Behind Enemy Lines: Taylor Rayburn talks top-20 showdown with AlabamaBy Matthew Speakman | 11/08/2017 10:30pm
Another week, another ranked opponent for Alabama. The Crimson Tide did not face one until last week, but it is in the middle of the toughest month of the team's schedule. This week, Alabama gets No. 16 Mississippi State. Alabama has not lost to the Bulldogs since 2007 in Nick Saban's first year. This season, Mississippi State is 7-2, with its two losses coming against top-10 opponents. To get more insight on the Bulldogs, we talked to Taylor Rayburn, the sports editor of Mississippi State's student newspaper, The Reflector. Here is what he had to say:
Q: With so much coaching chaos around the SEC, how important has it been that Mississippi State has a stable guy in Dan Mullen?
A: This has been extremely important, especially since Mullen’s whole system is built around development. MSU will never pull in top talent: the school does not have the pedigree and Starkville as a town is not a very alluring destination. However, Mullen still manages to produce starters like former 3-star QB Dak Prescott, 3-star Johnathan Banks, who won the Thorpe Award and many more two and three star players he developed into NFL players. That is because MSU redshirts most – if not all – of their freshman classes, and develops them over time. Now in Mullen’s ninth season, you see the development paying off.
Q: What strides have you seen Nick Fitzgerald take this year?
A: Fitzgerald has not really taken the strides MSU fans wanted to see out of him this season. He has not taken the steps to improve as a passer. Where he has improved, however, is off the field. Last season, he did not want to step into the leadership role, but he has this year. He has the whole team behind him this season, something which was not the case last year.
Q: Just how tough is Fitzgerald to plan against?
A: By the time Fitzgerald is finished at MSU, he will probably hold the SEC record for career rushing yards by a QB. He currently leads the team in rushing with 822 yards. Some compare him to Tim Tebow as a runner, but he has better speed than Tebow. Fitzgerald is someone who can pound inside, but he is best on the edge. He is deceptively fast, once he reaches his top speed he out runs defensive backs. The key to stopping Fitzgerald is not letting him reach his top speed, because once he gets that momentum he is hard to stop.
Q: How lethal is the one-two punch of Fitzgerald and Aeris Williams?
A: It depends on how Williams is playing. When Williams is a threat to opposing defenses the way he was against LSU, MSU’s run-pass option plays become unstoppable. When Williams is going, opposing defenses have to worry about too many things between Williams, Fitzgerald’s legs, and Fitzgerald’s arm. The key to this offense is the effectiveness of their running game, because when it is ineffective like it was against Auburn and Georgia, MSU struggles to move the ball.
Q: Do you think the Bulldogs can get away with just running the ball, or will Fitzgerald need to beat Alabama through the air?
A: No team will beat a defense as talented as Alabama by being one-dimensional. Dan Mullen knows the talent disparity between the two teams is too high to be one-dimensional. If MSU wants to move the ball on Saturday, all three parts of the run-pass option have to be effective.
Q: The Bulldogs are 24th in rushing defense this season. How big will it be for them to slow down Alabama's rushing attack?
A: It will be huge. The front seven have been a strength for MSU all season long, and it starts in the middle with nose guard Jeffrey Simmons. Simmons is the lone 5-star recruit on MSU’s team, and he deserved every bit of his ranking out of high school. MSU needs to not only stop Alabama’s running backs, but we also need to keep Jalen Hurts inside the pocket and make him beat MSU with his arm. If Hurts is able to roll outside and scramble a few times, it gives MSU’s defense too much to worry about.
Q: How have the Bulldogs responded since those back-to-back losses to Auburn and Georgia?
A: They had their bye week after those loses, and have gone on a four game win streak since, including blowout wins over Kentucky and Texas A&M. They took that week as a time to regain themselves and work on some things. The players said they let the LSU game and the ranking go to their head, but will not let it happened this go around.
Q: Finally, give us a score prediction and why you chose that.
A: I have Alabama winning 31-21. The game will be close for three quarters, but eventually Alabama’s depth will shine through. Fitzgerald will break away for a couple long runs, but other than that, MSU will struggle to move the ball. Alabama will struggle early against MSU’s defense, but eventually their talent will wear MSU down.