SEC INSIDER

Alabama wary of Mississippi State challenge

Sports Xchange

November 07, 2017 at 9:13 pm.

Nov 4, 2017; Starkville, MS, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) runs the ball against the Massachusetts Minutemen during the second quarter at Davis Wade Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 4, 2017; Starkville, MS, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) runs the ball against the Massachusetts Minutemen during the second quarter at Davis Wade Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — For Alabama — No. 1 in the polls, but No. 2 in the College Football Playoff selection committee rankings — this week will be an adjustment.

The Crimson Tide is coming off a physical 24-10 win over LSU. The Tigers field a power-run offense, which takes a toll on defenders.

Now, the Crimson Tide must turn its attention to Mississippi State, a physical team that also prefers to spread defenses out.

“I think Mississippi State is really a good team,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said while praising Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen. “They’ve had a great year. They’ve won seven games this year. Dan has done a really good job there in the years that he’s been there. Great offensive coach. Always presents a lot of issues and problems for the defense to adjust to.”

Alabama (9-0, 6-0 SEC) and Mississippi State (7-2, 3-2) are set to meet Saturday night inside Davis-Wade Stadium.

On the opposite side, Mississippi State is faced with preparing for one of the top teams in the country. Alabama has won 37 of its past 39 games since the start of the 2015 season.

Mississippi State has lost its nine matchups against Alabama.

“Great challenge for our guys this week,” Mullen said. “Obviously, playing the best team in the country. A team that’s really been the dominant program in all of college football over the last 10 years. Not everyone gets to play them, but we get to play them every year. We know them well.”

Alabama is tasked with slowing Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick is fifth in the SEC, averaging 89 rushing yards per game.

He’s accounted for 25 total touchdowns on the year. His 12 rushing touchdowns are tied for second in the SEC.

“They have a lot of quarterback runs, so basically you’re playing against ‘wildcat’ at every snap,” Saban said.

“But because it’s a quarterback and he has a great ability to throw, that’s something you have to take into consideration and make sure you can defend their passing game as well. Then when they do pass, his ability to scramble and run also creates problems for the defense.

“Any of these guys that are athletic enough to make plays with their feet, can execute quarterback runs and do it with a level of toughness that is equal to a running back, and then they have the pocket passing to go out there and make plays in the passing game, I think those guys create lots of problems for everybody on defense, not just linebackers.”

Conversely, Mullen will be in search of ways to move the ball against Alabama’s defense. The Bulldogs were outgained 615 to 274 against Alabama last season, managing just three points in the blowout loss.

Alabama ranks among the top teams in the SEC in nearly every statistical category. Mullen hasn’t noticed a drop-off in the Crimson Tide’s defense, which will be without two linebackers who were injured last week — Shaun Dion Hamilton and Mack Wilson. Moreover, star defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick was bothered by a hamstring injury last Saturday but was moving well in practice Tuesday.

“They got one of the top defenses, if not the best defense in the country,” Mullen said. “They come at you with a lot of depth and rotate a lot of guys through. They have really big, physically-style guys up front. They’re very disciplined and fundamentally sound. They have great tackling linebackers. They also have guys that can cover you throughout the entire secondary.”

The teams are currently on different paths. Alabama is back in the hunt to make the College Football Playoff for the fourth consecutive year. The Crimson Tide also has the inside track to win the SEC championship for the fourth straight year.

Mississippi State likely can’t win the SEC Western Division, but a win over the Crimson Tide could put the Bulldogs in a great position to make a New Year’s Six Bowl at the end of the year.

Alabama knows Mississippi State is a dangerous team.

“This is all-around a really good team and a really challenging place to play and our players need to be ready to respond to it the right way,” Saban said.

 

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