Alabama at Missouri: Beyond The Box Score preview

www.historicfootballposters.com

Expect reality, hope for greatness (and wind), and look forward to the bye week that follows.

NOTE: Confused? See the quick glossary at the bottom.

Alabama at Missouri

Record AP
Rank
2012
F/+ Rk
2012
S&P+ Rk
2012 Off.
S&P+ Rk
2012 Def.
S&P+ Rk
Alabama 5-0 1 1 1 15 1
Missouri 3-3 NR 53 37 81 21

I think we covered it pretty well yesterday: Alabama is really, really, really good. On SleepyFloyd7's radio show yesterday afternoon, I said I figured Mizzou had about a five-percent chance of winning. This Mizzou team just does not have the depth or the (proven) confidence to have a chance, and even with a perfectly full-strength Mizzou squad, with everybody from James Franklin to Henry Josey to Travis Ruth healthy, I still wouldn't be able to put Mizzou's chances higher than about 25 percent. Alabama is just that good.

With that in mind, a simple rundown of the numbers really wouldn't be of much value. The numbers are going to tell you the same things I just said above: 'Bama is a superior team in almost every way. So instead, as we walk through the different aspects of this matchup, I'll walk through what has to happen to turn tomorrow afternoon's game into a Five Percenter.

When Alabama Has The Ball…

Standard Downs
Bama
Offense
Missouri
Defense
SD % Run 64.0%
S&P+ Rk 36 13
Success Rt+ Rk 25 24
PPP+ Rk 45 11
Rushing S&P+ Rk 17 8
Passing S&P+ Rk 60 20

What Mizzou Must Do, Part 1: Hold Alabama To A 30 Percent Success Rate On Passing Downs. Alabama's offense is really only good on standard downs. It isn't bad by any means -- the Tide rank 36th in Standard Downs S&P+ -- but it isn't elite. The Tide run almost two-thirds of the time on such downs (their 64 percent run rate is 34th in the country), feeding the defense a steady dose of 220-pound Eddie Lacy and others. When they do throw the ball, it isn't incredibly effective. A.J. McCarron has found receivers Amari Cooper and Kevin Norwood for some occasionally strong gains (they have combined to catch 17 of 22 passes for 302 yards on standard downs), but for the most part they stay conservative. Tight end Michael Williams is the No. 2 target on these downs, but he averages just 4.7 yards per target. For the most part, 'Bama uses the pass on standard downs like we saw them against LSU last year: fake the handoff, then throw it into the flat.

Passing Downs
Bama
Offense
Missouri
Defense
SD % Run 47.7%
S&P+ Rk 3 39
Success Rt+ Rk 8 48
PPP+ Rk 6 34
Rushing S&P+ Rk 15 18
Passing S&P+ Rk 5 40

Mizzou can handle this style of offense. If there's one thing we've seen from the Missouri defense thus far in the SEC, it's that you aren't going to push it around. Georgia moved the ball by spreading Mizzou out and throwing downfield; South Carolina moved the ball by kind of spreading Mizzou out and dumping to the running backs and tight end. 'Bama can certainly try to do what South Carolina did, and it might work, but for the most part Mizzou should be able to force its share of passing downs.

What happens on those passing downs could determine whether this is even remotely a game or not. Whereas Mizzou holds the advantage in every standard downs category above, the Tigers are at a disadvantage in every passing downs category. The Mizzou pass rush is decent but not good enough to make generally soft coverage in the secondary work. They will quite often give up nine yards on third-and-6, and while they have done a decent job of preventing big plays on passing downs, they have allowed enough for it to be problematic against an Alabama offense that is incredibly underrated in its ability to move the chains.

On passing downs, Alabama receivers Cooper, Christion Jones and Kenny Bell have combined to catch 17 of 22 passes for 276 yards. Forced to become rather aggressive, Alabama has shown that they are actually pretty good at it. Not only is there big-play potential here, but it accompanies a 40-percent success rate. How good is 40 percent on passing downs? Mizzou's success rate on standard downs is just 41 percent. So basically, Alabama is as likely to get seven yards on second-and-10 or six yards on third-and-6 as Mizzou is to get five yards on first-and-10 or about four yards on second-and-5.

Tomorrow, Mizzou absolutely, positively must limit Alabama's passing downs success. Perhaps windy conditions will help in this regard. But "must" is the key word in all of these "What Mizzou Must Do" tidbits. Mizzou simply cannot win if Alabama is converting second- or third-and-longs for big gains. Not only would those big gains probably lead to more points than Mizzou can score in response, but they would lead to a new set of downs and another couple of hits from Eddie Lacy and the Alabama offensive line, which could eventually tire out the defense.

