In most weeks of the 2014 college football season, one could choose any number of games as the game of the week. However, week 12 is not one of these weeks. There is a clear-cut must-watch game this Saturday, and it is quite possibly the biggest regular season game of the year. A showdown between two SEC West teams that are both ranked in the top five. #1 Mississippi State is taking the short trip across the Alabama state line to take on #5 Alabama.
The Bulldogs are relative newcomers to the top of the college football scene, especially this late in the season. The game versus Alabama on Saturday could end up being one of the most important games in Mississippi State’s 118 year history. The rivalry between two of the founding members of the Southeastern Conference is one of the longest running in the country (the first game was played in 1896). Even so, many Crimson Tide fans may not consider it a rivalry because the all-time record is so lopsided. In 98 games so far, Alabama is 76-18-3 versus Mississippi State. But the past is the past and the 99th edition is by far the most important game of the rivalry. Both teams are the only two remaining SEC West teams that control their own fate. Finish the season with no more losses and they’re a lock to make the inaugural College Football Playoff. Any other result would be enough cause for the Committee to select a better school to fill one of the four playoff spots. Enough talking though, it’s time to break down the game.
Most Important Matchup: Mississippi State’s Running Attack versus the Alabama Defense
Even though they are the top team in the country, Mississippi State is considered an underdog this week. For them to win this game, they will need to win the time-of-possession battle by a considerable amount and limit their mistakes. The best way to do complete those goals is to run the ball. Mississippi State has shown a commitment to their running game so far this season. With quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Josh Robinson, the backfield resembles a two-headed snake. Robinson is built like a bowling ball and runs downhill like there is nothing he wants to do more in life. He is the type of running back who can impose his will on tired defenses late in the game. Factor in the versatile Dak Prescott and the Bulldogs have one of the best one-two punches in college football. The two players have a nearly equal amount of carries so far this season, but Robinson has the edge in yards by a little over two hundred. Both are averaging more than 5.0 yards per carry and they both have eleven touchdowns each. The two players have led Mississippi State to the 16th most rushing yards in the country, with nearly 255 yards per game.
For Alabama to succeed in stopping the Bulldogs’ game plan, they must rely on the best strong safety in the country Landon Collins. Collins is built in the same mold of other prototypical strong safeties that NFL teams look for. At six feet and 220 pounds, Collins succeeds in run support near the line of scrimmage. Without a doubt, Collins will be the Crimson Tide’s most important defensive player on Saturday afternoon. If Alabama plans to win on Saturday, Landon Collins will need to have a superb game.
Biggest Playmaker: Alabama Wide Receiver Amari Cooper
Although it was tempting to put Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott here, the honor goes to Alabama wideout Amari Cooper. Cooper is one of the top receivers in the country and is pegged by many to be the first receiver taken in the 2015 NFL Draft. Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has rightfully caught a lot of flak at his previous stops, but one thing Kiffin has succeeded in doing was getting the ball in the hands of his best players, and this job is no different. Cooper already has 79 catches on the season for 1215 yards, which both rank in the top six among wide receivers. That’s good for an average of 15.4 yards per catch. Cooper also has 10 touchdowns on the year, which is tied for third in the country.
At 6’1 and 210 pounds, Cooper is not a dominant physical specimen, which makes what he is doing all the more special. He will make a NFL team very happy when he declares because he wins in ways that are difficult to coach. His hand-usage and footwork are prime examples of a wide receiver that really knows the nuances of the position. Cooper’s instincts are also top of the line for a player that is only twenty years of age. On Saturday, look for Lane Kiffin to use Cooper all over the field and in a number of different roles. Truthfully, I don’t know how much Mississippi State will be able to contain Cooper. It will probably come down to the front seven getting pressure on Crimson Tide quarterback Blake Sims. If the Bulldogs can’t accomplish that, watch for Amari Cooper to have a massive impact on the game.
This game is truly a toss-up. At the time of this writing, Alabama is a 8.5 point favorite. This game is more likely to be a defensive battle than a shootout, and if that does happen to be the case then Alabama is unlikely to cover the spread. I have to give the edge to Alabama for one reason and one reason only: the game is being played in Tuscaloosa. Mississippi State has won on the road this year in several hostile environments, specifically at Death Valley versus an overrated LSU team in the middle of September. This matchup is going to be a slugfest between two heavyweight fighters, and they will be trading shots for most, if not all, of Saturday evening. I don’t expect a knockout, but Alabama receiver Amari Cooper could end up knocking the Bulldogs down before the final bell rings.