CLEVELAND: There's a chance for State against BamaBy RICK CLEVELAND,
Can Mississippi State defeat No. 1 Alabama Saturday night at Starkville?
The easy answer is: Yes, of course, the Bulldogs can.
Alabama opened as a 14.5-point favorite over State. Bigger underdogs win every week in college football. Much bigger favorites lose.
State was a touchdown underdog earlier this season when the Bulldogs cold-cocked LSU 37-7. This past Saturday night, Alabama defeated LSU 24-10. Those two results alone should tell us the Bulldogs have a fighting chance against the Crimson Tide.
Need more? State will play at home in front of what predictably will be one of the wildest crowds in the history of Mississippi football. You'll be able to hear this crowd in Columbus.
Need more? Alabama, always deep at every position, has been hammered by injuries at linebacker. The Crimson Tide reportedly lost two more on Saturday night, added to two they lost earlier this season. Granted, Alabama usually has more depth at every position than any other team in college football, but even Alabama hurts when losing four players in one area. At any rate, the speeding bruisers Alabama plays at linebacker against State will be a year or two younger and less experienced. (They no doubt also will be players State or Ole Miss would love to have in their program.)
Need more? Alabama was a 20-point favorite back in 1980 when the Bulldogs knocked off Bama and Bear Bryant 6-3. State was a 14-point underdog when the Sylvester Croom's Bulldogs went to Tuscaloosa and won 24-16. Alabama was favored again in 2007 when the Bulldogs won 17-12.
That victory, 10 years ago, is the last for State against Alabama in this rivalry that some have referred to as “The Battle for Highway 82.” Indeed, the stretch between Starkville and Tuscaloosa could be renamed “The Crimson Tide Highway.”
The numbers: Alabama leads this series 79-18-2, meaning the Crimson Tide has won nearly 80 percent of the games played between the two closest rivals (distance wise) in the SEC. That's dominance so complete it is almost difficult to call the game a rivalry. The word “rivalry” connotes competition and all too often there hasn't been much between State and Bama.
Alabama has won the last nine meetings by an average of 23.5 points per game. That's not competitive. All too many have been like last year's – at Tuscaloosa – when Alabama ransacked State 51-3 and riddled the State defense for 615 yards. Alabama's Jalen Hurts threw for 347 and ran for 100. By contrast, State's Nick Fitzgerald threw for 145 yards and ran for just 15.
State's defense this season under new coordinator Todd Grantham is vastly better than that of a year ago. (Grantham last coached against the Tide in the 2012 SEC Championship game when he was at Georgia. Alabama scored late on a long pass to Amari Cooper to win 32-28.)
It says here that the formula for a State victory will be the same as it is for any big college football upset: That is, win the turnover battle by at least two and make a big play or two in the kicking game. That latter part is particularly difficult against the Tide, as we were reminded Saturday night. In a game that was even in every other statistical category, Tide punter JK Scott punted eight times for a 51.6-yard average and allowed Bama to control field position on punt after punt after punt. Scott might be the best punter ever and this is coming from a guy who went to school with Hall of Famer Ray Guy.
Anyway, that's the formula: Win the turnovers. Make plays in the kicking game.
Also, in this one, it would much behoove the Bulldogs to get off to a good start, ignite a frenzied crowd and get them into the game early. Then, keep them there as they were in the one-sided win over LSU back in September.
Because, as we can see, in this Alabama-Mississippi State series, the Bulldogs need all the help they can get.
Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is email@example.com.