If you watched this game and then look at the box score, a few things might surprise you. First of all, Mississippi outgained Alabama on offense, and it wasn't even particularly close: The Bulldogs had 428 yards, and Alabama had 335. Mississippi State had a healthy edge in first downs, 26-17. But when it comes to the only measure that really counts, Alabama came away with the win, 25-20.
Part of that boils down to the three interceptions that Dak Prescott threw, though one of those was of the flukish, tipped-at-the-line variety. Much of the blame goes to some bone-headed play-calling by Dan Mullen, particularly late in the game. And another portion of what happened comes down to Alabama once more playing like the Crimson Tide used to play during the most recent dynasty.
As for Prescott: Even setting aside the three interceptions (itself a rather massive caveat), he was inconsistent -- missing a wide-open receiver for what would have been a touchdown early in the game and struggling to get much on the ground, particularly in the first half. Going 27-of-45 for 290 yards and two touchdowns -- again, setting aside the interceptions -- isn't exactly the stuff Heisman campaigns are made of, and 22 carries for 82 yards is not bad but not great.
Dan Mullen's role in the loss is mostly on leaning too heavily on Prescott runs early in the game, when Alabama was clearly intent on taking that part of Mississippi State's offense away, and then having his team saunter down the field on a three-minute touchdown drive that started with 3:18 left on the clock and the Bulldogs down two scores. Mississippi State was down 12 points, but the team took its time on a 13-play possession that left 15 seconds on the clock. Even if the Bulldogs had recovered the on-side kick (they didn't), they would have needed a miracle to win the game.
But let's not miss another aspect of this: For 10 months now, a number of analysts (self included) have said that Alabama just isn't quite as frightening as it used to be, that the Tide doesn't scare anybody anymore. And yet, here was the kind of game that was so familiar to us during the dynasty era -- a highly-ranked team came into a game with Alabama looking to prove itself, and left with a painful reminder that there's a reason Nick Saban is seen as one of the best coaches in the game.
There weren't any real superstars in this one for the Tide, just a bunch of players who put together solid outings. Blake Sims was 19-of-31 for 211 yards and a touchdown, and had two huge scrambles for first downs in the fourth quarter. T.J. Yeldon carried the ball 16 times for 72 rushing yards and a touchdown. Amari Cooper did make some spectacular plays, but eight catches for 88 yards feels decidedly average for him, especially considering that 50 of those yards came on one (highlight-worthy) catch.
And there was that old hallmark drive, something that started long before Lane Kiffin started calling the offensive plays in Tuscaloosa: Once Mississippi State narrowed the deficit to 19-13 early in the fourth quarter, Alabama took over and ran a methodical, 15-play touchdown drive that took six minutes off the clock. It wasn't a fatal blow for Mississippi State, but it was signature Alabama, and Dan Mullen's answer came far short of what was needed to get the Bulldogs back in the game.
The season is not over for either of these teams. Mississippi State still potentially has a chance to claw its way back into the playoff hunt, especially if the Bulldogs win out and Alabama drops the game against Auburn to lose the SEC West. And if the Tide does that, many of the doubters will return and say that this was just one night in Bryant-Denny Stadium, not the beginning of a return to the Saban's glory days.
But that would require Auburn coming into Tuscaloosa -- where Alabama has been at its best this year -- and taking that title away from the Tide. And right now, Alabama doesn't look like a team that's ready to give up anything. It's more intent on taking back the respect that its lost in recent months, and reminding everyone why it had that respect to begin with.