississippi State's oldest active series, dating back to 1896. Alabama won that initial meeting and has dominated since, with a 71-18-3 lead. This includes a 22-game streak from 1958-79, followed by a 1981-95 stretch. The Crimson Tide is 38-9-1 in games played in Tuscaloosa, though did win the last trip there in 2006. Coach Sylvester Croom is 2-2 against his alma mater with consecutive victories. Nick Saban is 5-1 against State, all the wins coming while he was at LSU 2000-04.
The Last Time (November 10, 2007): A day that was going almost all Alabama's way was turned entirely around by a pair of turnovers that Mississippi State transformed into touchdowns and a 17-12 upset victory at Scott Field. The #21-ranked Crimson Tide had their way for the bulk of the first half, and while unable to score touchdowns on a game Dog defense three Leigh Tiffin field goals made for a 9-0 margin by 8:39 of the second quarter. Mississippi State for on their own scoreboard with a 35-yard kick by Adam Carlson, but Alabama came right back and had 3rd-and-goal with 21 ticks left to halftime. Instead of playing for safe points, though, quarterback John Wilson rolled out and under pressure threw into the end zone where CB Anthony Johnson was waiting. With nobody between him and the other goal Johnson went 100-plus yards and State led 10-9 at the break. Just as disastrous for the visitors was a second interception, as on the first turn of the second half Wilson was picked by S Derek Pegues. His 40-yard return put the Dogs on Alabama's 25-yard line, and give plays later HB Anthony Dixon dove across the goal at 11:35. That provided all the points MSU needed the rest of the way with the Tide managing only one other Tiffin kick, a 50-yarder at 6:47of the last quarter. Alabama had more yards, 274 to 215, with Wilson 16-of-34 for 121 yards. State's Wesley Carroll was 9-of-21 for 100 yards, while Dixon managed 84 yards on 26 carries.
Bulldog Player Notes: Mississippi State is the only SEC team yet to score a non-offensive touchdown in 2008. The Dogs have not been able to convert a kick, block, interception, or fumble directly into points so far. Last year State scored six touchdowns on defensive plays—the most critical one against Alabama--and one more on a punt return.
*Switching to MLB has been the right move for senior Dominic Douglas, as he has posted both his best tackle tallies at this position. Douglas is coming off a career-best 15 total tackles in the Kentucky game, five solos and ten assists. It was his second double-digit tackle date of '08 after 11 total stops at LSU.
*Douglas scored his first college interception with the fourth-quarter pick in the UK game. But it was only the sixth picked pass for State this season, compared to 18 all of last season.
*Douglas is running away with the team tackle-lead, with 73 through nine games. Soph SLB K.J. Wright is falling farther behind with 47 in second place. Wright is leading his elder, and the team, in tackles-for-losses though at 6.5; Douglas has 4.0 and DT Kyle Love 3.5.
*Sacks are hard to come by this season, too. This team has 14 sacks in nine games, compared to 19 last year. Wright and DE Cortez McCraney are tied for the team-lead at 2.0 each.
*It's been a month since senior S Derek Pegues snared his first and only interception of this season, at LSU. It's a letdown only because Pegues had ten picks the previous three years, and he is currently tied for 3rd on the MSU career list with 11. His next interception will tie for 2nd with Izell McGill (12, 1994-97). The record is 16 for Walt Harris (1992-95).
*Pegues holds the career record for interception touchdowns with three such scores.
*Pegues' work on kick returns keeps him busy as well, and takes a physical toll. He has fielded 72 punts and 105 kickoffs in his career. And his total kickoffs, and 2,333 yards, are both MSU career records. The yardage mark in fact is the most by and SEC kickoff return man ever, and he's five returns from tying that SEC standard of 107.
*Pegues' combined return yardage, 3,099, is 4th-most in SEC history, but still second in MSU annals to Tony James (3,194, 1989-92) who is #3 SEC. The record is 3,357 yards by UK's Derek Abney.
*A modest day against Kentucky kept junior HB Anthony Dixon from making any more moves up the career rushing charts. But Dixon is one really big run from cracking the MSU top-five in yardage. He has 2,381 in three years for 6th place, trailing the 2,452 of James Johnson (1997-98) at #5. The career record of 3,212 by Jerious Norwood (2002-05) is certainly within senior-season range.
*But Dixon now stands alone atop the rushing touchdowns list with 29, having beaten a mark that stood for 13 years (27, Michael Davis 1991-94). And Dixon has a lot of games left to push that record into SEC top-ten status before he's through.
