- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Don't sleep on Mississippi State.
That's the message Nick Saban would like to deliver to his top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide as it travels to face a dangerous Bulldogs team on the road in Starkville on Saturday night.
"This is a real challenge for our team," Saban said. "It was obviously a very emotional win for us against a very good LSU team. Mississippi State, I think, has probably the best 4-5 team in the country. They've lost five games to top 20 teams and have played extremely well all year long.
"It's a difficult preparation because they do a great job of coaching their players. I think the focus of our guys needs to be on what we need to do to improve, what we need to do to prepare well so that we can continue to try to play our best.
"That's going to be the real key for us."
Mississippi State players to watch
QB Dak Prescott: He's Mississippi State's leading passer and he's also Mississippi State's leading rusher. So if Prescott can't go against Alabama, look for the Bulldogs offense to suffer. Tyler Russell is obviously a very capable quarterback, but he's a pocket passer through and through. The added dimension Prescott brings with his feet gives Mississippi State's its best chance against the Tide.
WR Jameon Lewis: It's interesting -- and telling -- that Lewis is the only non-quarterback in the country with three touchdown passes. That's not written to imply that he'll take snaps under center on Saturday, but it's important to note Lewis' versatility. He's a guy who has to be accounted for when he has his hands on the football.
DE Preston Smith: The 6-foot-6, 255-pound junior has been on a tear of late, racking up 2.5 tackles for loss in the last three games. He leads Mississippi State with 6.5 tackles for loss and is tied for the most sacks with 2.5.
Alabama players to watch
CB Cyrus Jones: Bradley Sylve still isn't 100 percent, according to Saban, so look for Jones to get his second straight start at cornerback opposite Deion Belue. Jones struggled early against LSU and settled down in the second half last weekend. How he matures over the next few weeks will be key to Alabama's success defending the pass.
S Landon Collins: What more can Collins do? The answer is not very much. Since taking over for Vinnie Sunseri at strong safety against Arkansas, Collins has 15 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, three pass breakups and an interception he returned for a touchdown. You don't get a more all-around effort than that.
TE O.J. Howard: Watching Howard run 52 yards for a touchdown, the point was hammered home: Alabama's freshman tight end has star potential. "O.J. is very athletic," Saban explained, "he's got really good speed." And over the season, he's rounded out his game, improving blocking to the point where right tackle Austin Shepherd said, "He's come a long way. … You can just tell that guy likes to work and he's improved a ton."
10: AJ McCarron threw all three of his touchdowns against LSU while facing five-or-more pass rushers, improving his SEC-best total of passing touchdowns against the blitz to 13.
80: Alabama's defense just keeps humming along. Since the start of the 2009 season, the Crimson Tide has allowed the fewest touchdowns in the country (80). The next fewest is LSU with 120.
0.5: OK, so Alabama's streak of 17 quarters without allowing a sack ended against LSU, but as McCarron explained it, it wasn't the line's fault. McCarron ran a naked bootleg and his receiver wasn't there, leaving him no option but to take the loss. "So you can put half of it on me and half of it on the tight end" McCarron said. Still, one sack in 21 quarters of play isn't bad.
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