Perhaps the biggest game of the Week 9 college football schedule will take place in Tuscaloosa when the 11th-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs look to get a program-defining victory over the first-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide.
The Bulldogs come into Saturday's contest undefeated, but without a victory against a Top 25 team this season. Nonetheless, after three seasons of mediocrity, it's finally looking as if head coach Dan Mullen is living up to expectations.
Meanwhile, it's hard to remember the tough times of the pre-Nick Saban era in Alabama. The Tide have once again been dominant in 2012 and have even started looking favorable compared to last year's national championship squad.
With both teams riding high, this should be a fantastic contest. For that reason, here's a look at everything you need to know about Saturday's battle of SEC foes.
Where: Bryant Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, AL
When: Saturday, October 27 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Alabama -24 (Vegas Insider)
The fact that the Tide's closest game this season has been a 19-point victory over Ole Miss is impressive, but I don't understand this spread in the slightest.
By Vegas standards, having home field advantage is worth three points. Last week, Alabama was 20-point favorites over Tennessee on the road, meaning that the oddsmakers thought the Tide were actually 23 points better than the Volunteers.
With this 24-point line, Vegas is essentially saying that Mississippi State and Tennessee are equals—and that could not be farther from the truth.
Mississippi State is easily the best team Alabama has played this season and presents a difficult challenge on both sides of the ball.
Obviously, I'm taking Alabama to win the game, but will be far closer than the spread indicates.
Over/Under: 46.5 (Vegas Insider)
The Tide are always a difficult team to gauge on whether or not to take the points, as evidenced by their four-to-three over/under ratio in regards to the points.
Nevertheless, the Bulldogs have a one-to-five ratio this season, so I feel pretty comfortable taking the under here.
If this game is going to be relatively close as predicted, Mississippi State will need to avoid making huge mistakes that lead to Alabama points.
Look for the teams to come close to the spread, but hit the under.
(Note: Over/Under ratios are courtesy of PredictEm.com)
Mississippi State Injury Report (via USA Today)
RB Johnathan Banks, Knee, Probable
OL Tobias Smith, Knee, Probable
Alabama Injury Report (via USA Today)
RB Dee Hart, Knee, Out for Season
WR DeAndrew White, Knee, Out for Season
RB Jalston Fowler, Knee, Out for Season
DB Jarrick Williams, Knee, Out for Season
WR Chris Black, Shoulder, Out for Season
Obviously, Alabama has the inside track to the national championship game and will make the trip to Miami if things go according to Saban's ultimate plan.
Coming into Week 9, the Tide has a comfortable lead in the BCS standings and has no fewer than three remaining games against Top 25 opponents. Win out and they are a shoe-in.
On the other hand, those who want to create "Remedial Chaos Theory" levels of confusion in the standings should root for a Mississippi State victory.
A win against the assumed best team in the land would keep the Bulldogs undefeated and obviously vault them up the standings. The only question is how far. Would they leapfrog Oregon, a team that has essentially been on bye weeks the entire season? Or would the preseason rankings once again become a massive source of scorn, as Mississippi State continues to be underrated due to incorrect preconceived notions?
Either way, this game may be the most meaningful of the weekend for long-term takeaways.
Keys for Mississippi State
First and foremost, the Bulldogs cannot make any critical mistakes—especially early in the game.
Thus far, the team has been good at avoiding ill-timed turnovers. Quarterback Tyler Russell has 15 touchdown passes against just one interception, as he has markedly improved from his performances as a freshman and sophomore.
Nonetheless, the true key to Mississippi State's chances on Saturday will be running back LaDarius Perkins. The scintillating junior has been a workhorse all season for the Bulldogs, but will face the toughest test of his career on Saturday.
Alabama comes into Week 9 giving up just 58.7 rushing yards per game, which is the best in college football. However, an even more telling statistic is that opposing offenses average just 1.9 yards per run against the Tide's defense this season.
That can only mean one thing: Something has to give on Saturday. Whether it's Perkins finding holes as he's done all season or yet another evisceration from the Alabama defense on an opposing running back, the Mississippi State star's stat line will likely indicate the final score.
Keys for Alabama
Perform as expected and the Tide should walk away victorious. They have more talent on both sides of the ball, are playing at home and have the best coach in college football leading the charge.
Even more fortunate is the fact that Alabama's biggest strength (running the football) coincides with Mississippi State's biggest weakness (run defense).
That should mean another huge day for both T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy on Saturday. Last weekend saw Yeldon take the reins against Tennessee, rushing for 129 yards and two touchdowns on just 15 carries in the victory.
A similar performance from one of the two backs will be necessary on Saturday, as the Bulldogs' secondary has made big plays all season and ranks third in the SEC with 12 interceptions.
Though the game will be closer than expected, Alabama has shown nothing to indicate that Mississippi State will have much of a shot on Saturday.
Expect a slight scare early before the Tide pull away in the second half.
Final Score Prediction: Alabama 27, Mississippi State 14