Alabama D dominates Mississippi State to restore order in SEC West
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Think beating the No. 1 team in the country meant a little something special to Alabama coach Nick Saban? A man who generally dabbles in hyperbole about as often as he leaves the office before supper described the Tide’s fourth-quarter touchdown drive Saturday to go up 25-13 on visiting Mississippi State thusly: “Probably one of the greatest drives in Alabama history.”
Yes, Saban’s team was the Vegas favorite Saturday, just as it’s been in every game for the past five seasons, but Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs, not the Tide, took a 9-0 record into Saturday’s showdown at Bryant-Denny Stadium. For three straight weeks the College Football Playoff selection committee had dubbed Mississippi State the “clear-cut” No. 1 team in the country while leaving Alabama just outside of the top four. So this was the rare occasion where the chronically hyped Crimson Tide found themselves having to prove their merit.
They did that with a 25-20 win that Alabama controlled from the start. And while quarterback Blake Sims was undeniably clutch on the aforementioned 76-yard touchdown drive that drew such lavish praise from his coach, make no mistake: The Tide won this one with a vintage Saban defensive performance.
From Mississippi State’s second possession -- when on second down from the Bulldogs’ own 5 Tide defensive end Dalvin Tomlinson came bursting through the line of scrimmage to redirect tailback Josh Robinson, and linebacker Trey DePriest wrapped him up in the end zone for a safety -- it was clear the Mississippi State offense that ran roughshod over LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn would have a much tougher day against the nation’s No. 4 defense.
By the time they got done, Alabama’s defense had put a fire extinguisher to Dak Prescott’s Heisman hopes, intercepting him three times (including once in the end zone) and holding him to 3.7 yards per carry on 22 rushing attempts. It held Robinson, who came in averaging 109.3 yards per game, to a mere 37 on 12 carries.
Most importantly, it held Mississippi State to just one touchdown for the first 59:45 of the game.
“We’re trying to be the No. 1 defense,” said DePriest. “It’s just another opportunity to go out and prove that.”
The box score says Alabama notched just one sack of Prescott, but make no mistake, it harassed and hit him throughout the night and took away his running lanes. Half his rushing attempts went for three yards or fewer. That dominance started up front with defensive linemen Jarran Reed (eight tackles), Tomlinson (seven), A’Shawn Robinson (seven) and Jonathan Allen (three).
“We felt like we did a good job containing him and being physical and making him pay the price every time he wanted to run the ball,” said Allen. “He’s a big dude, probably one of the biggest backs we’ve played even though he was a quarterback.
“… He’s definitely a big guy, you have to bring your big boy pants for this. We all did a good job of rallying to the ball and crowding him in the pocket.”
Meanwhile, an Alabama secondary that has improved dramatically year-over-year made Prescott’s job as a passer considerably harder by locking down his receivers. Cornerback Cyrus Jones stood out in particular, notching two pass breakups and picking off Prescott in the end zone.
Mississippi State gained an ostensibly impressive 428 yards, but it needed 88 plays to get them. Against today’s hurry-up offenses that’s a resounding success.
“We have minimized explosive plays,” said Saban, who referenced the previous week’s 20-13 overtime win at LSU as another example. “Even though [the Bulldogs] had a lot of yards, they had to earn it the hard way.”
Perennial underdog Mississippi State has been arguably the best story in college football this season, and its band of three-stars didn’t wilt after falling behind 19-0. They got back within one score by early in the fourth quarter. When the game was over, though, it felt as if order had been restored in the highly competitive SEC West. Alabama once again controls its division, conference and national title destinies.
“It’s just like being in the playoffs now,” said Saban, whose team welcomes nemesis Auburn in two weeks. “You can’t afford to lose. Every game is big.”
Mississippi State will know better its fate when the new committee rankings come out Tuesday. Asked afterward whether the Bulldogs are still a playoff contender, Robinson said: “I know we are.” The whole team in fact seemed to view the game much differently than the rest of us, with Mullen saying, “If we just score touchdowns in the red zone it wouldn’t have been a close game” and Prescott saying, “I think it was on us.”
Alabama, mind you, led by at least two scores the entire second and third quarters and all but six minutes of the fourth. Mississippi State didn’t lose; Alabama won. But the committee’s own interpretation may dictate whether the Bulldogs remain in the top four or take a more precipitous fall.
As for Alabama, it’s sitting back in its customary role as the team no one will likely pick against until it loses, right up until Jan. 12 if it takes things that far.
Mind you, this Alabama team still gives more reason for pause than Saban’s previous national championships squads. It still has that Ole Miss loss and Arkansas and LSU close calls on its resume. Sims and the offense are inconsistent. They practically went into hibernation in the third quarter Saturday, allowing Mississippi State to climb back.
But Saban has won championships with offenses far less explosive than this Amari Cooper/T.J. Yeldon-led unit. After a subpar (by his standards) performance last season, his defense is back to its usual elite self. And on this night, all those former four- and five-star recruits were too much for Mississippi State’s band of overachievers.
In a two-game elimination setting, they may be too much for anybody.
“I don’t think anybody can beat us right now,” Jones told FOX Sports. “We’ll leave it up to the people who do the rankings to decide whether we’re the No. 1 team or not.”
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.