What Mizzou Must Do, Part 2: Force Field Goals. In recent years, despite the presence of running backs like Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram, Alabama's offense had the tendency to stall in or near the red zone. It was the primary reason the Tide lost to LSU in Tuscaloosa last year. They advanced inside LSU's 35-yard line seven times but were held to six field goal attempts (of which they missed four) and an interception. Meanwhile, LSU advanced inside Alabama's 35 just three times (including the overtime period in which they inherited the ball at the Bama 25) and won. In a way, it was the same story in the national title game. Alabama advanced inside LSU's 35 eight times, scored once, and kicked a ridiculous seven field goals (they made five).

Under new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who spent 2009-11 as Steve Sarkisian's O.C. at Washington, the Tide have improved in this regard. They currently rank sixth in Red Zone S&P+ and have shown signs of a particularly effective short passing game here. It is not currently the weakness it once was, but that doesn't really matter. Alabama is going to generate more scoring opportunities than Missouri -- that is all but a guarantee -- but if the Tide are only scoring three points per opportunity, Mizzou is only one or two big plays from staying in the game. Alabama is still content to settle for a field goal when it has to -- 'Bama kickers have attempted 13 in five games, after all -- since it knows it doesn't have to take many risks with that defense. It is imperative that Mizzou eventually make stops, even if they allow a lot of yards in the process.

When Missouri Has The Ball…

What Mizzou Must Do, Part 3: Avoid Catastrophe. From Steven Godfrey's Western Kentucky embed piece:

Turnovers are an instant kiss of death against Alabama. Sure, they're bad no matter the opponent, but they're the black mark of certain death against Alabama. In the virtual world, consider it worth an instant click of the reset button. Without that luxury in real life, bear down and pray.

"If you turn the ball over against them, the game's over. Doesn't matter when it happens, because they're too good," Taggart says on Monday.

Standard Downs
Missouri
Offense
Bama
Defense
SD % Run 53.6%
S&P+ Rk 45 2
Success Rt+ Rk 75 5
PPP+ Rk 29 1
Rushing S&P+ Rk 30 5
Passing S&P+ Rk 67 2

Even if it means a lot of three-and-outs, Mizzou simply cannot afford to hand Alabama a short field. It will be difficult enough to keep the 'Bama offense from consistently driving 60-70 yards; hand them a 20- or 30-yard drive, and the ballgame is just about over.

Here's where starting a redshirt freshman quarterback, Corbin Berkstresser, is so terrifying, of course. Berk has had meaningful snaps in just two collegiate games, and now he must manage to keep his cool and avoid pressing while facing the fastest, most disciplined defense he has ever seen. We like to think that Berk has pretty solid upside overall, but "upside" isn't what you need from a quarterback in beating Alabama. You need control. For the most part, Berkstresser has done a good job of avoiding catastrophe -- he has thrown just one interception in 84 passes; but if by Saturday night that season number is any higher than one, or maybe two, Mizzou will not win.

Passing Downs
Missouri
Offense
Bama
Defense
SD % Run 37.5%
S&P+ Rk 71 1
Success Rt+ Rk 80 1
PPP+ Rk 62 1
Rushing S&P+ Rk 93 24
Passing S&P+ Rk 52 1

What Mizzou Must Do, Part 4: Turn DGB Into Alshon Jeffery.

Alabama almost dares you to throw long. If your quarterback has enough time in the pocket to wait, he might find a window open downfield along the sidelines. If he can make just about the hardest throw in football (a 20- or 25-yard strike, on a rope, to the sidelines), he could connect for some nice gains. But either the pass must be a cannon shot that beats the safety to the spot, or you need a receiver fast enough to get to the spot and big enough to battle for the ball in relative traffic. You need Alshon Jeffery, in other words. Jeffery torched Alabama in 2010. Jeffery caught seven passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-21 win over 'Bama in The Other Columbia.

At this stage in the season, only one Mizzou receiver has shown truly elite potential. Marcus Lucas has had his moments but is battling such a funk that he was demoted this week in favor of a player (Bud Sasser) who caught a single pass against Vanderbilt. Now, Sasser caught precisely this type of deep sideline pass last week and took it 85 yards for a touchdown; and L'Damian Washington has shown solid ability to get open downfield. Either one could catch a long ball tomorrow. Like, one. If you work under the theory that Mizzou needs more than one, then I think we might have to look to a certain five-star freshman who has had an eventful couple of weeks.

