It's impossible to break down every angle of the SEC Championship Game between Alabama and Missouri on Saturday, but here are a few questions that might define the game and what those of here at TSK think about them.
The narrative going into this game seems to be that whether this is a real game or not depends on how well the Missouri defense ties down the Alabama offense. The Tide, of course, have a decent defense themselves, and Missouri hasn't exactly been a powerhouse on offense. So do the Tigers have to keep this a low-scoring affair to have any chance of winning?
Alex: I don't think that Missouri necessarily needs to keep the game low scoring, but it absolutely can not get into a shootout like last year. Despite the 17-point final margin, the Tigers only trailed by one at halftime and three after the third quarter, but gave up two unanswered touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Maty Mauk has improved over the last month of the season, but he's also attempted nearly 15 more passes per game in November than October, and despite the increase in attempts, dropped his interceptions from five to two in those months. Mauk does not need to win the game, but he can not be as ineffective as he was in October for Missouri to win.
wamarsh: I think Missouri is able to keep it low scoring for most of the game. Missouri's defense is comparable to Mississippi State and LSU, which both held Alabama to under 24 points. Alabama's offense has played well as of late, but has averaged 1.5 turnovers per game on average this season. Meanwhile, Mizzou's defense is forcing about two turnovers per game on average. I think the Tide's turnovers prevent their offense from putting up a lot of points, which will keep overall scoring down.
Alec: Yes, I think so. Look, we've all seen the ups and the downs of Maty Mauk. He's been great in situations like in the fourth quarter against South Carolina, and he's been equally as bad in situations like the Georgia game, throwing four interceptions. But yes, to the question, I certainly think it has to be a low-scoring affair. Alabama can score at will on anybody with the weapons that they have on offense in Amari Cooper, the running backs, and the versatility with the play calling by Lane Kiffin. Look, Alabama averages 36.5 points per game. Keep them under 30 with Shane Ray and Markus Golden spearheading the Tigers defense and I think they have a chance.
Year2: The Tigers absolutely have to keep the score down because they can’t keep up with this Bama offense if it gets cranking. Mizzou scored over 30 points just twice against Power 5 competition: once when they got four non-offensive touchdowns against Florida and again against A&M’s now-fired defensive coordinator. Given how good the Tide’s defense is, it’s safe to say that if Bama gets much above 20 points, it’s game over.
Brandon: In a word, yes. I don't know that the offense is struggling as much as it was when it scored just 21 points against South Carolina -- and that only after a late-breaking collapse by a Gamecocks defense that had to that point played reasonably well -- but the ceiling against competent defenses still seems to be around 24 points. If this becomes a game when the first team to 35 wins, I think Missouri might be out of luck.
How good is Missouri, really? People kept expecting them to lose an SEC game all year long, and, aside from the Georgia game, they never did. Is the division title a function of the Tigers' schedule, or are they really just that good?
Alex: Since the offseason, I thought Missouri would be a dark horse in the East, so I'm not necessarily surprised they won the division. More than anything, Missouri should be kicking themselves about their two losses. Without the completely inexplicable loss to Indiana, the Tigers are in the playoff hunt with a win on Saturday. The schedule was favorable with A&M and Arkansas out of the West for Missouri. However, it wasn't the cross-divisional games that cost Georgia the title but the East losses to mediocre teams in South Carolina and Florida. Missouri is the best team in the East as they were the most consistent East team in SEC play even with the Georgia loss.
wamarsh: They are very good team that probably wouldn't get overlooked as much if they were a "traditional" SEC school, or if they had higher recruiting rankings. They've won a lot of big games against good teams the last decade, and that instilled in the program a sense of pride that gets passed down to every new class. The loss to Indiana is head-scratching, but so is the Georgia loss to South Carolina. Good teams lay eggs from time to time.
Alec: I think it's a function of the talent level, first off. The SEC has lost 61 underclassman over the last 2 years to the NFL draft (the Pac-12 is next with above 30) and that's limited the ability for some of these teams. Georgia has been good and obviously was better than Missouri when they played this year, but I do think that was a match-up nightmare for the Tigers in that situation. To win the SEC last year, I think it was feasible to have some questions about Missouri, but for them to do it two years in a row cements their status as, yes, a good team.
