Down Memory Lane
If you drive along Highway 82, 82 miles west-northwest from the University of Alabama, you’ll come to Mississippi State University. This route has been traveled back and forth by football fans and students of both universities since the road was built in 1931. The main reason is the football game between the two, like the one coming up this Saturday night.
That contest will be the 108th meeting of the two schools playing each other since 1896. Mississippi State is Alabama’s most-played opponent, while Alabama is State’s third behind Ole Miss and LSU. In fact, Alabama and MSU have played each other consecutively since 1948. Only LSU has played State longer every year since 1944. Auburn comes close, playing the Bulldogs continuously since 1954. The SEC determined that Mississippi State’s game with all three will not be played in 2024. This is due to the addition of Oklahoma and Texas to the conference mix. That is an abandoned tradition probably not to be fully appreciated until next year.
Perhaps the rivalry is not recognized so much by the national media because of the overwhelming Alabama dominance. The record is 85-18-3 in favor of the Tide. But don’t try to tell that to either fan base. In his Monday press conference, Alabama head coach Nick Saban said this about the upcoming game. “This is actually a bigger challenge for us than the last two games, in my opinion, because this team is very physical, very aggressive on defense,” said Saban. “They create a lot of negative plays, they got a lot of starters back, they know their system, they know their scheme,” said Saban. “Zach Arnett, his system, he’s a very good defensive coach.”
Are You Sure About That Defense Coach?
Not to dispute the GOAT of football coaches, but Mississippi State has allowed 78 points in the last two conference games. They were blown out 41-14 against LSU. The final score against South Carolina last weekend was closer, but defensive shortcomings were still on display. They lost it 37-30.
Alabama has finally decided on their starting quarterback, Jalen Milroe. State fans were quite happy with his performance against Ole Miss. Milroe struggled in the first half, but finally got his groove on in the second, outscoring the Rebels 18-3. They beat the team north of Starkville 24-10.
One key to a Bulldogs’ win against the Tide, is to significantly improve the pass defense That has been lacking in the two conference games so far. LSU’s Jayden Daniels went 30 of 34 (88.2%) for 361 yards. South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler was 18 for 20 (90%) for 288 yards. That cannot continue if the Bulldogs want to win against the Tide.
In a Monday press conference, defensive coordinator Matt Brock talked about Milroe and what the defense needs to do. “You can’t win games when defensively you allow people to have that completion percentage,” Brock said. “When you give up a big play, naturally guys will sometimes play off a little more, so we have to have confidence in our abilities and play it tighter.”
Similar to Rattler’s ability to make the big plays, Milroe did that against Ole Miss. “They are physical up front,” Brock said. “The quarterback, they play to his strengths. I think he throws a good deep ball. I think they have done a nice job of tailoring it to what he does well, so we got to do a good job of trying to rectify the things we just talked about and adapt to what they are trying to do.”
Barbay’s Offense – A Bird’s Eye View
Last week against South Carolina, offensive coordinator Kevin Barbay changed his viewpoint for calling the game. He moved from the sideline to the booth. Considering their lackluster display against LSU, something had to change. Whatever it was, quarterback Will Rogers went for a career-high 487 yards in passing. Barbay commented on the change in his Monday press conference. “So, I’ve done both. I’ve called most of the games from the field, I’ve called some from the box,” Barbay said. “I’m an emotional guy and I get excited on the sideline. I think removing myself a little bit from that emotion and sitting up top helped me see the game a little bit better.” He’ll continue from the booth this weekend.
Rogers will need his ace receiver Tulu Griffin for a chance to take the Tide. Griffin got 256 yards last week, breaking a team record for most receiving yards in a game.
Woody Marks didn’t have his usual outstanding game, nor the running game in general. Marks was a little banged up in the last two games. Barbay says he is such a tough guy, that it’s hard to know when he’s hurt or not. “Just like every other position group, in the running back room we’re deep enough that we need to be able to give Woody some rest or some spells and rotate some of those guys,” Barbay said. “And I feel confident in everybody in our running back room.”
Backup quarterback Mike Wright received more action in the last two games. He’s responsible for one touchdown in both. “Each week I have long, extensive packages for Mike, and don’t necessarily get to all of them,” Barbay said. “So, I do my best to try to carry it over to the next week, if it fits within the gameplan.”
Leach vs. Arnett – The Fear Factor
The Alabama – Mississippi State matchup is always filled with optimism for the Dawg fanbase. That’s especially true when the game is in Starkville. This year the number 12 Crimson Tide comes to town with not as much swagger as in previous years. Their offense only found its identity last week. Most fans still remember the 1980 game when the Tide was ranked number one. That game was in Jackson instead of Starkville, but it was still in Mississippi. Bama lost it 6-3. The last time State won the game was in 2007. That Alabama team went 6-6, the Bulldogs were 8-5.
But, in last year’s loss to Bama by a score of 30-6, head coach Mike Leach, in typical fashion, said something most coaches wouldn’t reveal. “We’ve got some guys that are afraid of the jersey that says Alabama on it,” said Leach
Linebacker Jett Johnson said something along those lines following State’s 2021 loss. “We let the logo get us down a little bit — the ‘A’ and stuff,” said Johnson. “That stuff we’ve got to clean up.”
However, current head coach Zach Arnett is not buying into any of that sentiment this year. “That’s not going to be my message to the team,” Arnett said. “We’ve got to focus on us and we’ve got to play. We’ve got to execute. That’s what football comes down to. You’ve got to show up excited to play with energy and you’ve got to do your job. It doesn’t matter who it’s against.”
The game has a 9:00 pm ET start and can be seen on ESPN.