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  • Down seven in the final quarter, Alabama stayed cool and pulled out a 31-24 victory over Mississippi State that should vault it to No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
By Eric Single
November 11, 2017

Hours after No. 1 Georgia lost on the road to an SEC rival it had dominated over the past decade, No. 2 Alabama found itself face-to-face with the same fate in Starkville, coming dangerously close to losing to Mississippi State for the first time since Nov. 10, 2007. Fortunately for the Crimson Tide, for as rarely as they are seriously tested, head coach Nick Saban and quarterback Jalen Hurts are naturals at those types of staring contests.

Hurts hit receiver Calvin Ridley for a 31-yard completion over the middle to pick up a critical third-and-15 in the final minute, then found DeVonta Smith, who broke free for a 26-yard catch-and-run touchdown, and the Tide held on for a 31–24 win that kept them perfect on the season despite an uncharacteristically imperfect night at Davis Wade Stadium. With Georgia’s loss to Auburn, Alabama should find itself atop the next College Football Playoff rankings, and the teams right behind it have been officially reminded that Hurts and his teammates don’t wilt when they get hit in the mouth in high-stakes games.

After getting by mostly on the strength of his legs over the season’s first two months, Hurts’s 10 completions on Saturday night were massive ones. Half of them went to Ridley, who racked up 171 yards and helped set up three Alabama touchdowns, showing flashes of his breakout 2015 freshman season that have become less frequent in the past two years as the Tide have struggled to find consistency in their passing game. Those big plays helped mask the mistakes of a defense that needed more help than Nick Saban units normally do.

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Over their nine-game winning streak in the series, the Crimson Tide had held Mississippi State to seven points or fewer seven times, including demoralizing 31–6 and 51–3 beatdowns in the past two years that cemented the SEC West hierarchy. The Bulldogs established in the early going that this would not be one of those games, running 28 plays and chewing a total of 15:33 of game clock with their first three drives, two of which ended in Aeris Williams touchdown runs.

When it’s not working for Nick Fitzgerald and the offense, it’s really not working, as evidenced by the consecutive blowout losses to Georgia and Auburn that tamped down the hype Mississippi State had drummed up in early September. Both of those defenses jammed the gears of the Bulldogs’ offense by forcing it to the air: Fitzgerald threw a total of 62 times and completed less than 50% of his passes in those two games.

On Saturday night, Mississippi State was rewarded for committing to the run, finding holes in the middle of an Alabama front seven that was thinner than ever at linebacker—Shaun Dion Hamilton and Mack Wilson were injured in last weekend’s win over LSU, exacerbating a depth issue that dates all the way back to the season opener, when Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis went down against Florida State. The Bulldogs racked up a season-high 172 yards on the ground against Alabama and held the ball for nearly two-thirds of the game (38:56)—with help from a few boneheaded Alabama penalties that extended drives. Fitzgerald was held below 100 yards on the ground for the first time in his last five games, but his 21 carries kept the Alabama defense on its heels.

But after Alabama kicker Andy Pappanastos’s go-ahead 41-yard field goal try clanged off the left upright with just over two minutes to go, Mississippi State stumbled into a quick three-and-out at the absolute worst time, leaving the Crimson Tide with 69 seconds of clock to put together another potential game-winning drive in regulation. Then Hurts hit Ridley and put a lid on the chaos that had threatened to turn the SEC completely on its head, in the process sending a message to the teams standing in the way of a second national title in three years.

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