By: Evan Lachnit, KCOU Sports
For the second year in a row, the Missouri Tigers have won the SEC East and will play in the SEC Championship game in Atlanta against a school from the state of Alabama. But instead of Auburn, the Tigers will take on the mighty force of the Alabama Crimson Tide.
On paper and at first glance, it would appear that this is a mismatch of large proportions, and Alabama should be well on their way to booking a ticket to either Pasadena or New Orleans. But it would be impossible to just dismiss the 10-2 Missouri Tigers.
Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide has had an impressive season with their only blemish on their schedule being a seven-point loss on the road to Ole Miss. Despite the average play of quarterback Blake Sims, the Tide still has the 15th best offense in the country. Bama is averaging close to 500 total yards of offense a game and is averaging 36.5 points a game.
The Tide’s offensive numbers are not much different than past years, but they have had an identity change. Under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, the Tide have more of a wide open offense and have plays designed to get large chunks of yards at a time. That is different from more of the ground and pound attack that Alabama has shown in the past championship years.
Amari Cooper is a big reason why Bama has had such an explosive offense down field this season. Cooper is second in the nation in receiving with 103 receptions for 1573 yards and 14 touchdowns. Cooper pretty much wrapped up the Fred Biletnikoff Award that is given to the top wide receiver in college football. With a big game against Missouri he could be heading to New York as a Heisman Finalist. Cooper is the key to the Tide’s offense and will be a key point of emphasis for the Tigers in trying to slow down the passing attack of Bama.
As good as Cooper is, the passing attack of Bama still has its flaws. Sims has struggled at points this season and was close to being pulled last week in the Iron Bowl after throwing three interceptions. Sims is dynamic, though, and will use his legs to make plays and advance the ball down the field. The Missouri defensive line is notorious for making opposing quarterbacks feel uncomfortable in the pocket and that will be a key for the Tigers in slowing down the Tide’s offense.
The Missouri defense has played extremely well this season, but one thing that has tripped them up is physical offensive lines and a strong rushing attack. In the Tigers’ two losses this season both Indiana and Tevin Coleman and Georgia and Nick Chub ran the ball right up the gut of the Missouri defense. As much as the Tide have opened up the offense, this season they still have the ability to run the ball efficiently. Though this is not Trent Richardson and the monstrous and overpowering offensive line the Tide had in 2011, the duo of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry has been efficient combing for 1639 yards and 16 touchdowns. It would not be surprising to see Bama come out and try to out physical the Missouri defense and run the ball. That would open up the play action and allow for Cooper to do what he does in the secondary.
The Alabama defense is yet again one of the best in the country this season. The Tide is the 12th ranked defense in the country and are giving up on average less than 17 points per game. Alabama held every opponent this season under 24 points besides one game against Auburn where they gave up an uncharacteristically high 44 points. The Auburn game tape should play an important role in Missouri’s offensive game plan heading into the game this weekend.
Auburn showed that the Bama defense is susceptible to the big play. Auburn’s Sammie Coates was able to get behind the Alabama secondary multiple times and made big plays all night. The trouble for Auburn was that they were unable to turn those big plays into touchdowns. Auburn had four drives in the first half stall in the redzone and was forced to kick four field goals. If Auburn were able to score touchdowns on those drives the game would have had a whole different outcome.
To Alabama’s credit, the Tide’s defense stepped up when they needed to in a bend-don’t-break attitude. Besides the deep ball, Alabama has always seemed to struggle with mobile quarterbacks under Saban, whether it be Cam Newton, Nick Marshall, Trevor Knight or Johnny Manziel. Maty Mauk has shown that he can make a difference with his legs and adds another factor that the Bama defense must prepare for.
Misdirection and motion has also gave Alabama trouble in the past. Even with that the Tide still has the second rated rush defense in the country giving up less than 100 yards a game. With the speed of Marcus Murphy, the Tigers would be smart to add plays where he comes in motion across the field in front of Mauk pre-snap to get the safeties and linebackers to move out of position. The Tigers will simply not be able to just go one on one against the Tide’s physical defense. The Tigers will have to spread the field and open up the playbook to get their playmakers like Murphy, Darius White and Bud Sasser into space. Alabama has a middle of the pack pass defense that rates 58th in the nation.
The key matchup in this championship game will be the Missouri offense against the stout Alabama defense. The Missouri defense has the power to slow down Cooper and the Bama offense. The question is: Will they be able to score enough points to win? If the Tigers score at least 28 points it puts them in good position to pull off the upset. Without that many points it will be a tough haul for the Tigers to beat Bama, who would be playoff bound.