We roll on in our weekly look at Mississippi State's 2011 football opponents, and this Week 11 matchup is the first of three SEC games in a row to close out the regular season. And it could be the Bulldogs' toughest game of the year.
Alabama Crimson Tide (Nov. 12, in Starkville)
• Conference: SEC
• 2010 record: 10-3 (5-3, 4th Western Division)
• Final ranking: No. 10 AP, No. 11 USA Today, No. 10 BCS
• Coach: Nick Saban (38-11, four years)
• Returning starters: 19 (7 offense, 10 defense, 2 specialists)
• Last meeting: Alabama, 23-10 (Oct. 16, 2010, in Tuscaloosa)
• On the Web: rolltide.com
Alabama, after having to watch chief rival Auburn celebrate a BCS championship, returns to (what it views as) its rightful place: The favorite to win the SEC. That's the popular opinion, and one I share.
And that means the Tide is favored to win the national title. That's using the simple logic that the best team in the SEC is the best team in the country, which has been the case each of the last five seasons.
There is ample reason to like this year's edition of the Tide. Start on offense, where Trent Richardson (1,451 yards in two seasons) should pick up where Mark Ingram left off, and there's depth at that position. Quarterback is unsettled, but it's not like the Tide needs a Heisman candidate running things, just someone competent – which Greg McElroy was. Looks like A.J. McCarron will win that job.
Julio Jones might be gone, but don't sell short returning receivers Darius Hanks and Marquis Maze. Hanks had 32 catches for 456 yards last year, while Maze had 38 for 557, and his yards-per-catch average of 14.7 bettered Jones' 14.5. And don't forget, Richardson will get used in the passing game a good bit.
When you grade a team as a national title contender, though, the first thing you ought to look at is line play. And the Crimson Tide is solid up front with four returning starters, including center William Vlachos and 335-pound tackle D.J. Fluker.
The defensive line is just as strong, as three players with starting experience return in a scheme that bases out of the 3-4. Marcell Dareus is gone to the NFL, but the trio of ends Damion Square, Quinton Dial and nose tackle Josh Chapman will make this a dominant front.
That will only make the back eight tougher, and it's a formidable group to begin with. Dont'a Hightower (69 tackles last year) anchors the linebackers, while a couple of preseason first-team All-SEC defensive backs, Mark Barron and Robert Lester, lead an experienced secondary.
This Alabama defense could be the best in the nation, and that's what will ultimately carry the Tide to a title. MSU gets this game at home, but I don't know how big a help that'll be. Saban has beaten State three consecutive times, with the average margin of victory 22 points.
But this is a different MSU team now, and if the momentum of 2010 is still going strong by this point in 2011, then the Bulldogs and Tide could be engaging in a battle royale with division title implications.
Up next: Arkansas