"I just told the players at halftime, `We have 30 minutes. A lot of you guys have a lot of goals and aspirations. This is a gut-check as to what kind of heart you have, what kind of character you have and what kind of competitor you are in how you go out and play the second half of this game. I believe in you, I think we can win and I think we will win if everybody makes a commitment to doing their best in the second half.' I was really pleased with the way the players responded and how they came out and played." - Coach Nick Saban
Gut-check. If last Saturday's comeback against hated rival Auburn wasn't a gut check, then such an exploration of one's abdominal region simply doesn't exist.
After charging out to an early lead and falling behind just before the half, it appeared the Crimson Tide would suffer the same fate it suffered in last year's match-up of the venom-filled rivals. Bama quarterback Blake Sims seemed unable to complete passes to anyone but Auburn defensive backs. Bama's vaunted defense was being gutted by the suddenly-explosive Auburn air attack. Duke Williams slid through the Bama secondary like a greased marmot, raking in catch after highlight-reel-making catch.
But as it did against LSU earlier this season, Alabama shook off the shrapnel of its most recent shelling, sloughing away the shattered steel of its own armor and moving forward with its own offense as its best defense. The Tide put up incredible second half numbers offensively, beating Auburn at its own high-octane game.
In other words, the Crimson Tide showed its resiliency in failing to wither beneath the weight of Auburn's surprisingly potent passing attack and the heavy phantoms of 2013. It could be said that Bama burned out late in the second quarter of last week's contest...but like the proverbial Phoenix, the Tide arose anew from the smolders in a blaze of crimson glory.
From a perception standpoint, the win against Auburn was much more than a simple "W" marked on the Bama schedule. It was proof positive that this Alabama team, unlike its predecessor, refuses to quit, and will not accept the sour taste of failure in its mouth. This Crimson Tide team proved that it can win games with defense, as it did against an Arkansas rushing attack that is among the nation's top running games. The Tide proved against Auburn it can win a race-car shoot-‘em-up with the best adherents of the HUNH style of play.
Coach Nick Saban said that at halftime, he simply told the team that he believed in them. Now, after last week's performance, the men in crimson and white have made believers out of a legion of previous doubters, all but cementing their status as the front-runner for the national championship in the College Football Playoff.
Despite the cresting wave upon which the Tide seems to ride at the present moment, as Saban has instructed so many times before, there is still improvement to be made, enemies to best, kingdoms to conquer. And now, the stakes for Alabama are higher than they've been at any point this season. While many are punching the Tide's ticket to the Collge Football Playoff as the nation's top seed, the wise will remember how such forecasts are oft premature...and incorrect. Look no further than last season, when the Tide was the odds-on favorite to win West and the SEC title. However, an Auburn team the Tide was supposed to beat did the unthinkable and dethroned the reigning ruler of college football. Such is the whim of this gridiron game, because as in life, nothing is promised for tomorrow today.
Make no mistake about it: the Mizzou Tigers can beat Alabama. It's not a stretch to believe that the odds are less than the nearly two touchdown spread that Vegas has released regarding this Saturday's SEC Championship game. In fact, given the vicious nature of the Mizzou defense and the sneaky-explosiveness of the Tigers' well-balanced offense, only a fool would imagine this week's game to be a cake walk for the Tide.
After all, if only by some sense of striped karmic mojo, Alabama has been taken to the brink twice by teams with Tiger mascots this season. To the Tide's credit, they survived both scrapes with their season intact.
Can the Tigers' stout defense harness the Crimson Tide offense and all of its wild horses? Will Mizzou QB Maty Mauk pull the proverbial rabbit from his hat yet again, as he's done so many times before over the last two years? Does Saban's former teammate and Mizzou head coach Gary Pinkel know the weaknesses of his friend, the game's greatest coach?
Such things remain to be determined, as these questions and many more will be answered when this Crimson Tide team takes the field on Saturday night to face the Mizzou Tigers for all the SEC marbles. Let's take a closer look...
