No. 16 Mississippi State at No. 1 Alabama
When: Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium
Records: Alabama 9-0, 6-0 SEC; Miss. State 6-3, 2-3 SEC
Radio: 95.3 FM, 102.9 FM
Alabama invaded Death Valley last Saturday, unflinchingly stomping out a team, and fan base, determined to deliver an upset that would send shockwaves through the college football landscape.
The emphatic shutout win, sealed by a leaping Mack Wilson interception in the LSU end zone, further solidified the Crimson Tide’s spot as villain.
It’s a role Alabama’s players are happy to embody.
“We like being the hated team,” safety Xavier McKinney said. “I know I do. It makes us play better, makes us perform well. So we try to keep that mindset. We like that negative energy we get and try to turn it into positive.”
If Alabama is the evil empire, then its supremacy of the college football universe was established through defense. However, it’s been quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and the Crimson Tide’s offense that’s garnered the most attention this season.
Until Saturday night in Baton Rouge, that is, when Alabama held LSU scoreless in Tiger Stadium for the second consecutive time.
Delivering a shutout is always the goal for a defense, but McKinney didn’t anticipate notching one already.
“We were focusing on that down the line,” McKinney said. “Of course, when the game started, we weren’t focusing on trying to get a zero. We were focusing on trying to get as many stops as we could. But we noticed they were still at zero, so we were trying to keep them right there.”
Throughout the first part of the season, questions lingered about Alabama’s defense despite blowout win after blowout win. Communication errors led to big plays from opposing offenses, while teams like Louisiana-Lafayette were able to amass more rushing yards than expected.
But in the past three weeks, Alabama’s defense has cleaned up its mistakes. It’s also competed with the ferocity of a unit determined to remind people what the empire was built on.
“Everybody talks about the offense and not about the defense,” McKinney said. “We try to put everybody on notice and we have something to prove when we go out there.”
After giving up 200 rushing yards to Louisiana-Lafayette, Alabama’s defense has clamped down on the run.
Against Missouri, the Crimson Tide contained the Tigers to 70 yards on the ground. The next week against Tennessee, Alabama allowed a measly 31 rushing yards. LSU squeaked out 12 rushing yards, its fewest in a game since 1999.
The Crimson Tide’s secondary has held its own as well, allowing an average of less than 200 yards passing in the past three contests.
“I think we’ve made some improvements,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “A lot of young players, a lot of guys that didn’t have a lot of experience. The knowledge and experience they’ve gained throughout the year has really helped their confidence and also playing together, communicating better, understanding the importance of those types of things and being a consistent unit where everybody’s sort of doing their job, and that’s going to give us the best opportunity to be successful.”
Even Alabama’s offense has been impressed, but not surprised, at what its counterparts have accomplished in recent weeks, especially against LSU.
“They (the defensive line) were in the backfield all night,” offensive lineman Jedrick Wills Jr. said. “It was really good for them, but it’s no different than what we see from them in practice. Them giving us a look and us giving them a look just makes the game a lot easier.”