Down 21-3 to begin the third quarter of the SEC Championship Game, Missouri decided to tempt fate. The Tigers scored 10 points in the third quarter to move within a single score of Alabama. Woken from its slumber, the Crimson Tide then proceeded to pour on 21 points in a dominant four quarter, putting the game out of reach and giving Nick Saban his third SEC title and a shot at his fourth national championship at Alabama.
It started out looking like a blowout. It took less than four minutes for Alabama to march 68 yards down the field and score a game-opening touchdown, then force Missouri into a three-and-out. The score would remain there for the rest of the first quarter, but the signs of the Tide's dominance were already mounting: 101 yards of total offense to 21 for Missouri; seven first downs, compared to one; and Missouri having run the ball four times for three yards.
Alabama would tack on two more touchdowns in the second quarter, answered only by a field goal on Missouri's part, giving the Tide a 21-3 lead. By halftime, Maty Mauk was 7-of-17 for 87 yards passing and Missouri's running game was averaging 2.1 yards a carry. Meanwhile, Blake Sims was 15-of-17 for 160 yards and a touchdown, and while the Alabama running game was only having marginal success (3.4 yards a carry), the Tide seemed to be pulling away.
Things started to turn ever so slightly for Missouri -- or at least its passing game -- in the third quarter. Mauk went 6-of-10 for 134 yards, all but 14 of those yards coming on throws to Jimmie Hunt. The ground game was still sputtering, but Missouri appeared to be finding its way back into the game. Sims was still playing well, and by almost any statistical measure Alabama was still firmly in control of the game. But the score told the story of an uncomfortably close game.
That's when Alabama put things out of reach. A 10-play drive for a touchdown. An eight-play drive for a touchdown. In about 12 minutes of game time, Missouri went from kicking a field goal and pulling within eight points to being down by 22 points and essentially being knocked out of the game. Much of the Tide's success in that fourth quarter came from the ground game: Derrick Henry churned out 88 yards on six carries, part of a running attack that produced 134 yards on 14 attempts. The rout was on well before Henry carried it one more time to boost the final margin to 29 points.
When it was over, Sims had set a new SEC Championship Game record for completion percentage (23-of-27, 85.2 percent), and a new Alabama record for passing yards in a season. Amari Cooper set the title game record for catches in the same game that brought him the SEC record for receptions in a season. Remember when we all laughed about Lane Kiffin becoming the offensive coordinator in Tuscaloosa?
Congrats 2 @AmariCooper9 on the record! Couldn't ask for a better player to represent that accomplishment! Go get my career yards too!— Jordan Matthews (@jmattjmattjmatt) December 6, 2014
And with that, Alabama might have put behind it one of the most dangerous threats to its standing as the highest-profile program in college football since Nick Saban arrived. Whether you want to consider the dynasty over or not, it's clear that the Tide aren't going anywhere -- less than a year after the Sugar Bowl debacle against Oklahoma, following on the heels of the kick-six, made Alabama look a little less frightening than it had been during the glory years. Saturday's game also provided Alabama with an implicit answer to critics who had called for Oregon to move to No. 1 after the Ducks' obliteration of Arizona; Missouri might not be quite as good as the Wildcats, but Alabama has a blowout in its own conference championship game to point toward.
For Missouri, it was a painful game that doesn't hurt the Tigers all that much. They were playing with house money on Saturday, with a win enough to vault them into a playoff-aligned bowl and a loss simply meaning that would have to settle for Citrus Bowl, or perhaps a trip to the Outback. That's nothing to be ashamed of when you consider that most outside observers saw Missouri as perhaps a fourth-place team in the SEC East to start the season. And while the Tigers are new to the conference, there's a long list of teams that have gotten blown out by Nick Saban and the Tide in critical games.
For Alabama, though, this is only the beginning. If 2014 is about redeeming the program after the failures of 2013, there are two more games that have to be won. The first will almost certainly feature a return to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on Jan. 1 for the semifinals. Win there, and the Tide will head to Arlington to play for the national championship. Lose either of those games, and the questions will start all over again.