The Alabama offense versus the Mizzou defense
After last week's offensive fireworks display, few would question Alabama's ability to score points and generate yardage against opponents. True, Auburn's defense didn't do much to hamper the Tide through much of the game, and many of Alabama's offensive miscues (read: three interceptions and numerous penalties) were self-inflicted.
The question, however, is which Alabama offense will show up for the SEC Championship Game. Will it be the Alabama offense that struggled to maintain consistency and generate yardage against a fair-to-middlin' Arkansas defense? Will it be the Bama offense that struggled to do much of anything positive against a stingy but beatable Ole Miss "Land Shark" unit? Or will it be the offense that devastated Texas A&M, Auburn, Tennessee and Florida?
Fans of the Tide should hope for the latter, as prolific offense versus the Tigers will give Bama its best chance of claiming another SEC title Saturday night. Make no mistake, the Tigers offer a far more formidable challenge defensively than their previously-beaten feline namesakes. While Auburn had defensive talent, Mizzou's line is stocked with future NFL Draft prospects like Shane Ray (59 tackles, 44 solo, 20.5 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks, five quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles) and Markus Golden (62 tackles, 26 solo, 16 tfls, 8.5 sacks, nine quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles). While Ray and Golden are the leaders of the Mizzou defensive line, the remaining members of the DL rotation aren't necessarily scrubs and also-rans, with Harold Brantley (45 tackles, 18 solo, 6.5 tfls, 4.5 sacks and seven quarterback hurries), Lucas Vincent (32 tackles, 11 solo, 6.0 tfls, 2.5 sacks) and Matt Hoch (30 tackles, 13 solo, 8.0 tfls, 3.0 sacks) filling out the ranks.
So explosive and aggressive is the Mizzou defensive line that the Tigers are ranked sixth nationally in terms of team sacks with 40, or 3.33 per game. Ray has already set the Mizzou record for sacks in a single season, and Golden is not far behind. Simply put, Alabama hasn't played a defensive line with the gaudy pass rushing statistics (and pure ability) of this Mizzou unit. Florida, Ole Miss and Mississippi State all offered some glimpse, but Alabama's offensive line must be at the peak of its pass-blocking game to hold the hounds at bay versus this Missouri front seven.
Though Mizzou's pass rush numbers are enough to give Bama fans pause, it is important to note that the Tide O line's pass blocking has been so good that Alabama is currently ranked seventh nationally in sacks allowed. If Bama's dam can hold and stem the flow of Mizzou defensive linemen, Alabama will have a good chance of seeing the same type of explosiveness against Mizzou that it enjoyed late against Auburn.
One big key for Alabama will come via the roster. Though Austin Shepherd has been fantastic in relief of freshman phenom left tackle Cam Robinson after injuries in the most recent two games, Alabama will need a healthy Robinson to handle Ray or Golden one-on-one, giving Alabama line coach Mario Cristobal the option of doubling the other stellar defensive end when necessary. If Robinson can effectively handle either end by himself, then Bama's chances of keeping the Mizzou pass rush in check increase dramatically.
To Bama's credit, Blake Sims is electric when the pocket breaks down, and he has used his savvy as a former running back to make the most of such scrambling situations, particularly on third downs. Even if Mizzou can crash the Bama O line and penetrate the backfield, there's no guarantee Sims won't be able to work his magic and keep the chains moving Saturday night. But the presence of an athletic and aggressive pass rush attacking the Tide on play after play is daunting, and even if Mizzou (which has the nation's 20th best third down defense) sees only partial success, the defense will be able to nip Bama drives in the bud and force punts.
Despite the success of Mizzou's pass rush, Arkansas proved last week that the Tiger run defense can be suspect at times. While Ray and Golden are fantastic at getting into the backfield, their aggressiveness also leaves them liable to overrun tailbacks in the run game. Bama's zone blocking scheme on rushing downs will magnify the over-aggressiveness of the Mizzou defenders, and if T.J. Yeldon is near 100%, he has the skill set to make the Tigers pay for every instance of over-pursuit with big gains on the ground. Mizzou is no weakling versus the rush, giving up a mere 127 yards per game on the ground. That said, one must also recognize that Mizzou has rarely faced a more explosive running back tandem this season.
