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Hope for the Best: Mizzou edition

Alabama once again appears to be the favorite in a game everyone expects them to win. But there are gaps beginning to appear in the Tide’s armor…can the Tigers land a blow?

Georgia v Missouri
Can Drew Lock do his thing against a wounded Bama secondary?
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The last time Alabama and Missouri met on the gridiron, things were quite different.

The Tide and Tigers were in Atlanta, and they were playing for the SEC Championship. The year was 2014. Alabama was still a defense-first, ground-and-pound offensive team that relied on brutalizing opponents through a war of attrition. Mizzou leaned on a steady defense and explosive offense. The result of that game was not in their favor however, as the Tigers were smashed by Alabama by a score of 42-13.

Flash forward to this Saturday’s meeting of the two teams. Alabama’s offense has little in common with the ground-based offense of the past, with Tua Tagovailoa slinging the ball around in the passing game and piling up an average of nearly 600 yards per game. Missouri is on an alternate path as well. Gone are the defensive stalwarts of the past. The Tigers have one of the worst defenses in the conference, though they retain some offensive firepower.

For Missouri, the chances of knocking off the top team in the nation look grim. After all, Alabama has played 21 home games under Saban while ranked number one. They’ve lost one. The average margin of victory is 36-10 in those wins.

That’s not even considering the seemingly unstoppable Alabama offense with Tua at the helm. The Tide has effectively ended every game they’ve played by halftime. Six games into the season the starting quarterback has yet to play in the fourth quarter. The Tide is ranked first in scoring offense, averaging 56 points per game.

The Tide’s strength plays right into the Tigers’ greatest weakness…more specifically, the pass defense. Mizzou hasn’t been able to stop the likes of Purdue and South Carolina through the air, and there’s little doubt that Alabama’s quarterback will have yet another statistical heyday. The Tiger secondary is beat up, and they were struggling even before health became an issue. The pass rush is anemic, which doesn’t help matters. The linebackers are suspect in coverage, presenting Bama OC Mike Locksley with any number of ways to gut-punch the ailing Mizzou defense, early and often.

That said, Missouri has always had a good offensive football squad, and that fact remains. Drew Lock is an excellent QB, and he has talent around him with an offensive line that may be the best the Tide defense has faced to date. The Tide is battle-damaged on the defensive side of the ball, as it was announced this week that lockdown corner Trevon Diggs will likely miss the remainder of the season. That is a problem given the relative lack of depth at the position and the propensity of the Tide to play nickel and dime packages against passing teams. Nick Saban is running out of defensive backs, and against a team like the Tigers that can sling it, that could be a pressure point.

The world believes that the Tigers have no chance in this fight, and that may prove to be true. But Mizzou is loaded with playmakers, and they will not go quietly.

Can the Tigers pull off a shocking upset despite the rock-solid historical precedent of Alabama’s home record while ranked number one? Will the Tide shred the ailing Mizzou secondary and open the running lanes? Can Lock will his offense to the next level and keep pace with the Tide against a beat-up Bama defense? Or will this be the next in a long line of bludgeonings at the hands of Tagovailoa and the Alabama offense?

We’ll know in little more than a day. Until then, let’s take a closer look…

Alabama offense versus the Missouri defense

By all accounts, this match-up is an open-and-closed case. The Tide has one of the nation’s most prolific passing offenses, while Mizzou is in possession of one of the worst passing defenses not only in the league, but in the country.

Here are a few numbers to consider. Alabama’s pace on offense has been historic for a program that for the last century has been a purveyor of old-school, smashmouth football. The Tide leads the nation in scoring offense with 56 points per game, setting an unmatched mark for the program and the conference through six games. Alabama is fourth in total offense with 567.5 yards per game, sixth nationally in passing offense with 345.3 yards per game, third in third-down conversions with a rate of 58.8 percent, and sixth in sacks allowed with only four through six games. Even though the Tide’s focus has been on the air attack, Damien Harris, Najee Harris, and Josh Jacobs have still been productive, with Alabama ranking 28th nationally in rushing yards per game with 222.2. If advanced metrics are your thing, you should note that the Bama offense is ranked second in Offensive S&P+, a measure which factors in things like strength of schedule while filtering out garbage time yardage.

