John Parker Wilson looks to rebound from a seven-sack day for the passing offense last week, and from a poor performance (19 of 39, 2 INTs) against MSU last year. For the season, Wilson's 14 touchdown passes are three short of tying his own school record. Despite last week's struggles, there is no reason to think better pass protection won't allow him back into the groove he enjoyed in wins over Ole Miss and Tennessee. Wilson has surprisingly been more accurate on the road this season (58.8%) than at home (54.6%).
Mississippi State's quarterback carousel seems to have stopped on true freshman Wesley Carroll, who will make his fifth consecutive start for the Bulldogs Saturday. One of three quarterbacks to start a game this year for MSU, Carroll has taken over the job by keeping mistakes at a minimum. He hasn't been intercepted in a school-record 137 attempts. MSU's pass offense ranks at the bottom of the SEC, but since Carroll has taken over, its efficiency has been on the rise. His error-free play has come at the cost of conservatism, as Carroll averages only 9.3 yards per completion.
Alabama's front on offense should have no motivational concerns this week after being thoroughly dominated in its last game by LSU. It makes for a difficult assessment of the line since starters Antoine Caldwell and Marlon Davis were suspended, because UA's first game without the pair was a steamroll of Tennessee to the tune of 510 total yards. Right tackle Mike Johnson will have the key matchup against MSU standout end Titus Brown. Reserve David Ross could see action if center Evan Cardwell has another flare of back spasms.
The MSU line is led by center Royce Blackledge, who has graded at 84% for the season and turned in an 88%, seven-knockdown performance in the Bulldogs' upset of Kentucky two weeks ago. Coach Sly Croom said the line has improved steadily all season, and the starting five has remained intact as a unit with nine starts each. Left tackle Michael Brown has had a standout season as well. For the year, MSU has allowed only 14 sacks, just under 1.5 per game. Right tackle J.D. Hamilton draws the assignment on UA's Wallace Gilberry.
Alabama's rotation at running back seemingly has become increasingly less predictable as the season has worn on. The constant has been Terry Grant, but even he has seen his carries fluctuate wildly. Just when it appeared Roy Upchurch was on the verge of a more regular role, Grant was instead spelled by Jonathan Lowe last week, who picked up 10 carries in his first action of the season. For all the shell-gaming at the position, however, Alabama has run the ball fairly well-to-very well in all but two games this season (FSU, LSU). Grant's 80-ypg average puts the freshman on a 1,000-yard pace, bowl game included.
Bulldogs standout Anthony Dixon ran over, through and around Alabama as a freshman last season, and has followed up with a solid sophomore campaign with 830 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2007. At 240 pounds, he is a true power back, and MSU will look to spring him into Alabama's secondary running between the tackles. Christian Ducre posted his first career 100-yard game against Kentucky, but his role remains complementary to Dixon's. Mississippi State has not used Dixon much out of the backfield with only six receptions on the year.
For the first time all season, senior Keith Brown did some real damage with two touchdowns last week against LSU. The timing was ideal as LSU essentially double-teamed DJ Hall the entire game. Don't be surprised if Mississippi State takes similar measures to slow down Hall, forcing Wilson to look for Brown and Matt Caddell more. Last year, despite Wilson's sub-par day, Hall toasted MSU for 10 catches and 125 yards. If Alabama struggles to run the ball for the second week in a row, the senior Hall will need a similar effort if the offense is to move the chains.
Mississippi State's prime receiving target is Tony Burks, a huge target at 6-4, 220 pounds who emerged on the SEC scene with a big season in 2006. He hasn't been the big-play threat with Carroll under center that he was with Michael Henig taking the snaps a year ago, but he remains Alabama's toughest man-to-man assignment in the secondary. Junior Aubrey Bell is a big target like Burks (6-3, 217), and leads MSU in yards per catch (16.0), but has just 10 receptions on the year.
Noseguard Lorenzo Washington faces one of the SEC's top centers for the third game in a row in MSU's Royce Blackledge. That matchup will be among the key head-to-head battles in the game. Wallace Gilberry has had a hot hand as a pass rusher of late, compiling all seven of his sacks over his past four games. End Brandon Deaderick has made steady progress since his playing time began increasing with the ankle injury to Bobby Greenwood. If standout MSU LT Michael Brown can handle Gilberry, Deaderick must get the better of RT J.D. Hamilton.
The best news for Alabama is that injured OLB Ezekial Knight (ankle) looked much improved in practice this week than he did before the LSU game. In fact, the junior did not wear a non-contact jersey all week. Knight leads the LB corps in sacks (2), TFLs (6.5), pass break-ups (3) and INTs (2). ILBs Darren Mustin and Prince Hall will have their hands full with the Mississippi State rushing attack. Freshman Rolando McClain saw his playing time pick up a bit against LSU, and still ranks second on the team with 54 stops.
Mississippi State's three leading tacklers are its three starting linebackers, a positive sign for any defense. Dominic Douglas leads the way with 57 stops (5 TFLs), while Jamar Chaney and Gabe O'Neal check in with 54 each. O'Neal has started every game, while Chaney missed the Kentucky game and most of MSU's loss to West Virginia with an injury. Sophomore Jamon Hughes has been outstanding in Chaney's absence, amassing 21 tackles in State's last two games.
Alabama has struggled in pass coverage of late, allowing nearly 400 passing yards a week ago, and ranks 11th in the SEC in pass defense. Safety Rashad Johnson has done his part with a team-high five INTs and a team-leading 64 tackles. Pressure up front has been spotty all season, but the secondary has had its troubles with or without pressure. In fact, UA's best pass-rush performances of the year (Houston, Ole Miss, LSU) were all field days for the opposing QBs. Freshman corner Kareem Jackson has been perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the team.
The top athlete in the Mississippi State secondary is safety Derek Pegues, the only member of State's defensive backfield to start every game this season. Surprisingly, however, the unit's top tackler comes from a corner spot (Anthony Johnson, 45 stops) rather than a safety. Mississippi State has made 12 interceptions on the season, with all but one of them by a defensive back. Pegues, Johnson, safety De'Mon Glanton and reserve Demario Bobo lead the team with two each. MSU's pass defense ranks fifth in the league (191 ypg).
Alabama's return game gives it a major edge over Mississippi State as the Crimson Tide's 17.5-yard average on punt returns leads the SEC. Javier Arenas may not get many chances after last week's highlight return against LSU. Alabama's kickoff coverage, despite touchbacks on only three of 54 kickoffs, is ranked fourth in the SEC. Punter P.J. Fitzgerald struggled last week. With a 2-for-2 performance against LSU, kicker Leigh Tiffin has now pushed his FG percentage to 70.8%.
Mississippi State's return game has been, in a word, poor. The Bulldogs rank last in the SEC in kickoff returns and next to last in punt returns. Pegues handles both duties and is a dangerous athlete, but has not found many creases. Blake McAdams has been average at punter this year, while Adam Carlson has made six of nine field goals, and none from beyond 40 yards. MSU's kickoff coverage ranks eighth in the SEC at 40.7 net yards per kick.