Ray and Golden are fantastic athletes at the end position, but when Arkansas used its massive offensive line and ground-and-pound tactics to run right at them, the Hog running game was nearly unstoppable. Bama would do well to replicate that attack against the future NFL picks this Saturday, as doing so will force Mizzou to commit safeties to run support, leaving Alabama's receiving weapons in space.
As we saw in last week's game, there is simply no one in the nation who can contain Amari Cooper when he and Sims are on the same page. Cooper is so quick out of his breaks that even the best defensive backs looks amateurish in any attempt to keep pace with the Heisman candidate. While the Tide has offensive weapons to go around in Yeldon, Derrick Henry, Ar'Darius Stewart, DeAndrew White and O.J. Howard, Sims would often seem content to work Cooper, who routinely beats even double-coverage. Cooper is so electrifying that even when defenses know the ball is going to him, they are often helpless to stop him without committing a flagrant pass interference foul.
Speaking of those other weapons, the Mizzou secondary, though not terrible (ranked 35th in the nation versus the pass while allowing 204.1 yards per game), will likely have trouble with the mismatches created by offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. The secondary is not an overly talented bunch, as the Tiger team as a whole is comprised of two- and three-star players, by the admission of Pinkel himself. Asking those players to cover five-star talent, while defending against Kiffin's schemes, is a tall order indeed. The Tide may take a while to figure out the Tigers and find a rhythm, but once they do, an explosive Alabama offense could really do work against the Mizzou secondary.
If Alabama can march the field and get into the red zone, its chances of walking away with points are high. After all, the Tide is converting scores on 83.9% of its trips into the red zone, and Mizzou's defense is giving up points 87.1% of the time.
Don't underestimate Mizzou's defense, as they are in the top 20 nationally in total D (16th). However, Alabama's offensive strengths play well to Mizzou's weaknesses. For Mizzou to give its offense a chance, the defense will have to do what few other units have done versus Alabama this year: namely, contain Sims, Cooper and the Tide's stable of backs.
The Alabama defense versus the Mizzou offense
Anyone who has watched enough Mizzou football over the last several years knows that Maty Mauk is a caged animal, just waiting to break free at the most opportune moment. This year has been a rough one for the undersized signal-caller, but make no mistake, Mauk is still the beating heart in the chest of the Tiger offense.
While not overly gifted from a physical or talent standpoint, Mauk has proven time and time again to be a winner, especially when the odds are stacked against him. Mauk (193 of 361 for 2279 yards, 22 TDs and 11 INTs, 189.9 yards passing per game) is the unquestioned leader of the Missouri offense, even when he only does enough to drag his team across the finish line in unspectacular fashion. While Mauk's passing stats this year are somewhat less shiny than many expected coming into the season, he offers a legitimate running threat from the QB position, amassing 336 yards on the ground with a touchdown. Sure, Mauk isn't the second coming of Johnny Football, but he can do enough with his legs to force Bama's stingy D to play contain at least a portion of the time.
Mauk's most effective receiving target this year has been Bud Sasser (65 catches, 904 yards, nine TDs an 75.3 yards per game), but the next closest receiver on the Tiger roster, Jimmy Hunt (34 receptions, 529 yards, seven TDs) is a distant second. Unfortunately for the Tigers, the Mizzou offense is not particularly well set-up to attack an Alabama offense that gave up nearly 500 yards of passing against Auburn last week. Mizzou's best chance against Alabama will be to allow Mauk to throw short slants and out routes to set up deeper passes to Sasser later in the game. If the Tigers can catch Alabama sitting on short routes, then it's possible there will be openings when Tiger receivers get behind Bama's secondary. Auburn used that playbook to great effect before Bama shut it down late in last week's game, and Mizzou could have the same kind of result if Alabama allows its discipline to relax versus the pass.