There simply isn’t a better offensive football team in the nation than Alabama right now. Top to bottom, this offense will eventually set records, and may give Alabama its third Heisman winner if Tua keeps the pace he’s enjoyed through the first half of the season.

Flip the card to the Mizzou defense for a moment. They are ranked 76th in total defense, giving up 392.2 yards per game. While their run defense is solid at number 15 (107.4 yards allowed), the passing offense is downright putrid at 116th (284.5 yards per game allowed through the air). Their pass efficiency defense number is likewise wretched at 105th nationally. They’re 84th in scoring defense (28.8 points per game allowed), 102nd in team sacks (seven through six games), 43rd in third-down defense (allowing a 34.7 percent conversion rate), 93rd in turnover margin (they only have five takeaways), and 114th in red zone defense (opponents have scored on 94 percent of trips to the red zone.) Advanced metrics are a little more kind to the Mizzou defense, as they rank 53rd in defensive S&P+, but still…the overall numbers paint a bleak picture for the Tigers’ chances of stopping the Tide.

Schematically, the Tigers aren’t well-equipped to challenge the Tide’s passing game at all. Alabama has the targets to attack any part of the field, and Tua can make every NFL-caliber throw that Locksley needs him to make. Mizzou likes to rush four with an occasional blitz while dropping into a nickel look when teams air it out. The problem is that the Tide’s receiving talent is a huge mismatch for Mizzou’s secondary. There aren’t any safeties on the Missouri roster who can hang with the Tide’s top receiving trio of Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy, and Devonta Smith. Add in tight end Irv Smith (who has been a weapon the last few weeks) and backs who can catch the ball out of the backfield like Jacobs and Harris, and the match-up is akin to the Tigers bringing an ice pick to a Howitzer fight.

Compounding matters for the Tigers is the fact that their secondary is banged up quite a bit. Mizzou defensive coordinator Ryan Walters and head coach Barry Odom (a former defensive coordinator) like to play a lot of personnel defensively, as in a perfect world they’d rotate 8-10 players in at corner, safety, and nickel during a game. Their depth is severely limited in that regard, as they are depending on freshmen and sophomores across the second-string.

Against Alabama, the Tigers will face quite a conundrum. Rotate the younger players in and expose the defense to incredible talent mismatches across the board. Stick primarily with the starters, and they’ll be gassed from chasing the Tide receivers will run them ragged. Mizzou can’t put their best man on any one Bama WR and hope for the best…if they do, the other defensive backs will get torched by receivers with equivalent talent. It’s happened in every game this season. A defense isolates on Jeudy and Ruggs has a breakout game. The next team tries to take away Ruggs and Smith runs wild.

Mizzou’s scheme in coverage depends on corners who can handle their responsibilities in man when teams run vertical routes, but there’s likely not a corner on the Tiger roster who can consistently hang with any of the Tide WR trio. By Odom’s own admission, his linebackers struggle to seal off the underneath zones, and if that happens this week, Irv Smith and Jaylen Waddle in the slot could rip the Tigers wide open.

Don’t underestimate the Tide’s running game, either. The side effect of a prolific passing attack is more quality opportunities to run the ball off RPOs. Alabama’s front has struggled a bit in run blocking though they’ve been stellar as pass protectors. Mizzou’s run defense is excellent, but if they are forced onto their heels by an explosive offensive game plan, there will be room for designed runs between the tackles. Once Alabama heats up, expect to see more running game. The Tide needs to hone that particular blade as it heads into the depth of its SEC schedule, and if they can run with ease against Mizzou they can run against almost anyone.

For the most part, expect Alabama to do exactly what they’ve done this season offensively. Locksley will give Tagovailoa the latitude to make decisions at the snap with the RPO game. He’ll distribute the ball to his plentitude of targets. Alabama will victimize the Mizzou secondary in route to a scoring explosion in the first half, then Jalen Hurts will take over and manage the game for the rest of the evening. There’s little suspense involved in the game plan, other than how many points the Tide will score before the half and whether Tua’s knee injury is really as minor as has been claimed.

In other words, move along…nothing to see here. Just another evisceration by the Tide’s soon-to-be legendary offense.

