Instant Analysis: Alabama looks like title threat, crushes Mississippi St.
1. Alabama looks like a legitimate championship contender
The most feared teams in college football can march to immortality without seemingly breaking a sweat, dominate on days when they aren’t dominant and effortlessly swallow up top 25 teams in emotionally charged road environments. It would be easy to say that Alabama didn’t play particularly well at Mississippi State on Saturday. They got outgained by 112 yards through three quarters, possessed the ball seven minutes less than the Bulldogs and needed a few well-timed big plays to leave Starkville with a victory.
That’s why it wouldn’t be surprising to see one-loss Alabama leap to No. 1 when the College Football Playoff rankings are released on Tuesday. Alabama showed with its suffocating defense sacking Dak Prescott nine times and offense striking when necessary a hallmark of a championship team—winning a game impressively without playing particularly impressively. Alabama relied on three big first-half plays to build a 21-3 lead: a 69-yard punt return by Cyrus Jones, a 60-yard Calvin Ridley catch and a 75-yard Derrick Henry run. (Ridley’s catch was really more like a run, as it was a throw into the flat that he turned into a touchdown after a hip shake move near midfield that would make a Zumba instructor faint. And it embarrassed Mississippi State's Mark McLaurin, who tumbled to the turf in a vain attempt at tackling.)
As chaos unfolded around the country—Clemson trying to revive its old nickname in Syracuse, Oklahoma State floundering in Ames, Iowa, and Michigan sputtering in Bloomington, Ind.—a road win over a top 20 team in a raucous environment further pads Alabama’s résumé, which also includes victories against Wisconsin, Georgia, Arkansas, Texas A&M and LSU. Performances like this and the Tide’s thumping of the Tigers may convince the committee that Alabama is the country’s best team. Sometimes being opportunistic works just as well as being oppressive.
2. Losing Kenyan Drake is a tough blow
Alabama will lose tailback Kenyan Drake for an extended stretch for the second consecutive season. Drake hurt his arm running down on special teams and making a tackle in the second quarter. Alabama trainers escorted Drake off the field, took him to an injury tent and then escorted to the locker room. After the game, coach Nick Saban said Drake would be out for three weeks with a fractured arm.
His absence will hurt the Tide. Drake’s value transcends the 333 yards and 4.9 yards per carries he’s gained this year as Derrick Henry’s backup. Drake delivered one of the biggest plays of the first half for Alabama, a crushing block that opened up Ridley’s 60-yard touchdown reception.
Last October Drake broke his leg in gruesome fashion against Ole Miss, causing him to miss the rest of the season, and he was limited for spring practice. Drake has never recaptured the tantalizing potential of his sophomore season, when he ran for 694 yards, eight touchdowns and averaged 7.5 yards per carry.
On Saturday, Henry finished with 204 rushing yards on 22 carries, 139 of which came on a pair of touchdown runs. Henry was already the identity of Alabama’s offense, but with Drake’s injury that onus will be even larger. Today didn’t do much to change Henry’s status as a Heisman Trophy frontrunner, but rather reinforced what we already knew: Lake Kiffin will be feeding him the ball more and more if Bama wants to keep going.
3. Alabama's defensive line was dominant
Mississippi State entered the game and the season with a glaring weakness—a patchwork offensive line light on talent, experience and cohesiveness. No one knew this better than Saban, who entered the game with one of the better defensive fronts of his tenure at Alabama. Alabama didn’t even need to rush extra defenders, as it consistently pressured and harassed Prescott with just the pressure from its three-man defensive front and the hybrid “JACK” who flips from linebacker to defensive line.
By halftime, Alabama had already accumulated six sacks, which tied for the most allowed in Dan Mullen’s tenure at Mississippi State for an entire game. And that may not accurately sum up how persistent the pressure was on Prescott, whose pocket more resembled a hornet’s nest for most of the afternoon. Prior to today, Prescott had never been sacked more than three times in a game. Alabama finished with 9 sacks, treating the State offensive line like turnstiles.
Defensive end Jonathan Allen finished with three sacks to lead the Tide and A’Shawn Robinson continued his dominant season with 2.5 sacks. Prescott never had a chance all day, literally. He finished the game 22 of 43 with zero touchdowns and an interception. Alabama’s defensive front rendered the Bulldogs offense generally impotent most of the day and completely handcuffed when the reached the red zone. The combination of a stout defensive line and Henry is why Alabama remains the heavy SEC favorite and projects to reach the playoff for a second straight year.