Mizzou's best offensive weapon is its running attack, with Russell Hansbrough (177 carries, 949 yards, 5.4 yards per carry, and nine TDs) and Marcus Murphy (158 carries, 747 yards, 4.7 yards per carry, four TDs) forming a tandem that has been outstanding behind Mizzou's athletic offensive line. Add Mauk's running skill to the equation, and it's clear that the Tigers can assemble a ground attack that would keep many defenses off balance.
Again, unfortunately for Mizzou, its running game will likely splash like water against a stone monolith when it runs up against Alabama's second-ranked run defense, as the Tide is only allowing a mere 92.7 yards per game on the ground. Though Auburn used its spread, between-the-tackles running game to gash Alabama early last week, the Tide recovered and returned to gap-sound run defense late, leaving the Auburn passing game as the Tigers' only weapon. Mizzou will have an even tougher task running the ball against Alabama, as the Tigers are not known for their ability to bang the ball inside, with smallish running backs and a lighter offensive line.
Therefore, the Tigers' primary chance of success will be to run outside, but they will do so at their own risk. The Tide has tremendous sideline-to-sideline speed with Reggie Ragland and Trey DePriest at linebacker, and Landon Collins in run support from the safety position. It's not that the Tigers won't break an occasional run around end on the Tide defense. The question is whether they can do it consistently enough to maintain drives and convert third downs. If Bama's defense performs to the standard it has cemented throughout the season, it will be tough for Mizzou to garner any kind of consistency on offense.
If the Tigers' game plan is built around the short pass, outside runs and occasional stretch-the-field downfield pass, there is a chance they could put together a few nice drives, and set up play-action opportunities for Sasser and the receiving corps. A few long drives, coupled with one or two explosive plays (which the Tide surrendered often last week), and Mizzou could do enough to keep itself in a close game if Bama's offense goes off the rails for quarters at a time (as it has been prone to do at times this season). However, that cosmic alignment is not likely, and if forced to play into Bama's strengths defensively by running the ball, the Tigers will be scratching hard-pan for most of the evening.
The biggest one will be the mental state of the Alabama football team following an exhausting and emotionally draining grudge match with the Auburn Tigers last week. As has been the case in many of Bama's recent games against physical rivals like LSU, the week after is one in which the Tide looks sluggish on both sides of the ball. Against Mauk and the Mizzou defensive line, such lethargy could result in an early lead for Mizzou, and set the stage for a monumental upset.
Aside from the mental exhaustion, will the Tide have rubber legs after running up and down the field on both sides of the ball versus Auburn last week? One cannot underestimate the physical toll such a game can take on players, leaving them somewhat gassed as much as a week after the contest. Not to mention, Alabama was already suffering a rash of late season injuries before the Auburn game. While Saban indicated tight end Brian Vogler, rush linebacker Ryan Anderson, wide receiver Ar'Darius Stewart and left tackle Cam Robinson will be at full-go for this weekend's game, one must question their conditioning after a week or two of light work. Will these returning playmakers be physically ready for an attacking Tiger team with nothing to lose? Time will tell.
Last year saw Alabama sputter late in the season from the physical and mental grind of playing in the SEC West. Alabama has run the gauntlet this year, playing three of its toughest games in the most recent four contests. Will that murderer's row take its toll on the Tide? Or have the last three weeks been more indicative of a team building momentum for a push into the post-season? Again, Saturday, we will know the answers to these questions.
While not perennial foes or long-time rivals, the game will carry significant undercurrents. Many have said, despite the Tigers' second consecutive year as the SEC East champ, that Mizzou will not truly earn the respect of its SEC running mates until it beats Alabama. Alabama, on the other hand, has something to prove after failing to finish in 2014. Respect (or the restoration thereof) is something both teams covet heading into the game. Will it be enough to elevate the play of Mizzou? Or will Alabama continue to maintain its dominance over all SEC comers?
Despite the brevity of the remaining schedule, there is much yet to be determined. Will Mizzou rise up and slit the throat of the SEC's playoff chances? Or will Alabama flex its muscle once again on its way back to the top.
We will know Saturday night...hope for the best.