It's your typical, late-October, heavyweight matchup in the SEC: two 7-0 teams, each ranked in the BCS Top 11, facing off with first place in the toughest division in America on the line. It's big! For one of the two teams, it is the biggest game of the season and by far the best opportunity for a still-young coach to make a major national statement.
The other team, however, is Alabama. They tend to make statements on a weekly basis. They have so dominated on defense that simply playing against them and getting a couple of first downs is cause for severe jumps in the Football Outsiders offensive rankings. (It is no coincidence that four former Alabama opponents currently rank in the Off. F/+ Top 20, despite the fact that those four teams combined to score an average of just 10 points per game versus the Tide.)
While we might be right in criticizing Oregon's (currently No. 3 in the BCS standings) strength of schedule, we should probably do the same with Alabama. After all, Tide opponents have combined to go just 18-25 against FBS opposition (18-18 against teams not named Alabama). Michigan is solid, and Western Kentucky, Ole Miss and Tennessee are at least decent, but really, Nick Saban's squad has yet to face a real test.
I have long suggested, of course, that it doesn't matter who you play -- you can prove yourself against anybody by simply comparing output to expected output. And on a play-for-play basis, Alabama has been as good as anybody in the 7-plus seasons for which I have examined play-by-play data. The offense is on the borderline between very good and elite, and the defense has been spectacular. I have no reason to assume that the Tide's current level of dominance (average score of an Alabama game thus far: Bama 41.0, Opponent 8.3) will digress when the competition goes up a bit.
But to say Alabama's yet to be tested suggests that Mississippi State is that test. Is that true?
For all the talk of the SEC Grind™ and the unprecedented level of competition to be found in the nation's best college football conference, Mississippi State has managed to skate through the first eight weeks of the season facing almost no actual competition whatsoever. According to F/+ rankings, the Bulldogs have beaten just one team ranked about 75th so far this year (No. 33 Tennessee). Other foes: No. 75 Auburn, No. 79 Troy, No. 87 Middle Tennessee, No. 98 Kentucky, No. 117 South Alabama, and a Jackson State squad that lost to Tennessee State by 26 and to Arkansas-Pine Bluff by 10.
They have benefited from quite a bit of luck (they have recovered 16 of 22 fumbles this season) and have intercepted a probably unsustainable 35 percent of their overall passes defended (national average: 21 percent). They needed serious help from turnovers to beat Troy (which committed four turnovers worth 16.0 equivalent points in a six-point MSU win), and three different wins have come within the turnover points margin (plus-16.0 in a six-point win over Troy, plus-18.3 in an 18-point win over Auburn, and plus-12.3 in a 10-point win over Tennessee). Granted, not all turnovers are based on luck -- MSU has some serious playmakers in its secondary, and it shows -- but relying on turnovers to make a season's worth of national noise typically doesn't work very well.
Mississippi State currently ranks 42nd in the F/+ rankings, just below 5-3 North Carolina, 4-4 Virginia Tech and 5-2 UCLA. This is not your typical "undefeated in late-October" SEC squad. Make no mistake: MSU's strength of schedule is going to end up pretty decent. The Bulldogs face Alabama (in Tuscaloosa), Texas A&M, LSU (in Baton Rouge), Arkansas and Ole Miss (in Oxford) between now and the end of the season. If MSU truly is meant to be a Top 15-caliber squad, they will have ample opportunity in the coming weeks. But for now, the Bulldogs don't seem to have enough to bother 'Bama any worse than Ole Miss or Tennessee did. Bama is, after all, projected to win by 37.1 points.
Let's pretend for a moment, however, that the storyline on late-Saturday night is how well Mississippi State competed against the No. 1 team in the country, either pulling the upset or throwing a serious scare into the Tide. Why or how might that have happened?
1. The Bulldogs are getting better
It's been a while since the near-miss at Troy. In the last two weeks, the Bulldogs have semi-easily disposed of a decent Tennessee team at home and laid waste to a Middle Tennessee team that had beaten Georgia Tech by double digits earlier in the season. Even winning by unimpressive margins can sometimes give you confidence, and said confidence could lead to improvement as a given season progresses.
