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Three Areas in Which Mississippi State Must Show Improvement in to Defeat Alabama

Three things to watch for as Mississippi State takes on Alabama in Starkville.

Mississippi State returns to action on Saturday evening (3-2) as the Alabama Crimson Tide (5-1) travel to Davis Wade Stadium looking to redeem themselves after suffering a shocking 41-38 loss on the road last week.

That Texas A&M team is the same one MSU defeated before the bye week, pulling off the 26-22 upset at Kyle Field when the Aggies were ranked No. 15 in the nation. This is one of the shakiest Alabama teams we've seen in recent history, but it will still be a tough task to pull off the victory -- homefield advantage and all. 

As Mississippi State gears up to face Alabama Saturday in Starkville, here are three areas in which the team must show improvement in order to secure a victory.

1. Special Teams 

So far this season, the Bulldogs have only made four out of their eight field goals -- that's exactly 50%. Starting kicker Brandon Ruiz was injured early in the season against NC State, and the timeline for his return is unknown. Up until he was sidelined, he had missed his lone field goal attempt and had made all seven of his extra-point attempts. In his place is Nolan McCord, a redshirt freshman who made his college debut when he replaced Ruiz in the middle of the NC State game. McCord has made four of his seven field goals, which is not ideal, but has managed to convert all eight of his extra point attempts. His longest field goal of the season was a 39-yard attempt against Memphis. Aside from that one, McCord has made field goals from 23, 24 and 32 yards out. The Alabama defense will be hard to score touchdowns against, and the Bulldogs will most likely be very reliant on field goals for points. There is a chance that Ruiz could return this weekend, but it will most likely be McCord's responsibility to step up and convert longer field goals to keep his team in the game. 

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2. Quarterback Release Time 

In the Air Raid offense, it is crucial to put the ball in the air as quickly as possible. Will Rogers throws with great accuracy, but he struggles to get the ball out of his hands and down the field. Part of that comes from being a younger quarterback, but Rogers has played in enough games by now to know that standing in the pocket with the football for too long can have disastrous results. 

His receivers are only open for brief periods of time and often end up being overlooked as he waits to see how all of his options play out. This might work against weaker opponents from smaller conferences, but Alabama has one of the top defenses in the SEC. MSU's receivers will have fewer opportunities to find separation from the defense than they have in any other game this season. When the separation does occur, Rogers needs to be able to recognize it quickly and move the ball down the field. If he fails to find anyone quickly enough, he will likely be taken down by an Alabama defense that has accounted for 13 sacks this year or be pressured to throw the ball away. The Crimson Tide will take advantage of these mistakes, and in order to keep any momentum on State's side, Rogers must be able to make passing decisions quickly -- he showed a lot of improvement in this particular area in the win over Texas A&M, and will need to continue doing so.

3. Yards Allowed On First Down

In their last game against Texas A&M, the Bulldogs gave up an average of 7.3 yards on first-down plays. That was almost enough to give the Aggies a first down every time. MSU's defense is currently the No. 30 defense in the nation according to the NCAA, but letting the opposing team average 7.3 yards on first down plays seems very high. Alabama has averaged 6.7 yards per play throughout the entire season, and they can rack up those yards very quickly. 

With the playmakers Alabama has-- such as quarterback Bryce Young-- the Crimson Tide can easily convert most shorter second or third downs. State's defense can't let any members of the Alabama offense slip out of their grasp once they have a good hold on them. There were some instances of that against Texas A&M, and it is part of the reason why the Aggies were able to gain so many yards on first down. For Mississippi State, the key to stopping Alabama is to attack quickly and effectively on defense.