Alabama football can't afford to overlook Mississippi State or underestimate Mike Leach | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

Lost in the frantic reaction to Alabama football’s first loss since 2019, a wild and woolly 41-38 Texas A&M victory, accompanied by a sort of semi-confidence that the Crimson Tide will immediately correct course and stay on track for SEC and national honors, there are a few things to consider. The transitive property in college football doesn’t really hold water, but taking Mike Leach seriously does.

That’s why it’s worth examining how Mississippi State managed to accomplish what Alabama could not, rolling into College Station for a 26-22 win a week before Alabama fell. 

Mississippi State's Tommy Stevens (7) pets Bully as the team arrives at the stadium. Mississippi State and Kentucky played in an SEC college football game on Saturday, September 21, 2019 at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville. Photo by Keith Warren

It starts with Leach. People sometimes overstate the remoteness of his three head coaching stops, relatively isolated spots like Lubbock, Pullman and, now, Starkville, a far more attractive spot than it was 20 years ago. All those programs have passionate fan bases but a realization that instead of out-recruiting Texas, Oklahoma, USC, Alabama and, to be fair, Texas A&M, the head coach is going to do it his way until he perfects his way.

Leach hasn’t quite reached perfection yet, but every practice, every game is going to feature Leach’s controlled passing attack. 

Mississippi State leads the SEC in passing attempts and passing yardage but does not simply sling the ball around and hope for the best. In fact, the approach is an inversion of Nick Saban’s “make them quit” philosophy, built less on direct attack and more on the constant erosion of the stamina of the opponent, like a Texas A&M or Alabama. 

“You’ve got to rotate players and keep a lot of fresh players in the game,” Nick Saban said Monday. “You’ve got to rush three guys sometimes, you’ve got rush four guys sometimes, you’ve got to rush five guys sometimes. I think you’ve got to mix it up and try to disguise what you’re doing.

"But there’s no question about the fact that it’s more taxing for a defensive lineman to play against a passing play and exert the kind of effort that you have to have in pass rush as opposed to what you may have to do on a running play. So it’s a space game. I also think that the defensive linemen have to run more on a lot of their perimeter and short passes because that’s the kind of game it is. Sometimes when they throw it, it's nothing more than a quick pitch and everybody needs to be rallying and leveraging the ball."

Alabama football's Will Anderson makes message clear to team: 'We're in our own way'

If you think Leach can’t derail someone’s national championship, consider these games from across his career.

 Texas Tech 42, No. 3 Texas 38 in 2002, the night Kliff Kingsbury emerged from obscurity to starting a path that has him as one of the NFL’s hottest coaches  

Washington State 30, No. 5 USC 27 in 2017, the game which Leach declared as “like Woodstock, only everybody had clothes on.”

Mississippi State 44, No. 6 LSU 34 in 2020, when LSU was defending national champion and was tied into Leachian knots which the Tigers haven’t entirely undone. 

Alabama linebacker Henry To'oTo'o (10) celebrates a defensive stop during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Mississippi, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

Those are just a few examples. Alabama remains a three-score favorite and isn’t locked into the transitive property. But Leach has had two weeks to prepare the Bulldogs, doing what he has always been committed to doing on offense and doing it over and over.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cec