The Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Classic was once one of the most unpredictable and entertaining games among all high school postseason games. Counting the 2005 game, all but seven of the first 18 contests featured a margin of victory that was less than a touchdown.
Times have changed. As the Mississippi all-stars huddled at the end of practice on Thursday, the comments centered on Alabama’s five-game winning streak in the series.
“We know we’re up against a great challenge, but I really like our attitude,” said South Panola High coach Lance Pogue, coach of the Mississippi all stars. “I think we’ve got a lot of outstanding players and our attitude and work ethic has been good.”
What changed? How did one of the most competitive all-star games in the nation turn into one of the most predictable? Mississippi High School Activities Association director of development Todd Kelly has seen all but one of the last 22 contests and while the former journalist didn’t want to publicly comment on the issue, he noted the obvious contrast in large high school programs and population in the two states.
Alabama’s estimated 2013 population is 4,822,023, feeding 128 Class 5A and Class 6A football programs in the state. Mississippi has an estimated population of 2,984,926 to contribute to 64 Class 5A and 6A schools.
“We obviously want to try and get the best players, but you want it to be fair, you want the small-school players to have a shot,” Pogue said. “Obviously, the population over here (is a difference) — a lot of big schools, a lot more population. No excuse, we try to get the best 40, and I’m sure they try to get the best 40. It just seems like the last several years, maybe their 40 has been better than our 40.”
That’s one area where the selection committees for the two states may differ. Alabama changed its format several years ago, grabbing the bulk of its players from 5A and 6A schools. In 1995, 21 of the players came from the two largest classifications, but that number had jumped to 34 by 2010. Players from smaller schools, even the talented ones, play several positions and may develop into better position-specific players later in college, whereas players from larger schools need less coaching to face the high quality talent in an all-star game.
“In this game, it doesn’t really get down to any coaching strategy because you play with a certain set of rules,” Pogue said. “So the players are really the ones who stand out and make it happen in this game. It’s not like a certain scheme a coach put in made the difference. Obviously it’s a players’ game, and the last several years, they’ve had the better players.
“I know two years ago, the quarterback at Florida State (Jameis Winston) was in it and the running back at Alabama (T.J. Yeldon) was in it. You’ve got to have linemen on both sides to have a chance, you’ve got to have some guys offensively at the skill positions that can make a play because it’s hard to put a lot of drives together out there. And defensively, you’ve got to have guys who can play because when you play against guys like Yeldon and Winston, those guys are going to make big plays, and you have to have athletic guys that can match up with that. But that’s easier said than done.”
While the all-star rosters of both sides read like a who’s eho of college stars, the game is often decided by, as coaches like to say, big-time players making big-time plays, and if your team has more of them, you obviously have a better chance of winning.
“In an all-star game, you’ve got a lot of unknowns,” Pogue said. “You’ve got a short period of time (to practice for the game), you hope you don’t turn the ball over, you hope you don’t give up big plays. Those things are unknowns going into it.
“On paper, I think we’re very talented. Obviously, you don’t know until you get out there. I know Alabama’s very talented, they always are. I think it’s got a chance to be a great matchup.”