The Alabama defense against the Mizzou offense

It is this component of the game that holds the most intrigue, as the Alabama defense has looked uncharacteristically soft this season at times.

One could point out that the Tide is giving up fewer points per possession than any team in the country (with garbage time removed). One could also point out that the defense is playing more snaps this year thanks to the prolific scoring offense that has on several occasions scored in a single play from scrimmage.

Then there’s the fact that the second half of every game this season has seen a heavy contribution by non-starters as the Tide pulls away on the scoreboard and enters garbage time. Saban has said though he’s pleased with his defensive starters overall, there have been some disappointments in the two-deep as those garbage time additions have seen mental lapses and physical limitations.

Finally, there’s the lack of depth at most positions in the defense. At inside linebacker, there are freshmen in the two-deep. The secondary has now lost three players from the two-deep to injury in a unit that lost six contributors from last year’s team. The defensive line is better stocked than the other positions, but even there, there aren’t enough players to rotate as the Tide has done in years past.

Those are all mitigating factors to be sure. Even still, the Tide defense is usually a stable, dependable known for Bama. They totally snuff the run and hang in the top-five for rushing defense year to year. This year, however, there are far more unknowns at play, and that game-breaking stability has shifted to the offensive side of the ball. Alabama is still ranked in the top-50 of all major defensive measures, and they rank 18th in defensive S&P+. But for a team that has for a decade carried the defensive standard for the rest of the nation, it’s shocking to see the Tide’s slide, even if that regression is just a statistical anomaly.

Mizzou has always had a potent offense, and that trend continues with Lock under center. Expect them to throw the ball a good bit, especially with the documented depth issues in the Tide secondary. One thing that jumps off the stat page about the Mizzou offense is their balance. They run the ball well with sophomore Larry Rountree III (5-10, 210 pounds) and junior Damarea Crockett (5-11, 225 pounds), averaging 211.6 yards on the ground to rank 34th in rushing yards. They are also prolific through the air, ranked 14th nationally while piling up 318.4 yards per game off Lock’s arm. They rank ninth in total offense with 530 yards per game and are 26th in scoring offense with 39 points per game.

The passing attack may take a step back this week however, as the Tigers had some bad injury luck in their wide receiver corps. Talented senior Nate Brown (6-3, 210 pounds) is banged up and likely out of the game. That means the probable starter in Brown’s absence will be a true freshman, Jalen Knox (6-0, 195 pounds). Knox is no scrub, as he averages 43.8 yards per game in his first year on the roster. Another freshman, Kam Scott (6-2, 170 pounds) may also start in place of senior Emanuel Hall (6-3, 195 pounds). Hall has been the leading receiver for the Tigers to date with 107.5 yards per game receiving and three touchdowns, but he has missed several games with a groin injury. His status remains questionable for this week, though he is expected to play in some capacity if he doesn’t start.

With a depleted, wounded secondary, Alabama will need a huge performance from the pass rush to keep Lock in check and force him into bad throws. The Tide’s pass rush has been picking up steam of late, averaging 3.17 sacks per game thanks to improved performances from Christian Miller and Anfernee Jennings. The starting defensive line has been brutal as well, with Quinnen Williams playing the role of a breakout star at nose flanked by the high-motored Isaiah Buggs and massive Raekwon Davis.

Dominating the point of attack is easier said than done against Mizzou, however, as they have an excellent offensive line that represents the largest unit the Tide has played to date. They average a massive 325 pounds across the front, with three of the five O linemen coming in at 325 pounds or more. Alabama’s front will need their best performance of the year to rattle Lock through the pass rush, and it’s imperative that they get constant pressure every time the gifted quarterback drops back to pass. As good as he is, he tends to make bad decisions when under pressure, as he’s thrown four interceptions to date.

If the Tide lets Lock pass from the pocket without harassment, he will make plays through the air, even with a depleted WR unit. Knox is a freshman, but he’s an electric talent. The same is true of Scott, who already has a touchdown catch this year in limited playing time. Alabama’s secondary will hold up to regular use, but if the pass rush fails to get pressure, they’ll be on an island. In that scenario, one can expect that Lock will make his plays and move the ball well.

