By Chris Mahr
There’s no doubting that Alabama is the class of college football right now. The Crimson Tide have not experienced the NFL-departures-induced letdown on defense that most pundits anticipated, and now their offense is exploding for 41 points/game.
‘Bama has been so impressive that many are already preparing to hand Nick Saban’s squad its third BCS championship in four seasons. Yet college football dictates that it’s when a team appears to be at its most unstoppable that they often fall.
In the past decade alone, think back to that USC team that entered the 2006 Rose Bowl having won 34 straight, only to fall to Texas in a memorable barn-burner. Or that high-octane Oklahoma squad in 2003 that was racing to glory before being beaten up by Kansas State and then LSU. Or the Miami (FL) team that had a 34-game winning streak of its own before losing to Ohio State in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl.
This isn’t to suggest that the Tide is ripe for the picking. Under the Saban Dictatorship, Alabama’s players won’t be allowed to rest of their laurels for a second.
But crazier things than Alabama losing at some point this season have happened before. And the Crimson Tide face a legitimate upset threat in undefeated Mississippi State this Saturday in Tuscaloosa.
That a 7–0 team ranked No. 11 in the BCS could be installed as 24-point underdogs, even if it is against the top-ranked team in the country, is pretty ludicrous. Yet that is the position that the Bulldogs, who have made great strides as a program in four years under Dan Mullen, find themselves in.
I’m in no way suggesting that Mississippi State will upset Alabama. But when I take a closer look at how they can, it’s not nearly the lost cause that it has been for the seven teams the Tide has already beaten this season.
Reason #1: The Defense
Behind Alabama and LSU, Mississippi State has the best defense in the SEC West. The Bulldogs are ninth in the country in points against (14.4/game). Granted, that is bolstered by the weak slate of opponents MSU has faced so far, but that doesn’t take away from its talent.
Defensive backs Johnthan Banks (right) and Darius Slay have four interceptions each, accounting for eight of the 21 takeaways — 12 picks and nine forced fumbles — that the Bulldogs have on the season. Opponents have averaged less than 200 yards rushing (139.1) and passing (188.6) per game.
If Mississippi State can contain both the downfield passing of Alabama QB AJ McCarron (16-to-zero touchdown-to-INT ratio) and the running back tandem of Eddie Lacy (570 rushing yards and seven TDs) and T.J. Yeldon (565 and six), the Bulldogs can stay in the game. If they’re able to force any of those three players into turnovers, they can win it.
Reason #2: Balanced, Efficient Offense
When top-ranked Alabama fell to South Carolina, 35–21, in Columbia two seasons ago, it was undone by an inability to put the clamps on a well-rounded Gamecocks offense. An offense that has similar attributes to what Mississippi State has brought to the table in 2012.
In 2010, the Tide had no answer for big-play wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (seven receptions for 127 yards and two touchdowns). MSU’s go-to target is senior Chad Bumphis, who lacks Jeffery’s sheer size but still averages a robust 16.5 yards/catch on 29 receptions and has scored six touchdowns.
Keeping the Tide honest two years ago was then true freshman running back Marcus Lattimore. His 4.0 YPC wasn’t eye-popping but he still found the end zone twice. Entering Saturday, MSU’s LaDarius Perkins is the SEC’s leading rusher with 724 yards and has proven he can handle a workload (four games of 20+ carries).
Finally, there are the quarterbacks. The Gamecocks’ Stephen Garcia played perhaps the best game of his college career against the Tide in 2010, going 17-of-20 with three touchdowns. His Bulldogs counterpart, Tyler Russell (right), has thrown 15 TDs against just one INT in 2012. And whereas Garcia was always a wild card, MSU coaches never worry about Russell’s ability to take care of the ball.
Reason stands that Bumphis, Perkins and Russell all need to have career days in order to duplicate South Carolina’s 2010 upset of Alabama. All three of their season-long performances up to this point suggest that they possess the confidence and capabilities to do so.
Reason #3: Pre-LSU Trap Game
This is no doubt a juicy matchup, a clash of undefeated division rivals who both sit comfortably in the BCS Top 15. But it doesn’t change the fact that most Tide fans are already thinking about their team’s trip to LSU next Saturday.
Saban, a master at player motivation, is making sure his team doesn’t fall into the same trap.
“This is no doubt the best team we’ve played to this point in the season,” he said earlier this week. “They always play tough against us. We struggled as much against them last year as anybody we played against.”
Yet the fact remains that, while Crimson Tide players are scarily capable of not looking past any opponent, Mississippi State is not as “sexy” a game as LSU. Especially with the Bayou Bengals back up to No. 6 in the BCS rankings.
And that is Mississippi State’s recipe for a shocker in Tuscaloosa. Can they pull it off? Unlike Alabama’s previous seven opponents, the Bulldogs have the ingredients to do so.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.