Bama braces for suddenly potent Mississippi State

By Michael Casagrande


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - No, that record isn't wrong.

Mississippi State really is 7-2 with six straight wins heading into Bryant-Denny Stadium this Saturday evening.

Ranked 17th in their second year with Dan Mullen as coach, the Bulldogs found an edge using old-fashioned principles with a newfangled twist.

With some of the same ideology Mullen used as the offensive coordinator at Florida with Tim Tebow at quarterback, Mississippi State's offense likes to run, deceive and throw when opponents are not expecting it.

What started as a two-quarterback offense turned into Chris Relf's show, and the Montgomery resident knows how to run the ball.

Facing an athletic quarterback creates several issues, starting with finding the right member of the scout team to mimic the actions of Relf with a roster full of traditional dropback passers. But Alabama coach Nick Saban recruited a jack-of-all trades athlete in true freshman Blake Sims, who can play in the secondary and was a high school quarterback.

"[Blake] did a lot of these same kinds of plays in high school, has been the guy that's filled in," Saban said. "Phillip [another Sims] does a good job of it, too, because he's very athletic and big and strong. So we've gotten a decent picture of it in the past when we needed to."

The Bulldogs average 218.7 yards per game on the ground, ranking third in the SEC. Through the air, they are the 10th-best team statistically in the SEC (164.6 yards per game) and 101st nationally.

Facing the Tide defense known for stopping the run will take a special effort, Mullen acknowledged. Working in the Bulldogs favor is a scheme that tests the edges of the Alabama run defense that had major breakdowns in the second half of Saturday's loss at LSU.

The Bulldogs, who were off last weekend, certainly saw that and took note.

"You have to be a little creative to do that, and we are going to perform at a high level," Mullen told reporters in Starkville on Monday. "When you run the football, your margin for error is smaller. When you're running the football you have to execute at a very high level, and we're going to have to have great performance from our offensive line."

Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower knows the deception is coming.

"They do a lot of things - a lot of eye candy," Hightower said.

That includes using offensive linemen as decoys. Hightower said the Bulldogs will pull a guard on a play-action pass as an example of a complex method of confusing defenses.

Bulldogs running back Vick Ballard showed an ability to run between the tackles on a 54-yard touchdown run straight up the gut two weeks ago in a win over Kentucky. Ballard ranks seventh in the SEC with 77.4 yards per game and 6.7 yards per run.

"I had a lot of respect for [Anthony] Dixon last year in terms of being a big, strong physical back, so I was saying to myself, 'I'm glad that guy's gone,'" Saban said. "The guys they have carrying it this year have really good ability, probably a little more speed and explosiveness. They are in a lot of what you would call three-back runs."

Contact Michael Casagrande at or 423-757-6273.