Mississippi State was 1-3 when it was shut out 41-0 by eventual national champion Alabama last Halloween in Tuscaloosa.
This year, the Bulldogs meet the Crimson Tide under considerably different circumstances.
MSU (3-2, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) will host Alabama (5-1, 2-1 SEC) as coach Nick Saban’s team endeavors to recover from a rare loss. The Tide fell 41-38 to unranked Texas A&M on Saturday in College Station.
The Dispatch caught up with a different Nick in the know about Alabama: Nick Kelly, in his first season covering the Tide for The Tuscaloosa News.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How good is this year’s Tide team, really? How does the loss to Texas A&M affect the trajectory of Alabama’s season?
Kelly: This is still a good Alabama team. I think compared to last year, no, it’s not that team, but that’s a tough standard to meet. That team, they just had so much talent, and that set a very high bar. By those standards, no, this team is not as good as that team, but most aren’t and nor do they maybe have to be. Even though they just lost, Alabama had plenty of chances to win. It’s not that they weren’t in that game — they were — and even though they were behind, they came back. I don’t think it’s a matter of Alabama wasn’t capable of winning or they were outplayed or just couldn’t handle it. It’s moreso that they didn’t make the plays they needed to in the moments they needed to make them. I think a lot of it’s correctable, and maybe this loss will help refocus them. You don’t necessarily want to be the team that’s facing them after a loss, and Mississippi State gets that honor.
As Nick Saban mentioned, Mississippi State has one of the best run defenses in the SEC. If Brian Robinson and Co. are limited on the ground, do you think Bryce Young is up to the challenge of winning this road game?
Kelly: I do. He wasn’t his absolute sharpest against A&M, but he’s got 20 touchdowns. He still is firmly in the conversation for the Heisman even after this performance. Now, if he starts having more performances like that, maybe not. He’s a guy who can take the team on his back even though he’s only a sophomore. He has the ability to make plays. They sacked him four times, but honestly, if he wasn’t Houdini like he is, it would have been a lot worse. He made plays. He found ways to get the ball to guys. Frankly, some receivers need to make some more plays. There’s some drops there that didn’t look too good. Jameson Williams is a guy to watch. He had 10 receptions in that game and really made some huge plays. I thought he may have caught the game-winner until Texas A&M tied it up shortly after. They have a capable passing game. It’s not what it was last season, but Bryce certainly has the ability to lead them. They want to be a passing team. That’s what Nick Saban even said after they beat Ole Miss with all that running. That style of ground and pound all the time is not what they necessarily want to do.
What do you think of the matchup between Alabama’s defense and a Mississippi State team that throws the ball a lot but ranks just No. 50 in total offense?
Kelly: I think it will be a little bit of a challenge just because my understanding is the pace is pretty quick in terms of how fast they get the ball out. Alabama was not able to get much of a pass rush against A&M, and I don’t know that that’s going to be easily correctable this week. We’ll see. I think that a Mike Leach offense can be such a wild card that it can throw some teams off, but also Alabama has some experience going against him last season at Mississippi State. I think they should at least know what to do; it’s a matter of, ‘Can they execute? Can they make plays?’
Is there anything else to know about Alabama?
Kelly: The biggest thing is that it’s not often they lose, so I think it’s going to be tough to face them because you have to imagine it sharpens them a bit. It’s a bit of a wake-up call — when you haven’t lost in 19 games, a loss can certainly wake you up. Mississippi State is going to have to be ready. It is on the road for Alabama, which so far this season has been a little bit of a challenge. They’ve only really had two true road games, and they were against good teams in Florida and A&M. I think that’s the biggest thing in Mississippi State’s favor right now: making it a hostile environment. I think it’s going to be really tough to try to beat Alabama for the second week in a row.
If you’re comfortable making one, what is your prediction for Saturday’s game?
Kelly: I think Alabama will win just because the Crimson Tide losing two in a row does not happen very often. I’m going to go with 38-24, Alabama.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.