Sunday November 16th, 2014

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama appears to be peaking at the proper time to make the College Football Playoff, as it showed in a 25-20 win over No. 1 Mississippi State on Saturday. Alabama entered the game No. 5 in the playoff rankings, and it’ll certainly vault into the top four this week. This victory assures the Crimson Tide a playoff spot if they can win three more games: Western Carolina and No. 9 Auburn at home followed by the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.

Here are three thoughts on the game.

1. Blake Sims is becoming more than a game manager

Alabama won this game thanks to another clutch fourth-quarter drive led by quarterback Blake Sims, who appears to be coming of age down the stretch and evolving from a caretaker into a playmaker. After the Crimson Tide were shut out in the third quarter on Saturday, a nervous vibe reverberated through a hushed Bryant-Denny Stadium, as Alabama clung to a 19-13 lead early into the fourth quarter. One week after Sims drove Alabama 55 yards in the final 50 seconds to force overtime in a 20-13 win at LSU, he sealed this with another clutch drive. 

Sims led Alabama on a 15-play, 76-yard march that came straight out of Nick Saban’s smashmouth playbook. The quarterback converted three third downs on that drive, a nifty pass to T.J. Yeldon and a pair of scrambles -- 10 yards on a third-and-eight and 11 yards on a third-and-10 -- that kept eating yardage and clock. When Yeldon finally capped the drive with a seven-yard touchdown run with 8:09 remaining, Alabama had salted 6:07 off the clock and essentially the game away. (Dak Prescott officially cemented the win again when Landon Collins intercepted him at the Alabama 17-yard line with 5:01 remaining.)

But this was a game in which Sims was exactly what he needed to be for Alabama, efficient and effective. He finished with 211 yards on 19-of-31 passing and, most importantly, led an offense that didn’t throw an interception or turn the ball over.

Sims was the steady quarterback that Alabama needed as its playmakers shined all around him. Yeldon finished the game with 72 rushing yards and a touchdown. Star receiver Amari Cooper caught eight balls for 88 yards with a score. But on that game’s defining, soul-crushing drive, Sims again executed deftly when he needed to. That drive led to what proved to be the winning score, as Mississippi State scored on a Prescott touchdown pass with 15 seconds left to pull the Bulldogs within five.

2. Lane Kiffin is a key reason Alabama is much better at home

The Tide have been an exponentially better team at home this season, something epitomized by one of the day’s defining play calls. On a first-and-goal from the four-yard line, Alabama quarterback Sims looked back to the sideline at offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Holding his familiar laminated play sheet -- the Denny’s menu that typically shields his mouth -- Kiffin audibled in a new play after he analyzed Mississippi State’s coverage.

Kiffin seemingly noticed that Mississippi State strong safety Jay Hughes lined up against All-America wide receiver Cooper in the slot. After Kiffin signaled in the new play, Sims found Cooper isolated on Hughes in the end zone for an easy score. Hughes never had a chance, as Cooper caught the ball before he even knew it was coming.

Opposing coaches and NFL scouts have remarked how much better Sims has looked at home, as he is able to use Kiffin as a crutch. The numbers bear out. Entering the game, Alabama averaged 48.5 points per game at home and 22.2 on the road and at neutral sites during regulation. (That doesn’t count the overtime touchdown at LSU.)

That disparity can be attributed to a lot of things, but it’s clear the constant communication with Kiffin is critical to Sims’ play. And while Kiffin has earned his share of criticism over his career, there’s a lot of smart football people who believe he is a high-end play caller.

Kiffin’s best moment on Saturday led to Alabama’s final score of the first half. After the Crimson Tide defense shut down Mississippi State in a three-and-out with 6:06 left in the second quarter. Kiffin called a deep ball to Cooper, and Sims delivered resplendently, lofting a 50-yard parabola that Cooper snagged between double coverage. Derrick Henry ran the ball in from the one-yard line on the next play -- a touchdown that necessitated officials overruling a fumble -- and Alabama led 19-0.

• STAFF: Saturday Snaps: Breaking down the best of Week 12

3. Prescott and Mississippi State's offense struggle, but all is not lost

The good news for Mississippi State is this game will not derail its College Football Playoff hopes. The Bulldogs should find themselves as the country’s top one-loss team, as they’ll have the best loss among the one-loss teams and can claim wins over Auburn, Texas A&M and at LSU. Of course, they’ll also need to win out, including a tough game at Ole Miss, to secure a spot in the playoff. It would be difficult to find a one-loss team with four victories of that caliber, though Mississippi State’s soft nonconference schedule -- seemingly sponsored by Tastykake -- will be a point of contention when discussing the Bulldogs candidacy. Mississippi State played Southern Miss, UAB, Tennessee-Martin and at South Alabama. This isn’t the basketball tournament committee, for which playing at South Alabama would help Mississippi State.

Prescott didn’t do much to accentuate his Heisman campaign, as the Bulldogs’ red-zone failures highlighted their offensive futility. On a day when Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon put up cartoonish numbers breaking the FBS single-game rushing record, Prescott’s effort would be considered more gutsy than dominant.

• RICKMAN: Wisconsin's Gordon breaks FBS record in rout of Nebraska

Mississippi State didn’t score a touchdown until early in the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs’ six trips inside the Alabama 20-yard line resulted in two field goals, two interceptions and two touchdowns. Prescott threw three picks on the day, playing well enough to keep the game close but never really threatening to win. He finished 27-of-48 for 290 yards with two touchdowns.

Nothing epitomized Mississippi State’s offensive struggles more than failing to score a touchdown after getting the ball to the half-yard line in final minute of the first half. Offensive lineman Justin Malone’s false-start penalty pushed the Bulldogs back to first-and-goal from the five with 22 seconds left. From there, Prescott missed three passes that could have delivered the Bulldogs their first touchdown. The first miss will hurt the most, as Malcolm Johnson broke open and Prescott airmailed the pass. Johnson never had a chance. From there, Prescott missed De’Runnya Wilson on two passes in tight coverage.

Prescott found success running up the middle early, as his first four carries of the game went for 16 yards. From there, Alabama bottled up both Prescott and the Bulldogs. He next eight carries totaled eight yards and he finished the day with 22 carries for 82 yards, or 3.7 yards per carry.

Mississippi State didn’t really find rhythm on offense until the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs were downright self-destructive early in the game, and it cost them. A run play from their own five-yard line resulted in a safety early in the first quarter. Prescott handed the ball off to Josh Robinson, but receiver Fred Ross, who was in motion, blocked Ross’ path to the line of scrimmage. Robinson cut back and ended up getting swallowed up in the end zone by Alabama linebacker Trey DePriest and defensive end Dalvin Tomlinson. That 2-0 deficit turned into a 5-0 deficit after the ensuing kick yielded Alabama good field position at their own 39-yard line. Those five points ended up being the difference in the game.

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