Year2: When answering this kind of question, I go to the F/+ standings first for a sanity check. Mizzou is 31st overall while 57th in offense and 14th in defense. That doesn’t sound too far off. Sure, the team went 7-1 in the SEC, but it’s in the weaker division and drew the bottom two teams from the West. If Maty Mauk was less mistake-prone, it’d be a much more dangerous team, but too often he keeps both teams in the game.
Brandon: There's little question in my mind that Missouri is at least the second-best team in the SEC East, though that might be a little bit like being the second-most honest man in Congress. I agree with Alex to this extent: Missouri is the most consistent team in the East, but they still lost to Georgia at home by a 34-0 score. Then again, I'll tell Georgia fans what I've told South Carolina fans a couple of times over the last few years: Beat the inferior teams on your schedule this year, and you win the division. Missouri did that; Georgia didn't. Missouri's a good team that gets docked (and should get docked) for letting one winnable game get away and getting destroyed in its other loss.
Missouri has 40 sacks on the season so far, tops in the SEC. Alabama has given up just 11 sacks so far -- the fewest in the league. Something's gotta give; which one is it?
wamarsh: I think the Tide's offensive line gives. Missouri is averaging three sacks a game. Shane Ray is playing out of his mind, and Markus Golden isn't far behind. Alabama will probably be forced to go max protect on 3rd-and-long situations.
Alec: I think it might be Alabama's offensive line. You know, Cam Robinson has been a bit banged up on the left side and other starters have been plagued by injury, so I think it's something to take note of. Shane Ray and Markus Golden are players Alabama has yet to face this year -- with all due respect to Mississippi State -- so look for the Tigers to give Alabama some problems there.
Year2: Missouri consistently got multiple sacks throughout the season, but its total is a bit high thanks to running up big sack totals on UCF (six), Tennessee (six), Florida (five), and South Carolina (four). Notably, the next-lowest team in total sacks after Alabama this year was Arkansas, and the Tigers didn’t get any sacks against the Hogs. My guess is it’s more likely that MU ends up with one or no sacks than something more.
Brandon: I think Missouri can give Alabama trouble, particularly with the injury issues that Alec mentioned. But here's the thing: I'm not sure that Missouri has faced a quarterback with Blake Sims' mobility. (Maybe Treon Harris or Kyle Allen? Maybe?) On the other hand, Missouri's tagged everybody except Arkansas with at least two sacks. I think that's a reasonable but optimistic goal as to what they can get here. Ray and Golden aren't going to be able to camp out in Alabama's backfield, but they can fluster Sims a bit and probably get to him a couple of times.
The knock on Blake Sims (and by extension Alabama) is that he's one quarterback at home and another on the road. Should that be a source of concern for Alabama fans heading into Saturday?
Alex: The better question may be if the Blake Sims of the fourth quarter and overtime at LSU is the turning point for Sims on the road. While his statistics in the LSU game were far from spectacular, Sims won the game. Having said that, Sims' month-by-month splits have consistently been worse in terms of yards per attempt and rating despite facing the two worst passing defenses in the SEC and an FCS team in November.
wamarsh: I don't think so. Sims bounces back from throwing three picks against Auburn to have a good game. Maybe it also helps that he already played West Virginia in Atlanta earlier this year?
Alec: No. I think the "Blake Sims is better at home mantra" is just a matter of who the opponent has been. Last week, against a pretty bad Auburn defense, Sims struggled. Of course, he came back to make some plays, but the fact it was at Bryant-Denny doesn't do much for me. And even if that is an issue, the Georgia Dome in Atlanta is about a three-hour drive from Tuscaloosa compared to an eight-hour trip for Missouri, so I think his fans will certainly make it feel like a home game for him.
Year2: Part of Sims’ home/road disparity is the fact that he played some pretty good defenses on the road: West Virginia, Ole Miss pre-injuries, Arkansas’ underrated set, Tennessee, and LSU. Tennessee’s is the lowest-rated nationally in S&P+ at 26, and LSU and Ole Miss are three and four, respectively. He’ll probably have a decent enough game, but it likely won’t be his best. It won’t be because he’s away from home, but rather because Mizzou has a good defense.
Brandon: Yeah, I'm not entirely sure why I thought this was a good question. Probably just to preemptively have this in case it becomes a topic of conversation among commentators. But it's more the teams he's faced on the road than the fact that he's been on the road. I don't think it's a non-factor, simply because a lot of players are better at home than they are on the road, but I think the opponents are probably more relevant.
