The Alabama Crimson Tide made their case to become the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff standings next week with a thrilling 31-24 victory over the Mississippi State Bulldogs on Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium.
Trailing 24-17 early in the fourth quarter, Alabama scored two touchdowns in the final 10 minutes, including DeVonta Smith's 26-yard reception with 25 seconds remaining, to keep its undefeated season (10-0) alive.
Heading into Saturday, Georgia was the top-ranked team in the playoff standings. However, the Auburn Tigers destroyed the Bulldogs 40-17, which opened the door for Alabama to claim the throne.
This was just Alabama's second win of the season against a team currently ranked in the Top 25 of the playoff standings (LSU). The Crimson Tide haven't had a lot of chances to shine against marquee opponents, but Mississippi State represented their opportunity to make a statement, and they ran with it.
Considering both teams entered Saturday ranked in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense, it seemed like this would be a low-scoring slugfest.
Instead, both offenses came out hot, though in different ways. Alabama used two big plays from quarterback Jalen Hurts to wide receiver Calvin Ridley to set up its two first-half touchdowns.
Brett Hudson of the Commercial Dispatch showed the disparity between the Crimson Tide's big plays and the rest of their offense in the first 30 minutes:
ESPN's Peter Burns humorously showed what it was like for Mississippi State to strike first in this game after Bulldogs running back Aeris Williams scampered in on an 11-yard run to help make it 7-0:
It's rare for Alabama to get smacked in the face, but the Bulldogs made sure they were the aggressors throughout. Mississippi State's 14 points in the first half marked the third-most Alabama's defense had given up in a contest all season.
Per Will Sammon of the Clarion-Ledger, Williams, who scored both of his team's touchdowns in the first half, seemed to be aware of the magnitude of the game:
Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen kept going back to the ground game. The team had 49 carries for 172 yards, which allowed it to control the clock for 38 minutes and 56 seconds, compared to Alabama's 21:04.
Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald started the second half with a two-yard touchdown run on the Bulldogs' opening possession, which also ended a historic 11-year streak for Alabama's defense.
Per Ben Jones of the Tuscaloosa News, Alabama hadn't allowed three rushing touchdowns in a game since Oklahoma State pulled it off in the 2006 Independence Bowl. The Tide's Nick Saban was about to finish his second—and final—season as head coach of the Miami Dolphins when that game was played.
A hallmark of Alabama throughout the Saban era has been a stout run defense. The Crimson Tide entered Saturday ranked second among FBS teams with 75.8 rushing yards allowed per game and 2.5 yards allowed per carry this season.
It's worth noting Alabama was playing without linebackers Shaun Dion Hamilton (broken patella) and Mack Wilson (injured foot), who would have been in the middle of those running plays the Bulldogs were having so much success with.
As lopsided as the time of possession was for Mississippi State, Alabama kept hanging around. Damien Harris' 14-yard touchdown with 9:49 left in the fourth quarter tied the score at 24. The Crimson Tide had no problems slashing through Mississippi State's run defense with 202 yards.
After Alabama's defense forced a punt on Mississippi State's next drive, the offense had a chance to take the lead back with just over two minutes remaining, but kicker Andy Pappanastos missed a 41-yard field-goal attempt.
Zac Jackson of The Athletic noted Pappanastos could face Saban's wrath after that:
The good news for Pappanastos is Alabama's defense forced a three-and-out to set up some late-game heroics. The big-play duo of Hurts and Ridley struck again with a 31-yard gain on 3rd-and-15 to Mississippi State's 26-yard line, setting up Smith's touchdown on the next play.
Alabama did give Mississippi State a chance to tie the score on an untimed down after Keith Holcombe was called for pass interference. Fitzgerald's Hail Mary attempt sailed out of the back of the end zone, preserving the Crimson Tide's win.
Even though the game wasn't as crisp and pretty as Alabama can be at its best, this is the kind of victory that can build character for a championship team because it won at less than full strength:
This is the kind of game that Mississippi State needs to win if it wants to take a leap in the SEC and national spotlight. The Bulldogs were at home with a lead in the fourth quarter and couldn't close it out.
That's a testament to the depth and talent Saban builds with his roster every year at Alabama. Hurts didn't have his best statistical game, as he went 10-of-19 for 242 yards, but he made the play at the end to win.
Victories like this are why Alabama is in the playoff mix every year. It will have essentially a practice game next week against Mercer before it closes the regular season against Auburn to determine the SEC West champion.