Alabama came into the SEC Championship needing only to survive a hot Missouri Tigers squad in order to secure its place in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
The Tide did so much more than that.
In its best performance since dismantling a hapless Texas A&M squad in October, Alabama came in hungry, focused, and well-prepared to destroy Missouri 42-13, seizing the SEC title and positioning itself as the likely number one seed. Plenty of positives to take from this one.
Offensively, coordinator Lane Kiffin was clearly committed to getting the ball in the hands of superstar Amari Cooper any way he could. Cooper caught 12 passes for 83 yards, targeted time and time again on quick hitch passes and screens, and even got two carries though one was called back on a questionable illegal shift penalty. Using Cooper on the edges was a mechanism designed to soften up the middle of the Missouri front and seemed to work as the game went along. Blake Sims executed the game plan flawlessly, setting the SEC Championship game record for completion percentage en route to claiming the MVP trophy. DeAndrew White eschewed the possession receiver role for a week, averaging 25.3 yards on four catches. Derrick Henry was the star in the run game, getting 20 carries for 141 yards while starter TJ Yeldon struggled to get rolling. It's interesting how often one of the running backs has managed to find more success than the other in the same game this season, but credit the coaching staff for sticking with the hot hand. The Tide once again successfully utilized the old toss sweep in this one and by the end of the game the Tigers' defense was simply worn out and incapable of pushing back.
On defense the Tide stuffed the run masterfully, allowing a miniscule 42 yards on 23 carries, and got plenty of pressure on Missouri QB Maty Mauk. Mauk was consistently flushed from the pocket, resulting in a poor 47% completion percentage and 63.2 QBR. Unfortunately for the Tide, Mauk was able to complete a few ridiculous sandlot type deep passes where he seemingly heaved the ball downfield at the last possible moment into the waiting arms of a receiver 40 yards away, usually Jimmie Hunt who managed 169 yards in Atlanta after gaining only 529 yards in the entire season. If there is a chink in the armor, it is the propensity to allow big plays in the passing game, particularly on scramble drills. The good news is that these are low percentage type plays that won't typically put up a ton of points on their own merit, but something that the Tide will undoubtedly work to correct. The defensive MVP in this one had to be A'shawn Robinson. The big Texan simply ate up the interior of the Missouri offensive line and spent virtually the entire afternoon in the backfield. The rest of the defensive line followed suit in as dominant a performance as you'll ever see. Trey Depriest was his usual sure-tackling self while Reggie Ragland and Ryan Anderson contained the edges. On the very rare occasion that a Missouri runner escaped the first level, Landon Collins was waiting to clean up.
Special teams were a little rough in this one, as the Tide missed another makeable field goal and the kickoff coverage unit was a bit inconsistent. JK Scott had another good day, averaging 43 yards on three punts, but his best play came in the first half as he was able to pick up a low snap off the turf and get the kick away just before the Missouri rush arrived. On the play Scott was clearly contacted by a Missouri defender after the kick and should have drawn a flag. Hopefully this extended time off will be long enough for PK Adam Griffith to nurse whatever injury has nagged him. You have to think that field goals will be important as the Tide squares off against excellent teams in the playoffs.
Saban talked about the intangibles of this team again in his post-game press conference, and it's hard to overstate the importance of team chemistry and work ethic displayed constantly by this group of young men. This team has a ton of NFL caliber talent to be sure, but they came into the season rather green and needing to replace several key starters from the 2013 team. He mentioned how far the team has come since the season opener against West Virginia in the same venue. Improvement has been dramatic over the course of the season and now the Tide looks to be the favorite to win it all. One thing is for certain: allowing this coaching staff better than three weeks to prepare for an opponent, I'm not betting against them. Here's hoping the team continues to improve and rings in the New Year with a berth in the title game. Until then, sit back and savor perhaps the most fun and gratifying of the record 24 SEC titles in Alabama football's storied history. Roll Tide.