*Counting two TD catches, Dixon has accounted for 31 scores, the most of any Bulldog ever. The official record is for ‘touchdowns accounted for' which includes the passer, and Don Smith (1983-86) holds that mark of 52.
*Dixon is now fourth in MSU career scoring with 186 points, having just passed the 185 of Jackie Parker (1952-53). And the remaining three Dogs ahead of him got all their points by kicking.
*Dixon also now holds the record for career carries with 611.
*Junior QB Tyson Lee is coming off his best passing production to-date, tossing for 261 yards in the last game. This topped his previous high, in the previous game with 197 yards against Middle Tennessee.
*Lee's typical completion is netting 9.8 yards for the year; but in the last three games caught-balls have averaged double-digit gains.
*Lee threw his first 108 college passes, as a backup or starter, before suffering an interception. Three of them in fact, at Tennessee. Since then Lee has thrown 67 balls with just one picked, a forced attempt to end the UK game. So Lee is averaging 45 throws between picks for this year. He has had four touchdown passes and four interceptions so-far.
*As a starter, Lee is 84-of-138 (60.9%) passing. As a backup in three games, he was 30-of-45 (66.7%).
*Lee has been sacked 20 times, though, including four baggings in the Kentucky game for net-loss of 38 yards.
*Junior FB/HB Arnil Stallworth has emerged as Lee's top target in the short passing game. Against Kentucky he had a career-best eight receptions and 71 yards, with one touchdown play. In the past two games Stallworth has 12 grabs and 131 yards, and for the year his 17 grabs have gone for 191 yards. This after Stallworth made 14 catches and 163 yards the previous two seasons combined.
*And all of his 17 grabs this season have come in the last five games. Stallworth is averaging over 11 yards each time the ball comes to him.
*Those throws haven't come at the expense of WR Brandon McRae; instead the short tosses to backs like Stallworth have helped keep the junior wideout in single coverage. He added six catches in the UK game to extend his team-leading total to 43, for 434 yards.
*For all his soph season McRae had just two grabs and 50 yards; he has had at least two catches in every game this year. And he has easily surpassed the team-leading total of 33 catches (Tony Burks and Jamayel Smith both) in 2007.
*Senior WR Aubrey Bell has doubled his catch-total of last year, from 14 to 28. But his average gain is down, from 13.3 as a junior to 8.9 this season. Bell has multiple grabs in eight of the nine games.
*The net-gain for State's offense as a whole is down. Where in 2007 Bulldog receivers—all positions—averaged 12.9 yards per catch, this year the total is a sliver under 10.0 yards. But, this team will end up with more completions at their current pace, too.
*TE Brandon Henderson came to the fore last week with two catches and 45 yards. Prior to that he had four catches for 25 yards in eight games. No MSU tight end has caught a touchdown since Henderson in the Vanderbilt game.
*Senior P Blake McAdams continues to extend all Bulldog punting records, having taken over first place in both kicks (267) and yards (10,533) this season. He is the only MSU punter with over 10,000 career yards.
*And he ought to end his career with the most punts ever in SEC history. McAdams is currently third at 267; the record is 277 by Vanderbilt's Jim Arnold. McAdams is 5th in SEC punting yardage as of this week, and that mark (12,171 by Arnold) may be out of reach.
*PK Adam Carlson is tied for 6th in MSU career made field goals at 24, a three-way deadlock he would have snapped if his only attempt against Kentucky had not caromed the wrong way off an upright. He needs 30 makes to crack the career top-five. Carlson is currently tied for 7th in career attempts with Kinney Jordan (1975-76), both with 40.
*But Carlson is closing in on the program PAT record. He has 84, tying with Joel Logan (1987-90) for second. Brian Hazelwood (1995-98) is first with 94. Carlson is also up to 7th in career points with 155.
*Eight true freshmen have played so far this season and two—DE Sean Ferguson and TE Nelson Hurst—have started games. Other activated rookies are S Charles Mitchell, WR Delmon Robinson, LB Bo Walters, DT Josh Jackson, TE Kendrick Cook, and WR Arceto Clark.
*First-year frosh who have not played are: WR Terrance Davis, DB Louis Watson, CB Corey Broomfield, RB T.J. Patterson, DE Nick Bell, LB Mike Hunt, DE Trevor Stigers, DT Devin Jones, OG Tobias Smith, OT Templeton Hardy, WR O'Neal Wilder, WR Charles Bailey, and DE Shane McCardell.
*P McAdams leads this team in career starts (45). OG Anthony Strauder leads the non-specialists in starts with 39.
*S Keith Fitzhugh, P Blake McAdams, LB Anthony Littlejohn, and S De'Mon Glanton all share the games-played lead with 45 apiece.