And if the beginning and end of top-ranked Alabama’s 38-7 rout of No. 13 Mississippi State on Saturday was any indication, the Tide looks ready for this week’s showdown in Baton Rouge.
The Missouri-like middle, on the other hand?
Continued worries about quarterback AJ McCarron’s health?
Yeah, not so much.
Two weeks after McCarron sustained a bruised knee at Missouri, touching off rumors of worse the following week, Alabama’s second-year starting quarterback jogged off the field and into the locker room in the fourth quarter against Mississippi State.
The nation’s pass-efficiency leader left the game with Alabama holding a 24-0 lead. He returned to the sideline but not to the game, which the Tide had in hand.
ESPN reported that McCarron had a bruised back, and Alabama coach Nick Saban confirmed it after the game.
“He has a back contusion, but he’s fine,” Saban said. “He could have gone back in the game.”
McCarron looked good prior to leaving the game, hitting on 16 of 23 passes for 208 yards, including a 57-yard touchdown bomb to Kenny Bell a 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Michael Williams.
Still, McCarron took two sacks against Mississippi State, and his second tweak in two weeks leaves one to wonder how well he’ll stand up to potential hits against LSU.
There was also the long, two-quarter gap between Alabama touchdowns, a span reminiscent of the Crimson Tide’s lightning delay lull in the 42-10 victory at Missouri.
After building a 21-0 lead on McCarron’s touchdown pass to Williams at 13:33 of the second quarter, Alabama didn’t find the end zone again until after McCarron left the game. Backup Phillip Ely dumped a short pass to running back Eddie Lacy, who ran to complete a 27-yard touchdown play at 13:06 of the fourth quarter.
The lull saw Alabama go through six possessions, including three consecutive three-and-outs in the second quarter.
The defense, meanwhile, needed two big plays from safety Robert Lester to keep State (7-1) from making good on a 16-play, 97-yard drive in the third quarter. Lester stopped LaDarius Perkins on second down and goal from the 1 then intercepted a Tyler Russell pass in the end zone on third down.
Saban didn’t seem alarmed by Alabama’s two-quarter snooze. As he did at Missouri, he touted the Tide’s 21-0 start.
“It was important for us to get off to a fast start in this game,” he said. “You’re preparing yourself to fight a 15-round fight, knowing that you’re going to have to take the fight to them in the early rounds.
“You can’t necessarily win the fight in the first round, but you can certainly lose it, and I think we had the right mental energy and the right physical energy to play in the game.”
That’s what this surprising battle of unbeaten teams became about for Alabama … the next game.
Mississippi State was enjoying its best start since 1999 but against a suspect schedule, a fact that made the Bulldogs 24-point underdogs in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Alabama had a 24-0 lead by halftime, thanks to Jeremy Shelley’s 34-yard field goal just before the break.
State got its lone score at garbage time, on backup quarterback Dak Prescott’s 2-yard pass to Robert Johnson with 4:39 to play.
Besides Alabama’s goal-line stand, the Bulldogs had just one other scoring threat, and that ended when Dee Milliner blocked Devon Bell’s 31-yard field goal attempt on State’s first possession.
The Tide started and finished strong, adding Ely’s pass to Lacy and Kenyan Drake’s 3-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
The announced crowd of 101,821 began to leaving in the third quarter on a windy, chilly night.
The Tide’s start meant that Alabama clearly didn’t look past the Bulldogs to No. 6 LSU, a team the Tide played twice last season, including Alabama’s 21-0 victory in the BCS title game in January.
The lull after Alabama’s blazing start made it seem the Tide did look away for a while, something Alabama can’t do in Baton Rouge.
An Alabama team that has had pass protection issues at points this season also doesn’t need to get an increasingly dinged McCarron hit. No doubt LSU’s defense is well aware.
Saban is plenty aware of what’s coming and showed it by maintaining form throughout Saturday’s game, scolding backups like defensive back Geno Smith in the fourth quarter.
Saban explained that he believes his backups can play better. Also, there’s the big picture, which just shrank to LSU week.
“We need to keep improving as a team,” Saban said. “You get to this point of the season, and it’s kind of like the playoffs in a way. You’ve got a tough game the next week. You’ve got a good opponent the next week. You’ve got somebody in your division that’s a really good team.
“So, we’re going to have to continue to improve and learn from our experiences today in terms of the good things that we did and also correct some of the things that we didn’t do very well.”
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.