After upending Louisiana State last weekend in prime time, Alabama heads to Starkville, Miss., to square off with Dak Prescott and Mississippi State.
With Ole Miss falling to Arkansas, Nick Saban’s outfit controls its own destiny: If Alabama wins out, the team will head to the Southeastern Conference title game; a win there would propel the Crimson Tide into the College Football Playoff for the second consecutive season. A loss from Alabama and a win by Ole Miss over LSU, though, would hand the Rebels the tiebreaker in the SEC West.
“Any time you have an emotional win, you have to get your team ready to respond the right way and make sure they’re focused on what they need to do,” Saban said about the team’s preparation for this week’s game, adding Mississippi State is “a very physical team, they’re well-coached; they play well in every aspect of the game.”
That may be so, but the Crimson Tide have a 58.1 percent chance of winning Saturday, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. Some projection models give Alabama a 26.9 percent probability to win out, others give them a 43 percent probability to make the playoff. Few, if any, are predicting the Bulldogs to win, despite the game being played in Davis Wade Stadium.
“This week’s game will be tough,” Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said. “They have five-star players across the board. They have the best defense in America.”
Both of the Bulldogs’ losses — to LSU and Texas A&M, respectively — have come against ranked SEC opponents. But Mullen’s outfit is averaging an ostentatious stat line over the past four weeks — better than 30 points, 330 yards, and 5.5 yards per play — while winning by an average margin of 24.3 points.
Mississippi State’s key to the game: Dak Prescott’s composure in the pocket
Much of what the Bulldogs do offensively is engineered through Prescott, the senior quarterback who owns every single one of the program’s career passing records. Prescott is responsible for 16.9 points per game, second most of any SEC player, and a figure that ranks 13th nationally. He has produced at least 280 yards of total offense in all but one game this season. (That one game was against Troy; Prescott, who was sick, didn’t play a full quarter in the game). Even his offensive splits show minute disparities.
Despite throwing 300 passes this season (second among SEC quarterbacks), Prescott leads the SEC in completion percentage (66.7 percent) and has thrown just one interception in nine games.
“He does a really good job of executing their offense,” Saban said. “His pass efficiency and the ability to pass the ball effectively, to go with their running game — that’s going to be a big challenge for us.”
The Bulldogs have allowed just 13 sacks all season, and Prescott can pick apart a defense if he isn’t under duress. It’ll be paramount for his linemen to give him ample time in the pocket against Alabama’s elite-at-all-levels defense.
Last year against the Crimson Tide, Prescott tied a career high with three interceptions, as Alabama’s secondary and linebacker corps were able to read him throughout much of the game and make plays on the ball.
The physicality of Alabama’s defensive line should disrupt Prescott’s cadence in the pocket, and the linebacker corps is far too quick to allow Prescott to extend plays with his legs. There isn’t enough of a counterweight for Mississippi State’s offense, and if Prescott is held in check, so too is the offense.
On the other side of the field, quarterback Jake Coker makes the throws he needs to, and gets out of the way for his star running back. Henry is second to none when it comes to making up for blown assignments on the offensive line, and will continue to churn out yards for offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, with or without the holes that were available against LSU.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.