Alabama and Missouri have met only once as SEC members, but there’s no shortage of familiarity between the two programs, as the Tigers and Crimson Tide are set to met in the SEC Championship game on Saturday afternoon. Alabama coach Nick Saban and Missouri coach Gary Pinkel played under Don James at Kent State and both spent time as graduate assistants with the Golden Flashes to begin their coaching career.
But on Saturday, the focus isn’t on the coaching background of Pinkel and Saban, as both teams have plenty to play for in Atlanta. With a win over Missouri, Alabama would solidify its spot in the playoffs and should be the No. 1 overall seed heading into the four-team tournament. The Tigers are No. 16 in the latest committee rankings, which makes a spot in college football’s playoff unlikely. However, Missouri can improve its bowl positioning with a victory over the Crimson Tide. And of course, the chance to win the SEC title is more than enough for the Tigers to be ready for the matchup in Atlanta.
The overall series between Alabama and Missouri is tied at two games apiece. The Crimson Tide has won the last two meetings, while the Tigers claimed the first two matchups. Missouri’s wins against Alabama occurred in 1968 and 1975, while the Crimson Tide has won the only matchup between these two programs as SEC members (42-10 in 2012).
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Missouri vs. Alabama
Kickoff: 4 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Alabama -14.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Missouri’s Defensive Line
Despite the departure of two of last year’s standout defensive linemen (Michael Sam and Kony Ealy), Missouri hasn’t missed a beat up front. This group is arguably one of the best in the nation and is headlined by the defensive end pairing of Markus Golden and Shane Ray. The duo has combined for 22 sacks and four forced fumbles this season and rank among the top five tacklers on the team. Alabama’s offensive line may not be as dominant as it was in previous years, but this group is still one of the best in the SEC. The Crimson Tide has allowed only 11 sacks this season and led the way for rushers for average 5.1 yards per carry. Running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry have combined for 1,639 yards and 16 touchdowns this year, and despite the emergence of quarterback Blake Sims, Alabama’s offense still revolves around its ground attack. Missouri needs Golden and Ray to create havoc on passing downs, while being tough at the point of attack against the run. In SEC-only matchups, the Tigers led the conference by limiting opponents to just 115 yards on the ground. Of course, it’s easy to poke holes in Missouri’s defensive statistics, as the East Division was the weaker side of the SEC. Indiana, Georgia and Arkansas each rushed for more than 150 yards against this defense. While Golden and Ray are a force off the edge, the Tigers need a big game from tackles Matt Hoch, Lucas Vincent, Harold Brantley and Josh Augusta on the interior. Alabama left tackle Cam Robinson suffered a shoulder injury in the win over Auburn. If Robinson is less than full strength, that’s an opportunity for Golden and Ray to generate pressure on quarterback Blake Sims.
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2. Stopping Amari Cooper
In order to pull off the upset, Missouri’s defensive front has to control the pace of the game. If the Tigers get to quarterback Blake Sims, that’s less time the senior has to scan the field and find standout receiver Amari Cooper. The junior has 103 receptions for 1,573 yards and 14 scores through 12 games and is the best receiver Missouri has played in 2014. The Tigers may not have an elite, shutdown cornerback, but coordinator Dave Steckel has a solid overall group. Missouri ranks 25th nationally in pass efficiency defense and limited opposing offenses to just 13 passing scores in SEC games this season. Junior Kenya Dennis or sophomore Aarion Penton will attempt to cover Cooper, but the Tigers could also rely on safety help from Braylon Webb or Ian Simon. Regardless of which defenders line up against Cooper, this is not an easy matchup for Missouri.
3. Missouri’s Offense
The 2014 version of Missouri’s offense isn’t as explosive or potent as the 2013 version. Last season, the Tigers averaged 39.1 points per game but that number has dipped to 28.6 in 2014. In addition to the drop in scoring, Missouri’s per-play average has dropped from 6.6 (2013) to 5.3 (2014). Pinpointing the reason for the drop in production is due to a couple of factors, but the Tigers have a balanced attack (2,112 rushing yards, 2,279 passing yards) and are one of the best in the SEC in turnover margin. Quarterback Maty Mauk has experienced his share of ups and downs in his first year as the starter but is coming off his highest passing performance in SEC play (265) yards and has tossed only two picks in Missouri’s last five games. Running back Russell Hansbrough suffered an ankle injury in last week’s win over Arkansas but is expected to play. Hansbrough’s health is critical to the offense, as the Tigers need balance in order to knock off Alabama. The Crimson Tide has been tough to run against all year and has allowed only three scores on the ground all season. Mauk should have opportunities to hit receiver Bud Sasser on big passing plays if Alabama continues to have its share of inconsistent play at cornerback. This is a tough matchup for Missouri’s offense, and considering the Crimson Tide’s elite run defense, the Tigers may need to throw more on Saturday to win. Is Mauk up to the task?
Missouri has exceeded preseason expectations once again. The Tigers were picked by most to finish third or fourth in the East this year, but coach Gary Pinkel’s team reached Atlanta for the second consecutive season. While Missouri has reeled off six consecutive wins since a 34-0 loss to Georgia, this is the toughest opponent Pinkel’s squad will play in 2014. Alabama has its weaknesses, but the offense is coming off a huge performance against Auburn, and the defense has been stingy all season. The Crimson Tide enter Saturday’s game nearly a two-touchdown favorite. Can Missouri surprise once again? Or will Alabama win and clinch a playoff spot in the process?
SEC Championship Game Predictions
Missouri (+14.5) vs. Alabama