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Mississippi State, Alabama clash in late season SEC West showdown

The Bulldogs hope to upset the nation’s top team.

NCAA Football: Louisiana Tech at Mississippi State Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Tuscaloosa, Ala. – Any team can be beaten on any given Saturday in college football given the right circumstances and situation. Even when the statistics show that one team is a heavy favorite over another team, the actual game still has to be played and serves as to why the teams play the game.

No. 16 Mississippi State (6-3, 2-3) will look to be on the positive side of the “any-given Saturday” theory in its matchup on Saturday afternoon when the Bulldogs enter Bryant-Denny Stadium to face No. 1 Alabama – a team that has a proven track record of competing at the highest level when the lights are on and when it matters the most.

Alabama (9-0, 6-0) has already punched in its ticket to the 2018 SEC Championship game as the Crimson Tide will face reigning SEC champion Georgia on Dec. 1 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. However, with two games sitting in between its date versus Georgia – one against The Citadel and one on the road against Auburn in the Iron Bowl – Alabama will be playing to maintain its top spot in the country and as one of the top four teams in the country to compete for a shot in the College Football Playoff national championship.

While it looks like a smooth ride before the first weekend of December, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban knows the season is not over and that his team has a lot to play for. There are teams looking to give Alabama trouble before it clashes with Georgia and Mississippi State is one of them.

”They’re 6-3, they have one of the top defensive teams in the country,” Saban said. “Really good front. Really good pass efficiency defense. Hard to run against. One of the top defensive teams in the country.”

Alabama has won the last 10 meetings between the two teams including last season’s thriller where Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts threw a 26-yard touchdown to Calvin Ridley on third-and- 15 to lift Alabama over Mississippi State 31-24 in the final seconds of the game.

The last time Mississippi State defeated Alabama was 2007 – Saban’s first year with the Crimson Tide – as the Bulldogs beat the Crimson Tide 17-12 in Starkville. Even more, Mississippi State’s last victory against Alabama in Tuscaloosa came in 2006 when the Bulldogs defeated then head coach Mike Shula’s Crimson Tide team 24-16.

Mississippi State is no stranger to Alabama, and the Bulldogs have proven that they can go toe-to-toe with the Crimson Tide given the right circumstances. However, pulling off the victory against Alabama in recent years has been tough and will be even tougher Saturday as Alabama features a whole new dynamic offensively this season that many have never seen in the Saban era.

Up until the second half of last year’s national championship game, Alabama has featured quarterbacks who have been more of game managers versus dynamic game changers.

Going back to 2002, Brodie Croyle (2002-05), John Parker Wilson (2006-08), Greg McElroy (2009-10), AJ McCarron (2011-13), Blake Sims (2014), Jake Coker (2015) and Jalen Hurts (2016-17). While these players had the capability of making big plays and impacting the games at the right moments to help their respective Crimson Tide team win, none of them displayed the poise and level of talent of sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

And for Mississippi State, if the Bulldogs hope to have any chance of pulling off what would arguably be the biggest upset in college football this season, the defense must limit Tagovailoa’s video-game like production he has displayed against opposing defenses all season.

Tagovailoa – a frontrunner for the 2018 Heisman Trophy – has thrown for 2,361 yards, 27 touchdowns and one interception, with his first interception coming in last week’s 29-0 victory against LSU – a top-tier defense in the SEC and in the nation. Against the Tigers, Tagovailoa finished the game with 295 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 49 yards on three carries and a touchdown.

With his ability to throw the ball down and run the ball when needed unlike some of his predecessors, it makes Alabama that much harder to stop. As a unit, Alabama enters the game first in the country in total offense (565.6 yards per game), first in points per game (51.3), fifth in passing yards per game (341.6) and 24th in rush offense (224.0) behind the legs of running backs Najee Harris and Damien Harris.

N. Harris leads the team in rushing with 572 yards and four touchdowns while D. Harris has punched more touchdowns (six) and rushed for 542 yards. The two running backs play a big part in maintaining offensive balance for the Crimson Tide, allowing Tagovailoa to make big plays down the field.

Jerry Jeudy – Tagovailoa’s favorite target at wide receiver – has been a game changer, hauling in 39 receptions, 880 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Bulldogs head coach Joe Moorhead knows that his defense will be tested in all categories.

”Great players like (Tagovailoa), I call them game wreckers, because they can take the games over by themselves. I don’t know that it is ever necessarily a matter of stopping them, as it is neutralizing them or containing them. That is our hope with him.”

However, it is not a challenge that Mississippi State’s defense is unaccustomed to. More importantly, it is one that the Bulldogs look forward to.

Mississippi State enters the game ranked sixth in the nation in total defense (allowing 278.7 yards per game), seventh in pass defense (167.2) and 18th in rush defense (111.4). In its wins against Auburn and Texas A&M – quality SEC West opponents – the Bulldogs held the Aggies to 293 yards of offense (232 passing, 61 rushing) and the Tigers to 304 yards of offense (214 passing, 90 rushing).

But speaking to a bigger impact of Mississippi State’s defense, the Bulldogs are 16th in redzone defense and ninth in third-down defense. While A&M and Auburn are not Mississippi State, look for the Bulldogs defensive playmakers to be ready to make plays.

Offensively, Mississippi State ran up the scoreboard last week during its homecoming game, pouring in 45 points in a 45-3 route of Louisiana Tech. But against Alabama, this will be another big test for quarterback Nick Fitzgerald to see if he can make throws down the field against a stout Alabama defense.

In last year’s thriller, Fitzgerald finished 13-for-24 for 158 yards and ran for 66 yards and a touchdown. Against a Crimson Tide defense that will be tough to run against this year as well, Fitzgerald will be forced to make some big plays in the passing game. Fitzgerald has thrown for 1,257 yards, 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions while rushing for 839 yards (fourth in the SEC) and nine touchdowns.

After Fitzgerald’s offensive impact, running backs Kylin Hill and Aeris Williams have led the way in the Bulldogs strong rushing attack that ranks 21st in the nation, averaging nearly 231 yards per game. Osirus Mitchell leads the team in receiving yards with 20 receptions for 347 yards and three touchdowns.

As an offensive unit, the Bulldogs average 417.8 yards per game with only 187 coming through the passing game. Mississippi State is putting up 29 points per game against its opponents.

Alabama will look to stop the Bulldogs rushing attack in its tracks. The Crimson Tide enter Saturday’s game ranked 11th in total defense (allowing 295.4 yards per game), seventh in scoring defense (14.1), 30th in pass defense (193.3), fourth in red zone defense, third in defensive touchdowns, 11th in third down defense and sixth in sacks.

Mississippi State’s defense will be put the test. If the Bulldogs can overcome the obstacles and challenges of limiting the Crimson Tide’s juggernaut offense, the chances of them pulling off an upset increase.

Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. CT on CBS.