TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The hoots and chuckles were impossible to miss.
Outside Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday, where tailgating tents and lawn parties were abuzz with pregame excitement, music blared, generators hummed and televisions glowed with images of the Georgia–Florida game from Jacksonville, a matchup that ended an hour before Mississippi State kicked off to Alabama.
Fans of the Crimson Tide could barely contain their glee.
“These guys are awful!” a Crimson-clad coed cooed to her date as they hugged and laughed after one of the nine turnovers in Georgia’s eight-point win.
Awful might have been a stretch, but the message was clear: If this was the best the SEC East had to offer, Alabama should have no worries. In the minds of those in Tuscaloosa, the Tide could have beaten a Georgia-Florida All-Star squad.
Given the ease with which Alabama handled undefeated Mississippi State, thumping the Bulldogs 38-7, that assessment might not be far off.
Alabama toyed with the No.11 team in the BCS Standings like they were a redshirt practice squad. The Tide led 24-0 at the half and 38-0 deep into the fourth quarter. Both of those scores could have been worse if Nick Saban had wanted to push the matter.
Every statistical category tilted Alabama’s way, some respectably and some by whopping margins. The Tide had 158 more yards of total offense, six more first downs, more plays run, more yards per play, fewer turnovers — they even outgained the Bulldogs on punt returns.
A.J. McCarron finished the night 16 for 23 for 208 yards and twp touchdowns. He also extended his streak of interception-free football to 12 months and 11 games. His last pick was against this very team, Mississippi State a year ago, when linebacker Cam Lawrence snatched a rare McCarron miscue.
Since then, the junior has thrown 262 passes without a turnover.
“I think A.J. played well again tonight,” Saban said. “He continues to improve and do what it takes to lead this football team.”
The freshman runner T.J. Yeldon also continued to improve, carrying the ball 10 times for 84 yards. Kenyan Drake rushed for 47, and Eddie Lacy, the heir apparent when Trent Richardson departed for the NFL, came in like confection at the end of a meal, tacking on 26 yards to round out a relentless trifecta of runners.
So easy was this one that on the opening drive, when McCarron scrambled on third down but fell one pace short of the first-down mark, Nick Saban didn’t hesitate. The Tide went for it on fourth down and Lacy gained two yards with ease. Three plays later Yeldon barreled into the end zone from 11 yards out to cap a textbook opening drive.
The clinic continued through two and a half quarters. When MSU threatened early, driving 41 yards to the Alabama 14, the defense stiffened and cornerback Dee Milliner blocked a field goal.
“I think that was a really big play,” Saban said. “That play and our opening drive gave us a lot of momentum.”
Not that they needed it. The Tide ran with impunity against a team that is not that bad, because their offensive line, one of the best in the history of college football, makes a lot of decent defenses look anemic.
Yeldon and Lacy are great runners, but the line they’re running behind has them putting up Jim Brown numbers. And McCarron has so much time in the pocket he could check his phone for messages.
“Our goal was to play sound football for 60 minutes,” Saban said. “I think we had the right physical energy, and I think our guys came mentally prepared to play.”
The defense took a bit of a nap late in the third quarter, allowing MSU quarterback Tyler Russell to march the Bulldogs down the field for what could have been their first score. But even with a first down at the one yard line, the Bulldogs could not walk away with any points. Two run attempts were easily stuffed, and when Russell dropped back in play action he threw only his second interception of the season in the end zone to Robert Lester.
Early in the fourth quarter it became a sub-fest as both coaches got as many down-roster players into the game as they could. Only then did MSU score. With the stands more than half empty, one lone cowbell clanged halfheartedly from the upper deck.
The bell tolls next for LSU.
“When you get down to this time of the year it’s almost like the playoffs,” Saban said. “We have a big game next week (in Baton Rouge), and we have to make sure that everybody is prepared for that. From here on out, they’re all big games.”
With each passing week, the question “When will Alabama be tested?” gains more urgency as people begin to realize, they might not be.