Although both sides of the ball will present interesting matchups on Saturday night, the one I believe I'm most interested in keeping an eye on is the Mississippi State defense versus the Alabama offense. MSU did not fare well against the run in games this season against Troy and Tennessee, and Alabama will certainly look to exploit that. Can State's D shut down the passing game of Alabama? Will Alabama have no problem running the ball against the Bulldogs? I can guarantee you one thing: if MSU wants a shot Saturday night, they'll need to defend both to perfection.
The Alabama offense is not one that strikes you as high powered initially (not meant as an insult, Bama fans, read on), but the numbers tell a different story in 2012. This season, Alabama has rolled up 200+ yards per game on the ground as well as through the air, and the Tide are scoring in excess of 40 points per game. Some may say that average could have been higher as well if they wanted it to be, as they have found themselves pulling their foot of the gas late in several games so far. There isn't a ton of flash with this offense, just a workman like approach from its stars such as A.J. McCarron, Eddie Lacy, and Barrett Jones. Up front, Alabama features what is without a doubt the best offensive line in the country, starting a projected NFL everyday player at each position. Follow that up with a returning National Championship MVP at the helm followed by a dynamic duo at the RB spot in Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, and the Tide offense will present a tough task for Mississippi State's defense Saturday night.
Mississippi State Defense
Mississippi State's 7-0 start has been powered by two things: a well balanced offense, and an opportunistic defense. Two weeks ago, a Johnthan Banks forced fumble on Tennessee running back Devrin Young swung the game back in Mississippi State's favor, allowing State a short field which they took advantage of, scoring a touchdown to go up by 10. That's the kind of defensive play that Mississippi State has gotten in 2012. Let by Banks, S Corey Broomfield, and LB Cam Lawrence, the defense has forced turnover after turnover, often bending in situations but rarely breaking, and finding ways to get the ball back to the offense. Overall State has played very well on defense, logging top 25 rankings in nearly all of the four major categories.
If State is going to have a chance to win Saturday, they will need improved play up front from the front seven, coupled with blanket coverage from Banks, Slay, Broomfield, and Whitley. I would expect MSU to load the box against Bama (as everyone tries), and ask their four upperclassmen in the defensive backfield to play man most of the game. If State can achieve this, then we should be very much in it until the end. But I'm afraid if we sit back in zone like we have many times this season, the Tide will use both the running game and McCarron's arm to methodically pick us apart, breaking the defense down until it breaks. It will take the game of many of these young men's lives to beat Alabama, but this defense has the talent and the ability in them to achieve such a goal, if they play to the best of their abilities.
Matchups to Watch
MSU secondary vs. Alabama's WRs/TE
There has been much talk about MSU's secondary, and they will get their chance to prove their worth Saturday night. Again, I would look for this group to be asked to play a good deal of man coverage, with the front seven focusing on gap assignments, stopping the run, and trying to find a way to get through that offensive line and to McCarron. If State is successful at dictating Saban to pass more than he would like to, this matchup becomes the key piece to MSU's chances at staying in the game.
Bama O-line vs. MSU's defensive front
Time and time and time again we've talked about how good this Alabama offensive front is. And time and time again we've essentially given MSU's front no credit. Although there has been the obvious lack of a figure to step up and take the place on that front left by Fletcher Cox, overall this unit has done well enough to service a pretty good defense for State. But there are weaknesses in the run defense, and I can imagine Chris Wilson has worked diligently with this unit to be ready for a heavy dose of run on Saturday night. In a traditional 4 DL vs. 5 OL setup, I would not expect much success for MSU. It is going to take the big guys eating up blocks and creating space for the LBs to make plays, whether through blitzing, run tackling, or the short passing game. McCarron has essentially stood behind a moat all season and passed at his leisure, and if State wants to change that, it will take all seven up front in an effort to find ways into that backfield, and ways to keep Alabama from successfully reeling of 5, 6, and 7+ yard gains all night on the ground.
Expectations for Saturday
I really think we might see this defense struggle a bit on Saturday, mostly with regards to stopping the run. That has been a weakness all season, and I don't see that ending Saturday night. Now, I'm not throwing in the towel on MSU's chances entirely, but this defense will have to find a way to turn over a seemingly un-turnoverable team. State is averaging 3 forced turnovers per game, and it will take nearly that to create big opportunities in this game, as well as stop the Bama offensive attack. I think the secondary has moderate success against the pass, but I'm afraid Lacy and Yeldon may have big games, putting pressure on Tyler Russell and the offense to keep pace. Anything is possible, so we will see what transpires under the lights Saturday night.