Also, Alabama can’t sleep on the Tigers’ running game. They are explosive on the ground, and even though the O line has been questionable at times in pass pro, they throw around their weight in run blocking to devastating effect. Alabama’s defense has been softer than usual against the run, even with the garbage time follies removed from the equation. Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses will have to have their best games of the season against the interior running game, as the Mizzou defense thrives when it can achieve balance. If the run defense holds and Alabama can force the Tigers to be one-dimensional through the air, then the prospects for a dominating pass rush and the ability to play nickel personnel will affect the Mizzou passing game.

While the Bama offense versus the Mizzou defense is a total mismatch, the Tiger O and Bama D are more evenly matched. The Tiger offense will provide the Tide with a worthy adversary this week, as they are the most explosive offensive unit Alabama has seen since its game in Oxford earlier this season.

Special Teams

Alabama hasn’t seen much movement in the kicking game, as Skyler DeLong hasn’t had many opportunities to punt and Joseph Bulovas has continued to run hot and cold. One can hope that the Tide offense performs well enough to keep field goals and punts out of the equation and given the relatives strengths and weaknesses of the Tide offense and Mizzou defense respectively, there’s a good possibility the only kicking this week will be on PAT attempts and kickoffs.

The Alabama return game has become a weapon, and wise teams will avoid putting the ball in the hands of Waddle or Jacobs. Both have returned kicks for touchdowns this year, and if given the chance by Mizzou’s special teams, they’ll gladly oblige once again.

The Tigers are blessed with one of the best punters in the conference with senior Corey Fatoney, as he’s been steady with an average of 45.2 yards per punt with a 60-yard long this season. Junior placekicker Tucker McCann has been less of a given, as he’s 13-for-18 on field goal attempts (72.2 percent) and he’s missed from inside 30 and between 40-49. That said, his long for the season is 57 yards, so leg strength and accuracy obviously aren’t a problem.

The Tigers’ return game does not inspire awe, unless of course Hall returns to full strength this week. His stand-ins have dubitable numbers except for reserve senior running back Tyler Badie (5-9, 180 pounds), who has returned six kicks for 133 yards with a 35-yard long.

All signs point to another Alabama blowout this weekend given the strength of the Tide’s passing attack versus the weakness of the Tigers’ pass defense. There’s simply no way that the Tigers will put Tua in check or hem up the Tide’s bevy of receiving targets. They simply don’t have the personnel to match skills with Alabama’s receivers, and their lack of depth will haunt them as the game goes on.

On the other side of the ball, Mizzou will provide quite the test for an Alabama defense that has taken a lot of criticism, much of it unwarranted, over the last several weeks. Yes, Alabama’s defensive depth is not what is used to be. Sure, there have been mental breakdowns at times, even among the starters. That’s to be expected for a unit that has two new starters at inside linebacker, five new starters in the secondary, and a new nose tackle. Alabama has taken its foot off the pedal late in games, but those garbage time foibles have largely been part of the learning curve for an inexperienced second-string in games that were well out of reach.

Alabama has a good defense, and the raw stats can lead one to believe they’ve experienced a drop off this season. They may not have the stat line of the greatest defenses of the Saban era, but if they can remain healthy, this Tide unit will grow into its role as the perfect complement to an offense that likely no team in the nation can stop.

That said, the Tide’s ability to dominate Mizzou as it has all other comers this season rests solely on the defense. The Bama offense will do what it does. The defense will need to rise to the occasion and shut down an experienced, talented quarterback, an excellent assortment of receivers, and a power running game. If they can do that, the margin of victory will match those of recent weeks. If they can’t, it doesn’t mean Alabama will lose to the Tigers, but it will pose more questions about the ability of this Bama defense to get the team to the championship Promised Land.

Can Alabama’s offense keep pace with another 50+ point performance against a reeling Tiger defense? Will the Tide’s own defense come into its own this week and lock down a balanced Tiger offensive attack? Will Tua continue his road to the Heisman by ravaging Mizzou’s suspect secondary? Can Alabama find a suitable replacement for the injured Diggs against one of the best passing teams in the nation?

Time will tell…hope for the best.