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Upset blueprint: 3 keys for Mississippi State against Alabama

Mississippi State cowbells
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No. 16 Mississippi State plays hosts to second-ranked Alabama in an SEC showdown Saturday night.

Dan Mullen is 0-8 against Alabama during his time in Starkville, but a MSU upset would turn the College Football Playoff world upside down and give the Bulldogs their first win over a Nick Saban-coached team since 2007.

Here are three keys for Mississippi State to pull the upset and create a cowbell cacophony.

1. Avoid the deep ball early

Mississippi State’s defense has shown marked improvement under first-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, but the Bulldogs were hurt early by the deep ball against Louisiana Tech, Georgia and Auburn. Louisiana Tech and Georgia each hit passes of more than 50 yards on their first possessions; Auburn hit a 49-yarder late in the first quarter of its win over MSU. In addition, LSU hit a 67-yard pass on its first possession that was called back by a penalty, and Texas A&M threw deep early, too, though it didn’t connect. But all five went right at the Bulldogs’ secondary and you can expect the Tide to do the same with Calvin Ridley. If the Bulldogs can fend off the deep ball, that will go a long way toward upsetting the Tide. Auburn and Georgia used the deep passes to get an early lead and cruised from there.

RELATED: Can Todd Grantham’s Mississippi State defense hang tough vs. Alabama?

2. Live in the back pocket of Jalen Hurts

Jalen Hurts is 23-1 as the starting quarterback from Alabama, and while his passing stats are not gaudy, he does have a 10-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio this season and can make you pay with his athleticism if you let him escape the pocket. The Bulldogs’ Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons must make it an uncomfortable night for the Hurts. Sweat has 6.5 sacks and Simmons has 3.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss. Alabama has surrendered 15 sacks, including four last week to LSU.

3. Be 100 percent in the red zone

Alabama is the only SEC program Dan Mullen has yet to beat at Mississippi State. In addition, the Bulldogs have averaged just 7.8 points per game against the Tide since 2009, with a high of 20 in 2014. When the Bulldogs get opportunities inside the red zone Saturday, they cannot come away empty. Field goal, touchdown – something – the Bulldogs must put up points or this one will be over not long after it starts.

RELATED: Alabama-Mississippi State is one of 3 best games in SEC this week

(You can follow Jake Wimberly on Twitter @Jakewim)

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