MSU rolled into Tuscaloosa last year 7-0 and ranked No. 13 in the country, hoping to take down the top-ranked Crimson Tide. The #webelieve hashtag took off on Twitter, and there was a palpable sense of anticipation among MSU fans. Alabama then proceeded to put a 38-7 beating on the Bulldogs, starting a tumble in which Dan Mullen‘s squad lost five of its last six games. Could MSU find itself in a similar position again this fall, but this time at home? No matter the records and rankings, beating Bama would be a huge moment for Mullen and this program.
Alabama Crimson Tide (Nov. 16, in Starkville)
• Conference: SEC
• 2012 record: 13-1 (7-1, 1st Western Division)
• Coach: Nick Saban (68-13, six seasons)
• Returning starters: 17 (6 offense, 7 defense, 4 specialists)
• Last meeting: Alabama, 38-7 (Oct. 27, 2012, in Tuscaloosa)
• On the Web: rolltide.com
Alabama has won two consecutive national championships and three of the last four, and there is no reason to believe Saban won’t have this group in the thick of the BCS title race once again. While there are key losses on defense, this program always reloads well on that side of the ball. And the offense is led once again by the nation’s most efficient quarterback, senior A.J. McCarron.
Let’s start with him. McCarron threw for 2,933 yards, 30 touchdowns and three interceptions last season, and he had the country’s highest pass efficiency rating (175.28). He’s as dependable as they come, and he has his top three ball-catchers returning from last year, including sophomore Amari Cooper (59 catches, 1,000 yards, 11 TDs). The running game should again be punishing, with sophomore T.J. Yeldon back after splitting time with the now-departed Eddie Lacy. Yeldon will have help – with Alabama, it’s rarely a one-man show at tailback – but he’s a go-to guy, having rushed for 1,108 yards and 12 TDs last fall.
If there is a concern on offense, it’s the line, where three starters are gone, including first-round draft picks D.J. Fluker (left guard) and Chance Warmack (right tackle). Those guys were absolutely dominant, and Alabama is looking at Arie Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd at those positions, respectively. Sophomore Ryan Kelly is expected to take over at center for Barrett Jones.
So what of this defense? Well, it ranked first nationally in three major categories last year: rushing defense (76.4 ypg), total defense (250.0 ypg) and scoring defense (10.9 ppg). The Tide also was seventh against the pass (173.6 ypg). The big losses here are cornerback Dee Milliner and nose guard Jesse Williams. A couple of new starters up front are juniors Brandon Ivory at nose and Jeoffrey Pagan at end – they combined for 45 tackles last season. The pass rush, which was pretty good (2.5 sacks per game), will be led in part by senior end Ed Stinson, who had 8.5 tackles-for-loss and 3.0 sacks last year.
Also causing havoc in the backfield will be senior inside linebacker C.J. Mosley (team-high 107 tackles, 4.0 sacks) and junior outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard, who led Alabama in both TFLs (11.0) and sacks (7.0). This linebacker corps should be one of the best and deepest in the country, what with the four starters owning a combined 42 starts last year – and they’ve got some promising youngsters behind them.
Replacing Milliner in the defensive backfield shouldn’t be too troublesome. Deion Belue (two interceptions, seven pass breakups) returns at corner, and the safeties are very experienced with juniors Ha Ha Clinton Dix (37 tackles, five INTs) and Vinnie Sunseri (54 tackles, two INTs).
So all the pieces appear to be in place for Alabama to make yet another BCS title run, and the word “dynasty” – which is already being bandied about – will carry more weight if that happens. By this point in the season we should know for sure whether the Tide is rolling toward that destination. The question then will be, can MSU do anything to slow down that train?
Up next: Arkansas