This week's best game is biggest surprise
Who saw this coming?
No, really, who, in their wildest preseason dreams, had Mississippi State at Alabama circled as the must-see game of Week 9?
Maybe Dan Mullen's wife, Megan, thought the Bulldogs would be undefeated and 13th in the BCS when they made the hour-and-a-half drive to Tuscaloosa, but she would have been a party of one. Not even her husband, one of the most optimistic men in college football — the kind of guy who stretches his arms wide in a pouring rain and yells, "Yeah, it's football weather!" — not even he could have stretched credulity that far.
But here we are.
The Bulldogs have won them all, 7-0 and 3-0 in the SEC, a feat that has them in the top 13 ranking for the first time this century, and one that has every football fan in the Delta ringing their cowbells and hooting "Hail State!"
But a slightly closer examination of their schedule lets a little helium out of the party balloon. After all, the Bulldogs' three conference wins have come against the worst Auburn team in a generation, a Kentucky program that has won one game all year, and Derek Dooley's underachieving Tennessee Volunteers. Their other wins have been primarily against the teams with geographic qualifiers in their names — Middle Tennessee, South Alabama and the like; teams that only played them for the payday.
Granted, Dan Mullen could not control how good or bad his opponents would be, but even he would have to admit that shellacking Jackson State 56-9 is not the same as playing Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU in consecutive weeks.
That is the road that lies ahead, starting Saturday night in Tuscaloosa.
"Our guys have been through a lot and we have some good leadership on this team," Mullen said in his typical rah-rah fashion. "I feel like they'll be ready for the environment we're going to head into on Saturday night."
The environment is one thing. The players they will line up against are something else entirely.
Alabama has the No.1 scoring defense in the nation, giving up only 8.3 points a game, and beating all its opponents by a minimum of 19 points and an average of 32.7. Granted the Crimson Tide have had a couple of teams with geographic identifiers on the schedule, as well — Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic — but they've also beaten Michigan, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Missouri.
The Tide does it the old-fashioned way, winning the line of scrimmage and never beating themselves. They pound the football with bruising backs running behind one of the most impressive offensive fronts ever assembled in the college game. Then they stop opponents with a strong defensive front and a steady stream of big, strong linebackers.
A lot will be made of the quarterback battle this week, and for good reason. Tyler Russell has thrown for 1,573 yards and 15 TDs with only one interception so far for the Bulldogs. But ’Bama's AJ McCarron has thrown for 16 touchdowns and has no interceptions.
Russell has completed 60 percent of his passes, and if he has a reasonably good remainder of the year, he'll break every single-season passing record at MSU.
McCarron has completed 69 percent of his passes and he owns a national championship ring and a BCS championship game Offensive MVP trophy.
Then there are the backs. State's LaDarius Perkins leads the SEC in rushing average with 103.4 yards per game, but T.J. Yeldon rumbled for 144 and 129 yards against Missouri and Tennessee in the Tide's last two outings. He is also averaging 6.8 yards per carry.
Those would be extraordinary numbers if Yeldon was the Tide's primary back. But he's not. He's not even the starter. Eddie Lacy stars in that role and has 570 yards and seven touchdowns so far. He is also averaging 5.8 yards per carry.
There are other stars to watch: MSU's Johnathan Banks is the best cover corner in the league, and Alabama freshman Amari Cooper already has 425 receiving yards and five touchdowns.
But the key to this one will be the same boring thing that always wins football games: the trenches. The guys up front. The big dudes wearing numbers in the 60s and 70s.
And on that front, Alabama has the edge.
It will likely be a good one — better than everyone thought a couple of months ago — but don't expect an upset this weekend. Baring some unforeseen miracle, the Tide should continue to roll.