Amari Cooper: Good wide receiver or the best wide receiver? How big of a factor will he be in this game, and can Missouri slow him down?
wamarsh: The best. I don't think anyone can slow him down. He's getting his yards so just go ahead and focus on stopping the rest of Bama's skill players.
Alec: Amari Cooper is the best wide receiver in college football. His quickness, his smarts, and his will to get the job done each and every play will create nightmares for this Missouri defense. I think Lane Kiffin will try to get him the ball as much as possible -- as he most definitely should -- and I think he's a huge factor. Cooper this year has had arguably the greatest year ever as a receiver that's put on a Crimson Tide uniform, and although Missouri's corners are rock-solid, they don't stand the test. Amari Cooper will be too good and will make a huge impact on Saturday's match-up.
Year2: Cooper is one of the best pure wide receivers we’ve seen in the SEC, probably since the days of A.J. Green and Julio Jones. He’s not as physical as Mike Evans was, but he’s more polished and fluid. Mizzou is tied with LSU for second in the SEC in fewest passing plays of 30-plus yards allowed, so the Tigers have done well in avoiding giving up catastrophically big plays. They have a chance of slowing him down, but only Arkansas has kept him truly quiet so far.
Brandon: Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I'm basically an honorary co-chairman of the Amari Cooper for Heisman Committee. There are very few people who can cover Cooper, and even then Sims will still sometimes throw the ball when Cooper is covered, and Cooper will often catch it when he does. I don't see Cooper having another one of his 200-yard games, but I'd be surprised if he came up with fewer than 80 yards, which is about as low as anyone other than Arkansas has held him with the exception of the Western Carolina game, when Cooper was pulled early for precautionary reasons.
Who's a sleeper player in this game -- someone who's not going to be mentioned in every day of game commentary, but could decide things in the end?
Alex: OJ Howard. Cooper has as many yards as Alabama's next eight pass catchers combined and 42 percent of Alabama's completions. If a team can shut Cooper down, someone else will need to step up. I don't know if any team can or if Missouri will, but if it happens Howard would be the obvious answer.
Alec: Marcus Murphy has slid a bit under the radar this year. Playing the return specialist role and commanding backup running back duty, Murphy will be a key to this game. So far this year, he's run for 747 yards and has also been huge in the returning game, converting one punt for a touchdown and two kickoffs for scores. Alabama traditionally under Saban falters in special teams, and I believe Murphy will be pivotal in that area if Missouri is hoping to win this game.
Year2: Marcus Murphy for Missouri. He’s one of the best return men in all of college football, and I think the Tigers will need at least one non-offensive score to win this game outright. He’s the most likely guy to pull it off.
Brandon Just to be different, I'll go with someone else on Missouri: Jimmie Hunt. Hunt has really come on the last few weeks, with 13 of his 34 catches and 252 of his 529 receiving yards coming in the last three games. He was also a big factor in the win against Arkansas. If Bama shuts down Bud Sasser, Hunt could emerge as the fallback.
How do you see the game unfolding, and what's the final score?
Alex: Missouri keeps it close for the first half before before Alabama pulls away for a 17-point win, 34-17.
wamarsh: I don't think Missouri's offense will score points against Alabama unless it's gifted good field position. I also think Missouri's defense will be competitive with Alabama's offense until the game gets into the fourth quarter and they wear out. I think Alabama wins 24-10, but it will be closer heading into the fourth quarter.
Alec: I've gone back and forth this week trying to decide a score but in all honesty, I see Alabama beating Missouri, 24-13. I think, as I mentioned, that Alabama's offensive line will struggle against the Tigers, that Missouri will make plays in special teams, and that Amari Cooper will be a force on the field and will turn the Tide in this game. I just don't think, though, that Maty Mauk has enough plays in him to get the job done for Missouri, and they'll fall come Saturday night and Alabama will be headed to their first College Football Playoff.
Year2: A lot of people are expecting Bama to blow the doors off of Missouri from the start, and I can’t rule that out. However, I expect it to start slowly for both teams with the defenses largely holding serve. Alabama will get a score shortly before the half to take a two-score lead, and that’ll be enough. Missouri might get something late in the third to keep it looking interesting, but the Alabama running backs will close the door in the fourth. 27-10 Tide.
Brandon: My answer on the score will come along in the preview on Saturday, but generally speaking: Alabama gets up early and coasts to a win with a margin that's about 10-15 points smaller than it feels like, because that's how Nick Saban rolls. Once you're defeated, he's done.