3:30 PM EST, CBS – Line: Alabama -10
After today the College Football Playoff should clear up considerably as the fifth-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide host the top-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs in Tuscaloosa, with the winner in the driver’s seat in the SEC West. In his sixth season in Starkville, Dan Mullen has Mississippi State (9-0, 5-0 in SEC) atop the AP Poll for the fifth consecutive week, and at nine wins he has already matched his highest win total since arriving on campus back in 2009. The Bulldogs took it easy last Saturday, as they hosted Tennessee-Martin in a 45-16 victory that served as glorified tune-up for today’s meeting with the Tide. Mullen’s charges hung up 520 yards of offense , including 266 through the air and another 254 on the ground, while the defense yielded just 367 total yards. Heisman candidate Dak Prescott didn’t play for long, but then again he didn’t have to; the Junior Quarterback completed 14-of-23 passes (60.8%) for 206 yards, and two touchdowns, while rushing for another 54 yards and a score on six carries before taking his leave after the end of the Third Quarter. With that out of the way, Alabama will present a much stiffer challenge this week, particularly for their offense, which is the top-ranked unit in the SEC. On the season, the Bulldogs have averaged 39.8 points on very balanced 522.1 total yards, including 266.2 yards through via the pass with another 255.9 yards coming courtesy of the run. However, against Nick Saban and Co., they have struggled mightily, scoring exactly seven points in each of their past three meetings, and no more than ten since Mullen took over the program. Something’s got to give folks; it’s the unstoppable force meets the immovable object, with the keys to success residing in the hands of the aforementioned Prescott.
It’s easy to see why the Junior has drawn so many comparisons to Tim Tebow, whom was also coached by Mullen when he served as Urban Meyer’s Offensive Coordinator at Florida from 2006 to 2008. It’s basically the same offense in which the former Heisman-winner piloted to a National Championship in 2008, and folks in Starkville are counting on reaping those same rewards. In his second campaign as the starter, Prescott has shown tremendous improvement, completing 60.9% of his passes for 2,222 yards (9.3 yards/attempt), eighteen touchdowns and seven interceptions, while taking full advantage of his athleticism rushing for 779 yards (5.4 yards/carry) and eleven more scores on 143 carries. At 6-2, 230 lbs, he is a load to bring down in the open field, and when he breaks into the second line of defense he can be found punishing smaller Defensive Backs unlucky to get in his way. A tell-tale sign of his development has been his stellar play on Third Down; the versatile Quarterback has been responsible for fourteen touchdowns on Third Down, rushing for twenty-three First Downs, with both figures ranking best in the nation. Furthermore, Prescott has posted a Total QBR of 97.9 in such situations, also best in the nation. Considered by many to be the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, Prescott has already had some huge games against the highest of competition; in victories over the likes Auburn (38-23) and LSU (34-29), he went 33-of-58 (56.9%) for 514 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions, while tormenting them with his legs on 226 yards and three more scores. But the Tide will serve as his stiffest test, for he hasn’t faced them since 2012, his Freshman campaign in which he entered the game in relief, completing 4-of-6 passes (66.7%) for 40 yards and a touchdown. However, he’ll have plenty of help, for Mullen has done a solid job of loading this program with quality recruiting classes; Junior Tailback Josh Robinson has rushed for 984 yards (6.7 yards/carry) and eleven touchdowns, with an additional 278 yards in the passing game, while De’Runnya Wilson leads a deep Receiving Corps hauling 22 passes for 367 yards (16.7 yards/catch) and six scores. And let us not fail to mention the Bulldogs’ defense, which is as athletic and fast as any in the SEC; this unit has allowed 19.7 points despite yielding 427.2 yards, 300.6 of which have against the pass. With that said, opposing Quarterbacks are completing 52.4% of their attempts on average, and have been picked off a dozen times. Defensive Lineman Preston Smith has been a force, leading the team with seven sacks, while also logging a pair of interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown.
Meanwhile, though Alabama (8-1, 5-1 in SEC) is on the outside looking of the College Football Playoff at the moment, they should almost certainly find themselves included among the Final Four this Tuesday if they are to hold serve at home against the top-ranked team in the country. While Mississippi State partook in a glorified exhibition last weekend, the Tide went through Hell in Death Valley, where they outlasted LSU in a hard-fought 20-13 overtime victory. Clashing with the Tigers’ staunch defense is no easy thing, and Nick Saban’s charges had to fight for everything they earned that night, putting up just 315 yards of offense, the second-lowest total of the season. The running game, despite finishing with 106 yards, never really got rolling, as the Tide picked up just 3.7 yards per carry and failed to rush for a touchdown for just the second time in 2014. It wasn’t much easier to move the ball through the air either, as Blake Sims went 20-for-45 (44.4%) with 209 yards (4.6 yards/attempt), and two touchdowns. However, he did find Deandrew White for the game-winning toss, as his defense finished off the hosts in the extra period. As it has all season, Alabama’s defense was dominant, relegating their opponent to a mere 259 yards, including a scant 76 versus the pass, with Anthony Jennings struggling to complete 8-of-26 (30.8%) of his attempts. Now they get the opportunity to slow down the Bulldogs’ high-powered offensive attack; as we mentioned earlier, Mississippi State has been excellent on Third Down, but Alabama will be looking to shut them down on First Down, as they have relinquished just six plays of twenty yards or more on First Down, the fewest in the nation. In fact, opponents are only gaining 4.1 yards per play in such situations, also tops in the FBS.
But with all this talk about their defense, the most notable change on this team has been their offense, which under new Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin has been much more wide-open than in years past. Typically conservative, Saban has allowed his understudy to get creative leading to a passing game that is as explosive as any in the conference. First and foremost, Sims has been solid in his first season as the starter, beating out highly-touted transfer Jacob Coker, while seamlessly taking the torch from his predecessor A.J. McCarron. The Senior has completed 61.5% of his passes for 2,229 yards (9.1 yards/attempt), seventeen touchdowns and three interceptions. And just like his counterpart today, he has gotten the job done on Third Down, converting an FBS-high 53% of such plays this season. Many of those conversions have come courtesy of Amari Cooper, who looks like the clear cut winner for the Biletnikoff Award, which goes to the nation’s top receiver. In his third season in Tuscaloosa, Cooper has absolutely thrived in Kiffin’s offense, leading the FBS in both receiving yards (1,215) and plays of twenty yards or more (22). Critics have been quick to point out that the Crimson Tide offense has been far too reliant on the Junior, but with a bonafide playmaker like this, they would be foolish not to utilize him. In fact, Cooper has been targeted a whopping 115 times, fourth-most among the five major conferences, and has been thus far responsible for nearly half (48%) of the team’s receiving yardage. Already this season he has amassed six 100-yard games, including a career-best 224 two weeks ago at Tennessee. At 6-1, 210 lbs he has proven to be a beast after the catch, with just over half (51.8%) of his yards coming after the reeling in the ball. But while Cooper has been consistently great, it remains to be seen just what Alabama will get out of it’s vaunted rushing attack, which could be minus T.J. Yeldon, who suffered a sprained ankle in the win over LSU last weekend. Officially listed as Questionable, the Junior has rushed for 686 yards on 5.1 yards per carry and five scores. In two career meetings with the Bulldogs, Yeldon has rushed for 244 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries. If he cannot participate in today’s game look for Derrick Henry to receive the bulk of the carries, having already rushed for 554 yards and four touchdowns on 5.0 yards per attempt.