Preview | The three obstacles Alabama must overcome vs. Mississippi St.

The Crimson Tide may be predicted to win against Mississippi State Saturday, but Alabama’s shortcomings on special teams and the absence of Jaylen Waddle do nothing to guarantee an easy win.

1. The defense must stop Mike Leach’s infamous air raid offense.

After a season opener against LSU, the Mississippi State Bulldogs have seen a dramatic drop in performance on the offensive side of the football. First-year head coach Mike Leach worked to install an entirely new offense this offseason with transfer quarterback K.J. Costello. Costello started the season off on a great note when he broke the SEC record for passing yards in a single game (623) and led the Bulldogs to a victory over the reigning national championship Tigers. Since then, Costello has only thrown one touchdown, supplemented with eight interceptions. 

Leach has been a head coach in the Big 12 and the Pac 12, where there’s usually less defensive talent and more focus on offense, which allows a high volume of passing. Leach and his coaching staff have learned the hard way that kind of offense is not as successful in the SEC. The Bulldogs accrued back to back losses against inferior SEC teams Kentucky and Arkansas. 

Alabama should not have much of a problem being able to defend against this one-dimensional offense. Although the defensive back core has not played particularly well against teams like Texas A&M and Ole Miss, the unit has had its bright spots. Freshman Malachi Moore and junior Daniel Wright have two interceptions each, and both were able to intercept Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett in the second half of the game. This shifted the momentum completely to the Crimson Tide’s side and allowed the team to control the pace during a much higher-pressure matchup. 

The game against Mississippi State should not be any different. Alabama should be able to handle the pass-happy Bulldogs and shut down chances of an upset. 

2. Offense must prove they can go on without Jaylen Waddle.

The absence of junior wide receiver Jaylen Waddle’s playmaking ability did not hinder the Crimson Tide against the Tennessee Volunteers. This will most likely be the case in the game Saturday versus the Bulldogs. Later in the season, Waddle’s absence will likely become more apparent, but against less talented teams like Mississippi State, don’t expect Alabama to miss a beat on offense. 

Bolden filled in for Waddle in the opening drive against Tennessee after Waddle fractured his ankle on the first kickoff of the game. Bolden had 6 catches for 94 yards, which isn’t far from what Waddle has averaged this season. 

With more experienced wide receivers like senior Devonta Smith and sophomore John Metchie III lining up alongside him, Bolden should have the least talented player cover him each snap. That’s no slight to Bolden’s skill—if he played elsewhere, he most likely would be a No. 1 target. But given the stacked talent at receiver for the Crimson Tide, Bolden will have an easier time breaking the weaker part of the coverage against Mississippi State.

3. Special teams must keep improving.

Throughout the season, fans and analysts have praised Alabama kicker, sophomore Will Reichard, who has flawlessly kicked extra points and field goals this season. Reichard has gone above and beyond typical expectations for Alabama kickers, with a 38-for-38 record. Reichard’s prowess on the field is surely a thrill for fans, but the extremely uncharacteristic punting game is tough to look past. Freshman punter Sam Johnson is averaging a lowly 35.4 yards per punt in comparison to former Crimson Tide punters, like J.K. Scott, who averaged 45.6 yards per punt. Coach Nick Saban has been adamant about improving the punting game in several press conferences with the media and tried to make a change last week versus Tennessee. Senior punter Charlie Scott made his season debut but performed similarly to Johnson. Though there may not be as many punts this game as last week, Alabama is still trying to find an answer for their field position woes. 

Field position and kickoff coverage has also been a problem for the Crimson Tide. This was most evident in the game versus Georgia, where the Bulldogs had six kickoff returns for 161 yards total. In closer contested games, especially in the postseason, teams will be able to capitalize on this weakness. Alabama must solve this to continue to succeed in the future.