By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Auburn’s Ben Tate might raise a hand in objection, but Saturday’s showdown between No. 3 Alabama and Mississippi State could give a clearer picture of which running back is king of the SEC.
The Crimson Tide’s Mark Ingram, a 5-foot-10, 212-pound sophomore, leads the SEC in rushing with 1,148 yards to go with eight touchdowns.
MSU’s Anthony Dixon, a 6-1, 235-pound senior, is third with 1,001 yards (but his 125.1 yards per game ranks second). He and Florida quarterback Tim Tebow lead the league with nine rushing TDs each.
Tate is certainly in the discussion, having run for 1,142 yards and eight scores. He out-rushed Dixon earlier this year – it was Dixon’s first game, though – and he’ll get his shot against Ingram and the Tide in two weeks.
But this week, it’s Ingram and Dixon on center stage for a 6 p.m. ESPN game at Davis Wade Stadium. When MSU coach Dan Mullen looks at the pair side by side, he sees a lot in common.
“You watch them play the game, and I think that they’re similar in the ways they play the game – the intensity, how hard they play, both very physical runners with size and power,” Mullen said. “You watch a back like Ingram, he’s just got tremendous vision, tremendous feet. Anthony is very similar.
“I see them as very similar players.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban isn’t so keen on comparing players. He had nothing but effusive praise for Dixon, though.
“Anthony Dixon is a big, strong downhill runner who has had a fantastic year this year,” Saban said. “Certainly been difficult for us to get him on the ground when we’ve played them in the past.”
In three outings against the Crimson Tide, Dixon has rushed for 231 yards, but he was held to 26 on 11 carries in last year’s 32-7 loss in Tuscaloosa.
Ingram had 78 yards on 13 carries in that game.
How each performs Saturday will depend a lot on how well their respective offensive lines block. The Tide’s defensive front is anchored by 354-pound nose guard Terrence Cody, and the linebackers are as good as they come.
Alabama is allowing only 68.0 rushing yards per game, best in the SEC and second-best in the country.
“He looks like whatever side he wants to go to, he’s going to go,” Dixon said of Cody. “We’ve definitely got to work around him.”
MSU’s allowing 147.4 rushing yards per game, ninth in the SEC. Only two backs have topped 100 yards against State: Tate ran for 157 yards on 20 carries in Week 2, and Kentucky’s Derrick Locke gained 103 on 17 carries two weeks ago.
Another advantage for Alabama could come in the passing game. First-year starter Greg McElroy has been solid, completing 59.3 percent of his passes for 1,721 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions.
His MSU counterpart, Tyson Lee, has completed 59.3 percent for 1,271 yards, four TDs and 11 picks. Alabama will wisely focus on stopping the run first.
“We’re going to have to keep them off balance,” Mullen said. “Our receivers, when we do throw passes, they’re going to have to win one-on-one, if they are going to load up the box with everybody with the extra guys in there that leaves your receivers one-on-one on the outside.”
Ingram’s play has put him in the wide-open Heisman Trophy race, and he’s also, along with Tate, a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award, given to the country’s top running back.
Dixon’s not getting as much love, but he’s just looking forward to matching Ingram carry for carry.
“It’s just going to be a showcase Saturday,” Dixon said, “just I guess to show again what we can do.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.