TUSCALOOSA _ While the focus of the Southeastern Conference may be on other things, from the Cam Newton situation at Auburn to Florida and South Carolina playing for a spot in the conference title game, the University of Alabama's attention this week has been fixed squarely on Mississippi State.
Don't look now, but the Bulldogs have won six straight and at 7-2 (3-2 SEC) are 19th in the BCS standings.
"You can't sleep on Mississippi State," junior wide receiver Julio Jones said. "They come talented and hit you in the mouth, so you have to come ready to play."
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MSU's only two losses have been to Auburn (17-14) and at LSU (29-7), while its wins include Georgia, at Houston, at Florida and Kentucky. Over the past five weeks, its running game has accounted for 1,336 yards (averaging nearly 270) and 13 touchdowns.
"They're a lot better than last year, I think," junior defensive end Marcell Dareus said. "They're more sound. They had a pretty good running back last year and they couldn't lean on him so much, so they had to extend the offense and make better decision at quarterback, and their defense is playing really good. They're making better decisions on offense, spreading the ball a lot, getting it to different people, giving everyone different looks."
Meanwhile, Alabama's defense may still be fifth nationally in scoring defense, but has fallen to fourth in the SEC against the run and sixth vs. the pass.
Running back Vick Ballard leads MSU in rushing by averaging 77.4 yards, but everything goes through quarterback Chris Relf, who has 507 rushing yards and 926 passing while executing the same kind of plays head coach Dan Mullen called as Florida's offensive coordinator.
"They do a lot of different things on offense with all the quarterback runs very similar to (Tim) Tebow a couple of years ago," Coach Nick Saban said. "Defensively, they do a lot of blitzing and have a very aggressive style. Really a tough preparation for our team."
During SEC Media Days, senior quarterback Greg McElroy said the team that impressed him the most last season in terms of its preparation was Mississippi State, which kept within striking distance until two fourth-quarter touchdowns resulted in a 31-3 final.
"They're a different team from last year, that's very evident," he said earlier this week. "They've really improved defensively."
The Bulldogs are second in the SEC in scoring defense (ahead of Alabama, 16.4 to 17.5), and third in passing-defense efficiency.
Factor in Alabama is coming off a loss, and the chances of MSU sneaking up on Alabama are roughly none.
"They create a lot of negative plays with their aggressive, pressure style that they use, in terms of the blitzes, the pressures, the fire zones and things that they do," Saban said. "They probably create more negative plays than anybody we've played all year, and it's important to get a hat on a hat, and they're physical up front, so we expect a really tough game on the line of scrimmage."
Sophomore running back Trent Richardson (knee) did some running, but if he isn't better Thursday will likely be held out of the game. If so, redshirt freshman Eddie Lacy and junior Demetrius Goode will have bigger roles.
"We are a little beat up there if Trent can't go," Saban said about the running backs. "Mark (Ingram) is in good shape and doing fine and will do a good job for us. I thought he did a really good job in the last game."
Saban called junior linebacker Chris Jordan "very questionable" and redshirt freshman D.J. Fluker (groin) "very close" to returning.
Sophomore Kerry Murphy continued to work with the first unit on the defensive line, while Jordan was still wearing a black jersey signaling no contact.
Don't expect Alabama to improve its number of sacks this week. MSU has given up four all season.
Jones on his matchup with LSU's Patrick Peterson last week: "I did all right. There's always room for improvement."
Saban is looking for a big home-field advantage Saturday: "I think we've had outstanding positive energy from our fans and the support has been great in Bryant-Denny Stadium. I think it contributes to the success that we've had in our stadium. I think probably no time, in a long time, is it more critical that we have that kind of enthusiasm and that kind of energy for our team."
Junior safety Mark Barron on what's been the toughest thing in terms of leadership this season: "Getting some of the guys to be consistent and doing what they're supposed to do."