So yeah. Despite the general level of optimism (well, the lack thereof) surrounding this game, we should probably take the time to actually get to know Nick Saban's Crimson Tide, eh?
We all know about Alabama's defense. It is ridiculous. The Tide are as far ahead of No. 2 BYU in Def. S&P+ as BYU is ahead of No. 101 Baylor, which is ... well, it is both hilarious and terrifying. (It's also unrealistic -- that number will come down at least a little bit by the end of the season.) But what makes Alabama even scarier is the simple fact that the offense is also quite good. McCarron led the way as a first-year starter in 2011, and he has looked excellent so far in 2012. He doesn't have to take too many risks, but he completes two-thirds of his passes (with a young receiving corps, no less) and has yet to throw an interception. If Mizzou is to win on Saturday, the first step is getting him more harried and frustrated than he has yet been this season. That includes picking him off at least once.
Eddie Lacy (6'0, 220, Jr.) (314 yards, 4.9 per carry, 4 TD; 4 catches, 25 yards)
T.J. Yeldon (6'2, 216, Fr.) (292 yards, 5.8 per carry, 2 TD; 7 catches, 94 yards)
Kenyan Drake (6'1, 204, Fr.) (126 yards, 9.7 per carry, 3 TD)
It's almost underwhelming: both Lacy and Drake were only four-star backs; Yeldon was the only five-star of the three. You're slipping, Saban! Still, this unit is perfect for what it needs to be. With the 'Bama defense in its corner, all the offense needs to do is rough you up, and the big Lacy can do just that. Yeldon and Drake have both proven more explosive than Lacy, but there is no need to rush their progress when you can first soften up the defense with Lacy. And they run behind one of the country's best (and healthiest, ahem) run-blocking lines.
Z: Kevin Norwood (6'2, 195, Jr.) (12 targets, 9 catches, 179 yards, 2 TD)
Kenny Bell (6'1, 180, Jr.) (12 targets, 7 catches, 138 yards, 1 TD)
TE: Michael Williams (6'6, 269, Sr.) (11 targets, 7 catches, 47 yards, 1 TD)
Brian Vogler (6'7, 258, So.) (3 targets, 2 catches, 21 yards)
If nothing else, Mizzou has an experience advantage here. Amari Cooper has emerged as the star of the receiving corps -- he caught eight of 10 passes for 84 yards and two touchdowns against Ole Miss -- but Norwood, Jones and Bell have all had their moments. When the run game softens you up, 'Bama can murder you with play-action. And if the deep ball isn't there, McCarron is well-schooled enough to simply check down to a running back. This will be an extreme test of the Mizzou secondary's depth and general abilities.
LT: Cyrus Kouandjio (6'6, 311, So.) (5 career starts)
Kellen Williams (6'3, 303, Jr.)
C: Barrett Jones (6'5, 302, Sr.) (41 career starts, 2011 Outland Award)
Ryan Kelly (6'5, 288, RSFr.)
Alabama only used six starters for all of last season. They have used the same five in every game this year. Must be nice.
[ /self-pity ]
This is a strong line, but that probably goes without saying. Jones is the defending Outland Award winner. You can get to McCarron -- the Tide rank just 48th in Sack Rate -- but the run blocking is impeccable. Alabama ranks fourth in Line Yards per Carry ... which actually makes you wonder how good the running backs actually are since they're only combining to average 5.8 yards per carry.
NG: Jesse Williams (6'4, 320, Sr.) (5.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 blocked kick)
Brandon Ivory (6'4, 315, So.) (2.5 tackles, 1 QBH, 1 FR)
Alabama runs the pro-est of pro-style 3-4 defenses. Saban was Bill Belichick's defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns from 1991-94 and has kept the 3-4 structure for most of his time since then. He uses the JACK linebacker position as the fourth down lineman at times (you see below that starting JACK Xzavier Dickson is 262 pounds), but this is intended to be a 3-4 structure. That means that the linemen aren't asked to make an exorbitant amount of plays. Their first job is to swallow up as many blockers as possible for the linebackers, but Ed Stinson has still turned into a pretty ferocious play-maker. He is on pace for over 15 tackles for loss, which is a bit ridiculous for a 3-4 end.
Meanwhile, if you know one thing about Jesse Williams, it is probably this:
Alabama defensive tackle Jesse Williams has made waves since arriving in Tuscaloosa from his homeland of Australia, standing out with his unique look and big personality as well as his performance on the field.
The latest feat from Williams that has fans buzzing came in the weight room on Thursday when the 320-pound lineman reportedly bench pressed 600 pounds.
To give that achievement some perspective, former Memphis star Dontari Poe, the top bench press performer at this year's NFL Combine, maxed out at 500 pounds on the bench press.
This came on the heels of Mizzou's Jack Meiners breaking the Missouri school record by benching 505 pounds, which is just rude of Williams, really.
(Meanwhile, Meiners doesn't even get to play in this game because of injury, which just makes you want to cry. This was the perfect opportunity to at least size Missouri up and see what the Tigers have to offer as a program. Instead, James Franklin, Meiners, Travis Ruth and Mitch Morse are all out. I know, I know, excuses, move 'em up, move 'em over, nobody cares, etc. But still. It's really, really frustrating.)
