Missouri came into the 2012 season filled with excitement at the prospects of entering the SEC, readied with a roster that many felt was good enough to be an outside contender in what most figured to be a lackluster East division. When the Tigers carried a lead over a top ten Georgia team deep into the third quarter, all outstanding hope seemed to be coming to fruition, but the season has since crashed and burned. Much of the Missouri fanbase is unhappy with on-field play in recent weeks, and more than a few have questioned the overall direction of the program under Gary Pinkel.
Either way, with the Tigers sitting at 3-3 with the game against Alabama followed later in the year by road trips to Gainesville, Knoxville, and College Station, even reaching bowl eligibility is far from a certainty at the halfway point of the 2012 season. Barring a sudden and unexpected second half resurgence, Missouri will have to fight and claw and avoid further upsets just to earn a late December trip to Birmingham or Shreveport.
Many have blamed the first half struggles on the inherently difficult acclimation to a new conference, but those who do so overlook one crucial point: Missouri has struggled even when playing non-conference opponents and the traditional bottom-feeders of the SEC. It took a last-minute defensive stand to hold off Arizona State, 24-20, and two weeks later it took another defensive stand via a timely turnover in the final minutes to overcome Central Florida. Last weekend against Vanderbilt -- by no means an SEC power -- Mizzou somehow managed to outgain the 'Dores, at home, by 100 yards and yet still found a way to lose.
New conference or not, Missouri has simply played poorly in the first half of the season and has been a disappointing underachiever with a roster that otherwise looks solid on paper. Injuries have played a role, and mid-week drug-related suspensions a week ago did not help against Vanderbilt, but to reiterate the insight of Bill Parcells, you are what your record says you are.
Looking forward to tomorrow afternoon, Missouri starting quarterback James Franklin will not play after suffering a sprained MCL in the loss to Vanderbilt. In his place, redshirt freshman Corbin Berkstresser will get the start, though he does have some experience under his belt. Franklin has been banged up for most of the season, and Berkstresser performed admirably in the win over Arizona State before putting together a solid showing in garbage time duty against South Carolina. All of that came crashing down a week ago, however, when he went a mere 9-30 for 189 yards against the 'Dores. At 6'3 and 235 pounds, he has the size and the raw physical tools to be a quality player in this conference, but his struggles last week indicate that he could be in for a long afternoon against Alabama.
For better or for worse, however, Berkstresser is the key for Missouri, and he must lead an offense that, notwithstanding recent struggles and injuries, ought to be a difficult match-up for the Crimson Tide. Much like Ole Miss two weeks ago, Missouri routinely spreads the field and often goes without a huddle. Gary Pinkel and company have shown little hesitation to go empty back, when necessary, and the up tempo pace is the norm. With quality quarterback play, this can be a very productive and dangerous unit. The passing game makes it all go, though it should be noted that tailback Kendial Lawrence, who is undersized but explosive and generally the type of back who excels in a wide open passing attack, has also been effective in the running game.
The real concern here for Alabama is both the size and the overall quality of the wide receiver corps. Junior Marcus Lucas, listed at 6'5 and 215 pounds, leads the teams with 30 receptions, and the 6'1, 200 pound senior T.J. Moe has been a mainstay of their offense the past three years. L'Damian Washington and Dorial Green-Beckham are 6'4 and 6'6, respectively, and both have generated explosive plays in the passing game. Even though Missouri hasn't thrown the football downfield consistently well this season, this is a unit that will present problems for most any defensive backfield, Alabama included. Provided that they have a quarterback who can get them the football -- no given, mind you -- the 'Bama secondary could be seriously tested tomorrow afternoon. An apparently healthy Deion Belue, who expects to play and who has seemingly recovered from a shoulder injury sustained against Ole Miss, should be an added boost for the Alabama defensive backfield, but even so this is largely an untested group with razor-thin depth at the cornerback position.
In turn, however, Alabama needs to control the Missouri offense at the point of attack. Call it Old Man Football if you wish, but the Missouri offensive line has been devastated by injuries this season, and the unit that will take the field tomorrow will be as rag-tag as a unit can be. Center Mitch Morse and right guard Jack Meiners will be out tomorrow, and left tackle Elvis Fisher is also a question mark. Two freshmen and a former walk-on are expected to get starting nods, and given the injuries, inexperience, and lack of continuity, the Alabama front seven needs to control this game in the trenches to relieve any potential pressure being placed on the secondary.
On the opposite side of the football, the Alabama offense looks to get back on track after an ugly performance two weeks ago against Ole Miss, and once again the emphasis will be placed on the 'Bama offensive line. Big 12 defensive stereotypes aside, Missouri is very stout along the defensive front, and the Alabama offensive line will have to overcome its inconsistent and occasionally lackluster play this season. Brad Madison, Kony Ealy, and Michael Sam rotate at defensive end, and that triumvirate has produced nine sacks to date; Madison, too, is typically very good against the run as well. The interior of the defensive line is solidified by Sheldon Richardson, the former super recruit, and though Richardson has unfortunately received much publicity over his poor choice of comments prior to the Georgia game, he is in fact one of the better interior linemen in the conference and he will play on Sunday.
Taken as a whole, Missouri has the best defensive line that Alabama has faced to date, and it's not a close comparison either. To be sure, provided the Tide line lives up to its billing, they should be able to win the battle in the trenches against Missouri, but if the spotty play continues expect Missouri to take full advantage. The back seven for Missouri is not particularly impressive -- cornerback E.J. Gaines is a fine player, but there is little around him, and standout middle linebacker Will Ebner is likely to miss with a hamstring injury -- but make no mistake: The Alabama offense operates from the inside out, with the driving force being an effective interior running game. The passing game has not been able to successfully throw the football down the field, and has generally been incapable of moving the football with ease when the Alabama running game is being limited. If the 'Bama offensive line wins in the trenches, all well and good. If not, don't be surprised if things grind to a relative halt much like they did against Ole Miss.
The good news for Alabama is that the road trip to Columbia appears nowhere near as daunting as it did six weeks ago, given the Tigers' numerous injuries and overall disappointing season. For the most part, it's a relatively simple formula for victory: play reasonably well, take advantage of Missouri's rag-tag offensive line, protect the football, and get back on the bus with a win in tow. No moving of mountains or heroic individual performances ought to be necessary.
Nevertheless, Missouri, and in particular Gary Pinkel, needs a big win in the worst way, and no win comes bigger than Alabama these days, and in addition, as discussed above, admittedly this could be somewhat of a difficult match-up for the Crimson Tide. More importantly for Alabama, however, is that the stretch run of SEC play begins with Missouri, and it will only get more difficult in the following two weeks with road trips to Knoxville and Baton Rouge. At some point, if Alabama legitimately expects to repeat as national champions, it must start playing to that level on a consistent basis and not merely doing just enough to get by week-to-week against disappointing opponents.
Hope for the best.