Against MTSU, quarterback Tyler Russell completed 17 of 21 passes, to 10 different receivers; in the past two weeks, Russell has completed 40 of 58 passes and, including three sacks, averaged a healthy 7.4 yards per pass attempt. In those same two games, running back LaDarius Perkins has touched the ball 45 times (including two catches) and gained 250 yards. As discussed earlier this week in the Shutdown Fullback Hangout, Alabama could have a little bit of an issue with offenses running some option, and MSU has shown it can do that from time to time.
On the other side of the ball, an MSU defense that allowed 572 yards (6.6 per play) to Troy has tightened up a decent amount in recent weeks. Tennessee did average 6.2 yards per play, but that is at least somewhat excusable. Mississippi State has shut the door on Middle Tennessee (4.2 yards per play), Kentucky (3.7) and, for the most part, South Alabama (4.8). This is not a spectacular unit, but it is at least trending in the right direction.
2. Mississippi State can defend the pass
Alabama's offense is much better than most give it credit for, capable of exploiting any weaknesses it finds via ground or air. Quarterback A.J. McCarron has been nearly perfect, completing 69 percent of his passes and throwing 16 touchdowns without an interception, and in the last two weeks running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon have combined to rush 68 times for 529 yards and seven touchdowns.
If you want to have any chance of beating Alabama, you have to make the Tide one-dimensional. In theory, State could do that. In senior corners Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, MSU has a pair of solid ball hawks (combined, they are on pace for almost 30 passes defensed) who could provide interesting matchups for Amari Cooper and Bama's Random No. 2 Receiver Of The Day. Cooper has begun to post astounding numbers for a freshman -- he caught seven of eight passes for 162 yards and two scores agains Tennessee and caught eight of 10 for 84 yards and two more scores against Ole Miss -- and four other active members of the Tide receiving corps have caught at least one pass for 30 yards or more (Kevin Norwood, Christion Jones, Kenny Bell, and Cyrus Jones). But the MSU secondary could be both deep and experienced enough to keep Bama in check.
If MSU can leverage you into passing downs, they can control you. The Bulldogs rank 22nd in Passing Downs S&P+ and attack the ball quite well. But they have not shown they can actually FORCE passing downs against a good running team like Alabama. MSU ranks just 71st in Standard Downs S&P+, 98th against the run. If you cannot stop Lacy and Yeldon on first down, or if you have to OVERCOMPENSATE to stop them (thereby opening you up to a long string of eight-yard play-action dump-offs, which Alabama will indeed attempt all game long if you don't stop it), you simply aren't going to slow the Tide down enough to keep the game close.
3. MSU can win the field position battle
My Football Outsiders colleague Brian Fremeau tracks a stat called Field Position Advantage, which measures exactly what you think it would measure: the advantage a given team derives in the field position game. Alabama, naturally, is sixth in the country in this stat, but MSU is a solid 22nd. The Bulldogs rank in the Top 30 in Net Punting and, in forcing so many turnovers, and quickly flip fields. If Bama chooses this week so suddenly be a little sloppy with the ball (McCarron doesn't throw picks, but Alabama does fumble twice per game), MSU is well-equipped to take advantage. You simply aren't likely to score many points on Alabama, but if MSU can take advantage of loose balls and flip the field effectively, the Bulldogs can certainly stay close for quite a while.
And that's it
Again, my expectation is that Alabama absorbs a couple of MSU uppercuts and calmly pulls away for an easy win. It's what the Tide did against both Tennessee and Ole Miss. (Meanwhile, teams like Michigan and Missouri found themselves on the canvas before they could even land a couple of shots.) Alabama has proven too disciplined, too strong, and too athletic for any team on its schedule thus far, and despite MSU's lovely record, the Bulldogs haven't yet proven they are any better than the teams Alabama has beaten through its first seven games.
Mississippi State deserves credit for winning the games it was supposed to win, and as we have outlined above, there is at least a path to a competitive game here, but don't let the record fool you too much: This should be yet another easy Alabama win. Sorry to spoil the party.