For the third consecutive week Mississippi State will square off against an opponent ranked inside the top 14.
The Bulldogs have lost two straight on the road to South Carolina and Texas A&M and return home to square off against No. 1 Alabama – a team that has claimed three of the last four national championships.
“It’s a great opportunity for us this week,” said MSU coach Dan Mullen. “We’ve got the opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the country and that’s huge. Only nine teams in the whole country have had that opportunity so far this year so it’s unique and you don’t always get this. For our guys it’ll obviously be a great challenge.”
The Crimson Tide enter this week’s game averaging 452.7 yards per game on offense and scoring 40.9 points. Alabama ranks sixth nationally reaching the end zone on 49-percent of its drives and only has 17 drives of three and out all season.
“They lead the nation in just about everything,” Mullen said. “I don’t know that they have many weak spots. They have a strong offense that’s physical. They have one of the best offensive lines in the league and probably the country. They’ve got two big-time running backs and a fifth-year senior quarterback that knows the system, is a competitor and a winner. They have great wideouts on the perimeter to throw it to and two different tight ends. And they are more of a defensive team though right?”
The Tide are led by veteran quarterback A.J. McCarron, tailbacks T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake and an allotment of playmakers at receiver. As star studded as Alabama is, it could easily be a high-scoring up-tempo spread team but coach Nick Saban instead chooses to run a pro-style attack featuring a power running game and physical offensive line.
“They are going to pound away at you,” Mullen said. “It’s not that they don’t have talent to spread it out and throw it anytime they want with all the talent they have at receiver and a great fifth-year senior quarterback. But just within their style it’s going to be a much more physical game.”
The Crimson Tide have had the nation’s top recruiting class in five of the last six years. Their 2014 recruiting class is also currently No. 1 according to Rivals.com.
That overwhelming amount of talent is what Mullen attributes Alabama’s successful depth chart to.
“They’re deep,” Mullen said. “They’ve got five-star players as back-ups sitting on the bench and not getting tons of reps. They’ve got talent at every position and what they’ve been able to do statistically has been pretty impressive.”
MSU has lost 14-straight games to ranked opponents. The Bulldogs come into the week with a 4-5 record with all five losses coming to teams currently ranked in the top 18.
“In this league and the type of schedule we’re playing this year, you have to be on your ‘A’ game,” Mullen said. “A ‘B’ just won’t cut it. A ‘B’ will get you the little things around your neck in college on graduation but a ‘B’ on an SEC football field will give you a loss which is a failure. It’s an ‘A’ or an ‘F’ in the SEC in terms of how you play as a team.”
State’s special teams let them down during Saturday’s 51-41 loss at Texas A&M. The Bulldogs had a punt blocked for a touchdown, a field goal blocked, gave up a 97-yard kickoff return and were flagged for roughing the punter.
Mullen serves as Mississippi State’s special teams coach and admits it was not a good outing for his unit.
“We’ve had some good special teams games during the season,” Mullen said. “Saturday certainly wasn’t one of them.”
Devon Bell has served as the Bulldogs primary punter the past three games and has been used exclusive the past two contests. Bell lost his job as MSU’s placekicker two weeks ago but took senior Baker Swedenburg’s job at punter. Swedenburg is on the Ray Guy watch list and has been the Bulldogs starter for two-plus seasons.
Bell punted 13 times for a 41.5 yard average and pinned seven inside the 20-yard line over the last four outings. He has also fumbled the snap and had a punt blocked in the last two weeks, both for safeties.
On the year, Swedenburg was averaging 43.7 yards per punt but had pinned only two inside the red zone on 18 attempts.
“We recruited (Bell) as a punt/ kickoff guy,” Mullen said. “He did a really good job as a true freshman kicking field goals and won that job. In winning that job, he really took a step back as a punter. Now he’s taken that step forward as a punter. We chart everything throughout the week and he had kind of surpassed Baker all week in statistical numbers so we decided to make that decision.”
True freshman De’Runnya Wilson had a breakout game against the Aggies last weekend catching seven passes for 75 yards and two touchdowns. In eight previous games, Wilson had only 10 catches for 174 yards and a score.
“He’s done a good job,” Mullen said. “He’s a guy in training camp that made some plays and continued to develop. We had some good matchups with him on Saturday and took advantage of them. You don’t always get that. The good thing is, when we had that matchup he went and made the play and we need that.”
The 6-foot-5, 215-pound former Mr. Basketball in the state of Alabama will have Mullen’s blessing to join Rick Ray’s basketball squad once his football responsibilities end after the season.
“When football season ends, hopefully in January sometime, and we’re done we’ll make the transition with him getting him ready to go into basketball,” Mullen said. “Rick and I have a real good relationship so it’ll be however we can make the best transition work and making sure we’re taking care of De’Runnya.”
Linebacker Deontae Skinner missed Saturday’s game with Texas A&M with a sprained neck. Skinner’s injury was discovered prior to practice on Wednesday and had some swelling on his spine.
Mullen stated the senior was scheduled to have an MRI done on Monday.
The injury to Skinner forced junior Christian Holmes to transition back to linebacker. Holmes had been playing tight end most of the season after spending three years working at linebacker. He was tied for second on the squad with five tackles against the Aggies.
Quarterback Dak Prescott left Saturday’s game late in the fourth quarter after receiving a stinger to his left shoulder and did not return. Prescott is did not practice on Sunday and would not be available until his shoulder is evaluated on Wednesday. He is listed as questionable for Saturday’s game against Alabama.
Junior safety Dee Arrington will miss the rest of the season with a lingering hamstring injury. The injury had limited Arrington to appearing in just one of State’s last seven games.
Arrington is the second safety to be lost for the year as Jay Hughes suffered an Achilles injury in the season opener.