The last time we saw Dorial Green-Beckham on the field, he was sending UCF defenders bouncing off of him on a gorgeous, powerful, really easy-looking 80-yard touchdown. The last time we saw DGB's name in headlines, he was getting arrested for smoking pot in a car in the shadow of Memorial Stadium. Physically, he has been ready for the big-time since the first time he put on a Mizzou uniform. Mentally, he is still coming around. (And he showed in that car in said shadow of stadium that he is, in many ways, still a dumb freshman in ways that many college freshmen are dumb.) His body language doesn't scream "I'm lost" on the field quite as much, and lord knows he got quite the confidence boost last time he saw the field.

Honestly, it is almost certainly unfair to think that DGB could magically, immediately turn into the elite player we expect him to one day become. Improvement is typically linear, not overnight. But against Alabama, Mizzou doesn't really have a choice but to figure out how to move the ball downfield, and since consistency is still probably too much to ask of this offense -- that's kind of what happens when you lose your starting quarterback and return one offensive lineman just to lose two more -- the Tigers almost have to figure out how to eat up chunks of yardage in one fell swoop. Without at least one big catch from DGB, I don't see how that happens.

Special Teams

What Mizzou Must Do, Part 5: Win Special Teams. Again, this hasn't exactly been a Mizzou strong suit this year. Mizzou is returning punts better than it ever has before (Marcus Murphy is averaging 20.1 yards per return and has taken three to the house; as means of comparison, LSU's Tyrann Mathieu averaged 15.6 yards and scored twice last year), but place-kicking snaps have been abysmal, the punting and punt coverage have been hot-and-cold, kickoff returns have been mostly nonexistent, and kickoff coverage, while mostly strong, proved leaky at an awful time against South Carolina.

But none of this matters. In the theoretical Mizzou win, the Tigers make their kicks, flip the field at least once with a nice return, and average 40+ net yards per punt. There is no alternative. For Mizzou to win, the Tigers must operate better than they have all year in the special teams department. Good luck with that.

Summary

Spread: Alabama -21.5
F/+ Pick: Alabama by 34.9

So here's how Mizzou wins: the Tiger defense forces field goals on Alabama drives and allows no more than one touchdown. That gives Bama somewhere in the neighborhood of probably 13-19 points. Mizzou either scores on a long punt/kickoff/interception/fumble/blocked kick return or sets up easy points. Mizzou scores on one big play from DGB, L'Damian Washington, Kendial Lawrence, or a trick play of some sort, and Corbin Berkstresser and the offense generate one consistent, five-yards-per-play drive that generates points. That gives Mizzou between about 13 and 21 points. Score touchdowns on your scoring opportunities, and you win, 21-16 or so. Kick field goals, and maybe you win, 13-12. Regardless, that's the recipe. Maybe you get lucky, and Alabama misses four more field goals, but it's doubtful at this point. (Unless, of course, the wind wreaks havoc. Come on, wind!)

This is, of course, always the recipe for beating Alabama. It isn't Mizzou-specific, and it is incredibly difficult to follow. Alabama has won 41 of its last 45 games, and two of its four losses came to teams that either played in (2011 LSU) or won (2010 Auburn) the national title game. The Tide's other two losses: 2010 South Carolina (when Jeffery torched them) and 2010 LSU (when the Tigers basically followed the above recipe and Les Miles ate grass). That's it. There's a reason why I said Mizzou had about a five percent chance of winning, and honestly, five percent might be a little high.

But it's possible. This is college football, after all. As a bigger underdog in 1997, Mizzou beat Nebraska for 59:59 before succumbing to the flukiest of fluke plays. As a much bigger underdog in 2007, Stanford beat USC. It happens, and when it does, it's glorious.

I have a good friend coming down from Chicago for the game, and as I told him yesterday morning, there's a 95 percent chance you leave Columbia on Sunday having enjoyed Columbia and endured an awful football game, and there's a five percent chance you witness one of Mizzou's greatest, most unexpected wins. Expect reality, hope for greatness, and look forward to the bye week that follows.

-----

A Quick Glossary

F/+ Rankings: The official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

Field Position %: The percentage of a team's plays run in their opponent's field position. National average: 43%.

Leverage Rate: A team's ratio of standard downs to passing downs. National average: 68%. Anything over 68% means a team did a good job of avoiding being leveraged into passing downs.

Passing Downs: Second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more.

PPP: An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game. National average: 0.32.

S&P: Think of this as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rate. The 'P' stands for PPP, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. S&P is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders. National average: 0.747. Standard downs S&P average: 0.787. Passing downs S&P average: 0.636.

Standard Downs: First downs, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less.

Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down. National Average: 42%.

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