WILL: Nico Johnson (6'3, 245, Sr.) (17.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 FF, 1 PBU, 1 QBH)
C.J. Mosley (6'2, 232, Jr.) (30.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 1 FF)
Tana Patrick (6'3, 236, Jr.) (3.0 tackles)
Alabama's depth chart is rather funny. Two of the four leading tacklers (C.J. Mosley and Vinnie Sunseri) are second-stringers. That might suggest how often Alabama is playing its backups, but it also suggests something else: neither Mosley nor Sunseri are actually backups. They're basically co-starters. And Mosley in particular would be a full-time starter, and star, on any other defense in the country.
One other interesting thing about the Alabama defense: it swarms. For a lot of teams, you will see the number of solo tackles a lot higher than the number of assisted tackles. Missouri, for instance, has 260 solo tackles and 184 assists. Texas Tech: 217 solo tackles, 50 assists. Alabama, on the other hand, has 161 solo tackles and 148 assists. We hear Gary Pinkel talk about the concept of leverage a lot; it was one of Don James' tenets of football, and what it basically means is your No. 1 job on the boundary is to steer the play back toward the middle of the field. Missouri does it pretty well. Bama does it better than anybody. (Saban, of course, was also a James disciple at one point.) Xzavier Dickson has two solo tackles and eight assists. Nico Johnson: 11 and 13. Mosley: 22 and 17. DePriest: 13 and eight. They beat you to the edge, and when you cut back toward the middle, you are swarmed by eight guys. Among other things, that is more punishing than a simple solo tackle. It also makes it feel like there are 17 defensive players on the field.
CB: Deion Belue (5'11, 179, Jr.) (13.0 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 INT, 2 PBU, 1 FF)
Geno Smith (6'0, 182, Fr.) (3.5 tackles)
S: HaHa Clinton-Dix (6'1, 209, So.) (10.0 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 1 FF)
Nick Perry (6'1, 208, Jr.) (8.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 PBU, 1 FR)
Landon Collins (6'0, 202, Fr.) (2.5 tackles)
Dee Milliner is my favorite type of cornerback. He takes risks sometimes -- probably too many for Saban's liking -- but I'm not Nick Saban. Milliner plays the ball as well as anybody in the country -- he has two interceptions and nine passes broken up, and on most occasions he is absolutely stuck like glue to his man. I have no idea who he will be covering the most on Saturday, but Corbin Berkstresser would be well-served in looking toward the other side of the field more often than not.
Of course, on the other side of the field is Deion Belue, who is aggressive in his own right. So good luck with that.
P: Cody Mandell (6'4, 202, Jr.) (15 punts, 42.3 average, 39.1 net average)
Jeremy Shelley (5'10, 165, Sr.)
KR: Christion Jones (5'11, 185, So.) (5 KR, 33.4 average, 1 TD)
Dee Milliner (6'1, 199, Jr.)
Kevin Norwood (6'2, 195, Jr.) (1 return, 22.0 average)
PR: Christion Jones (5'11, 185, So.) (13 returns, 10.9 average, long: 31)
Cyrus Jones (5'10, 192, Fr.)
The kicking situation for Alabama is much more steady than what you probably remember from last year's first LSU-Alabama game, when Shelley and Foster combined to miss four of six field goals in Bama's only loss of the season. Shelley has become automatic under 40 yards (though in fairness, all four of the field goals they missed versus LSU were at least 44 yards), and Foster has done a solid job on the longer kicks. Meanwhile, the punting is at least solid when they need it, and though Christion Jones hasn't had many opportunities to actually return kickoffs (that's what happens when you allow five touchdowns in five games), he has taken one to the house.
When Gary Pinkel said this is a team without weaknesses yesterday, he meant it. Anybody can be beaten, of course, but taking out Alabama will require a mistake-free effort and some help. As SBN's Steven Godfrey wrote when he embedded with Western Kentucky earlier this year:
Through the eyes of those coaches who oppose him, Saban’s mystique is that he has none. They know his success is not a mystery of schemes or some reinvention of the game. It's the result of a single, almost otherworldly focus on reducing the probability of loss on a game-to-game basis. He hasn’t changed offensive or defensive football. His system is simplistic to the point of banality: run the ball aggressively in a mix of power and zone formations, pass out of play action, and play an aggressive, fast 3-4 defense built from the secondary out and measured by discipline before all else.
Those same coaches pay homage to the real mystique: How Saban reduces the probability of a loss far before game plans are drawn up. What he builds on a year-round basis is almost always the real difference. In recruiting he can break into any territory without compromise, so if there are two potential linebackers of the required athletic ability available, Saban has the luxury of landing the more intelligent and receptive of the two without the hindrance of state lines affecting his pick. Once assembled, he’s able to cocoon the best talent available for his system in the best in academic support and physical conditioning money can buy, all while reprogramming his players’ focus on fundamentals (tackling, ball protection) in a total vacuum, free of dissent from upperclassmen or assistant coaches, free of outside voices in the administration and free of as many distractions as he, the "wily old veteran" can eliminate while in the spotlight of one of the game’s best programs. Every potential advantage is available, every potential advancement explored, all with nearly endless resources.
Mizzou was a much bigger underdog when the Tigers almost took out Nebraska in 1997. Certainly don't abandon all hope here. But a Mizzou win would require a performance infinitely better than the Tigers have produced this year. Hope all you want, but understand that reality might force you to abandon that hope pretty quickly.