If you want to look at the SEC as trend-setter -- putting aside the question of whether it's the best conference on the field or the richest conference off it -- the championship game is a good place to start. The inaugural game in 1992 was the first of its kind, but all the Power 5 leagues except the Big 12 now play one -- and the Big 12 had one until losing a total of four teams and a net of two in conference realignment, and Bob Bowlsby has supported a proposal that would allow the Big 12 to hold one with ten teams, though he's not saying that means one would happen.
So the game being played in Atlanta today might be the original -- and in our slightly biased opinion, it might be the best. Only twice in the 23-game history of the event (counting this year) has it not featured at least one team ranked in the Top 5. The winner has gone on to play for the national title for eight consecutive seasons. There is a reason that the Big 12 and the ACC and the Pac-12 and the B1G (not to mention the MAC, Mountain West and Conference USA) have all picked up on the idea. It works.
But it's also been known to dash a few dreams. Three teams -- 1994 Alabama, 2001 Tennessee and 2005 LSU -- all came into the game with at least a chance to play for the national title, only to lose. The 2001 Tennessee team was a mortal lock for the championship game, if only it could have taken out what was thought to be an inferior team. But it didn't. So Missouri might be a decided underdog today, and deservedly so -- but it would be a mistake to count out the improbable.
1National Implications. Of all the games being played today, this one has the greatest chance to throw the entire College Football Playoff system into chaos. The only other game that features a team that everyone thinks should be in the playoff is the ACC Championship Game, but even that doesn't introduce the thorny issues that an Alabama loss would. For one thing, Georgia Tech winning that game doesn't push another team out of the playoff-aligned bowls; Missouri winning would. For another thing, Alabama losing brings up all sorts of other issues. Does the Tide go from No. 1 to No. 4 -- or lower? Who takes their place? Will the first College Football Playoff be without a team from the SEC? Does the Big 12 get two teams into the bracket, or does Ohio State move into the Top 4 (assuming they beat Wisconsin tonight)? There are a few games every year where the impact of the final score can actually be described as seismic. A Missouri win today would be one of them.
2East vs. West. Missouri is trying to break a streak that has helped establish the SEC West as better than the SEC East beyond just this year: The West winner has won the SEC title game five years in a row, and in six of the last seven meetings. Listen, no rational person is going to look at a Missouri win and claim that the East is now better than the West. As fans from other conferences never tired of telling the SEC during the national championship streak, one game does not define one group of teams vis a vis another. But this is the last chance for the East to claim some sort of victory over the West and repair a bit of its reputation after the collective face-plant in the SEC-ACC challenge last week. It wouldn't mean the SEC East is elite, but it would mean something. And if there's anything we've learned from watching the SEC East this season, it's that the least probable thing is usually what happens.
3The Missouri Defense vs. the Alabama Offense. A lot has been made this week about the potential for the Mizzou defense to slow down Blake Sims, Amari Cooper, et al -- in part because the Tigers don't stand a chance otherwise. But according to F+, Alabama has already faced better defenses than Missouri in Mississippi State and LSU. Both slowed Bama down to an extent -- but the Tide won both games. Alabama's offense looks to have improved since then, as T.J. Yeldon looks healthy and the game looks to have slowed down for Derrick Henry. Sims, incredibly, bounced back from throwing three interceptions against Auburn, and ended up throwing for over 300 yards and four touchdowns. The offensive side of the ball for Alabama is playing confidently right now, and might not be fazed by Missouri's tough defense.
4The Missouri Offense vs. the Alabama Defense. Not to put to fine a point on it or become redundant, but: if the Tigers defense can't stop Alabama, they've got real problems. Mizzou's offense only has 13 turnovers on the year, but it's hard to see where the play-makers are going to come from consistently. Bama has faced a better fleet of receivers in several games this year, and while Missouri's running game is decent, Alabama's run defense is the best in the country. It's likely the Tigers faces a lot of second or third-and-long situations, and it's far from a sure thing that Mizzou can convert enough when that happens. Can Maty Mauk do enough with his arm and legs to create plays where none exist? Probably not, given that Dak Prescott and Nick Marshall fit a similar mold, had more play-makers on their respective offenses, and still couldn't outscore the Tide. Sure, Missouri's pulled rabbits out of its hat before, with the Missouri vs. South Carolina game being a prime example. But Alabama's defense is much, much, much better than South Carolina's.
5Intangibles. "Grit" is a bit of a silly metric because it's immeasurable, but Missouri has had its back against the wall the last three weeks, and it delivered every time convincingly, despite two of those games being on the road. This is a team that knows how to win and won't quit. Even if they fall behind, the Tigers will continue to plug away. If Alabama makes a mistake on special teams or has a turnover in its territory, either of which is a possibility, Mizzou will be there to capitalize. You can't lean on "intangibles" in a game like this (or any game, really), but if there's one thing that Missouri has to hang it's hat on in this game, that's it: the Tigers have been the underdogs several times this year, and have lost only once (against Georgia).
THREE TO WATCH
Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: By now, you're probably familiar with the idea that Cooper is the best wide receiver in the country, but to reiterate the numbers: 103 receptions for 1,573 yards and 14 touchdowns. He averages 15.3 yards a catch. There are a variety of reasons Cooper might not win the Heisman (Marcus Mariota and the award's bias against players that aren't quarterbacks or running backs top the list), but if he's not at least in NYC next week, it's an outrage. The only question is whether Alabama relies on Cooper too much. He's an incredible talent, and will inevitably get his yards and points, but Missouri's defense may be strong enough to limit the rest of Alabama's offense.
Markus Golden and Shane Ray, DEs, Missouri: It's hard to talk about one of these players without talking about the other. The are No. 1 and No. 6 in the SEC in sacks -- with 22.0 between them. They are No. 1 (tie) and No. 3 in the SEC in tackles for loss, combining for a mind-boggling 36.5 such stops between them. It's not rare for a good SEC team to have one truly elite end, given that putting athletes on the defensive line is one of the things that contributed to the "team speed" theory. It's not even rare for a team to have two good defensive ends. But it's rare for any team to have two guys that are as good as Golden and Ray, particularly after losing Michael Sam and Kony Ealy.
Blake Sims, QB, Alabama: Quick: Without looking it up, name the quarterback with the highest passer efficiency rating among players who have attempted at least 50 passes this year. If you guessed anything other than Blake Sims after his name is right there, you need help -- but without that, some people might have gone with Dak Prescott. Nope. (He's actually fourth.) It's Sims, who is 207-of-328 for 2,988 yards, 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions this year. Sims also has 64 carries this year for 302 yards and six touchdowns. If he can elude the Missouri pass rush, Alabama could win this one going away.
Brandon: For some reason, I keep coming back to what I think of as the prototypical example of a Nick Saban game in the SEC Championship Game: the 2009 edition, which featured Alabama beating Florida 32-13. The margin was impressive enough, but the game felt like more of a blowout than even the score implied. And another thing: It was relatively close at the half. I don't know that Alabama will completely blank Missouri at the end of the game. And this Alabama team isn't as good as that Alabama team -- but this Missouri team is also not as good as that Florida team. I think an identical margin for the same team in the same event is a bit unlikely, but it's the best reflection of how I see things unfolding. Alabama 32, Missouri 13