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The 2014 SEC Championship preview: Alabama vs. Missouri

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Using weekly F/+ odds, Missouri had only a 2.5 percent chance of winning six in a row to reach the SEC Championship game. The Tigers have a 10 percent chance of beating Alabama -- might as well just give 'em the rings now.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Confused? Visit the Advanced Stats glossary here.

Alabama vs. Missouri

Record CFP
Rank
F/+ Rk Off. F/+ Rk
Def. F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Alabama 11-1 1 1 4 3 92
Missouri 10-2 16 31 57 14 43

F/+ projection: Alabama 33, Missouri 4 (win probability: Alabama 89.5%)

So ... Alabama is probably going to win this game. No matter where we want to start with the analysis, we should very much keep that in mind. Even though the F/+ win probabilities have had a bit of a shaky performance in recent weeks, a 90% chance of winning is really high. At worst, we're talking more like 80-85%. Missouri is good, Alabama is really good.

It is reassuring, however, to see that the Beating Alabama script for Missouri is pretty clear. Mizzou has a really, really good defensive line. Alabama has a quarterback who can be rattled. Missouri does have a run game that can carve out three to five yards at a time even if it isn't breaking off big plays. And while Missouri's special teams unit has taken a nose-dive recently, Alabama's own special teams (sans punting) has been at a low level all year. You can pretty easily craft a scenario in which Missouri slows the Bama run game down, forces turnovers, and holds its own in the field position battle. Finish drives well, avoid turning the ball right back over, and voila. You're in position for an upset.

Alabama will likely win, but at least Missouri knows exactly how it can win. That's a serious plus, especially from an analysis perspective.

When Alabama Has The Ball…

NOTE: Below, I'm using IsoPPP instead of PPP, as I have used in the past. For more on IsoPPP, click here. The idea was to create an explosiveness measure that is separated from Success Rate, an efficiency measure. It basically asks, "When a team is successful, how successful are they?" It measures the magnitude of the big plays, and I love it ... but early in the season, a very small number of big plays can skew things pretty dramatically.

ONE MORE NOTE: Keep in mind when you look at these numbers that Success Rate carries more weight than IsoPPP. Before the size of the successful play matters, you have to have successful plays. When I come up with an effective way to incorporate IsoPPP into my overall S&P+ formulas, Success Rate will likely carry 70-85% of the overall weight of the formula. If you can be good at either Success Rate or IsoPPP, you're going to choose Success Rate.

Standard Downs
UA Offense MU Defense Advantage
SD % Run 59.3% (60th)

S&P+ 135.3 (2nd) 118.5 (17th) push
Success Rate 53.4% (12th) 43.1% (27th) push
IsoPPP 0.88 (16th) 0.68 (24th) push
Rushing Success Rate 53.2% (17th) 40.2% (20th) push
Rushing IsoPPP 0.72 (44th) 0.65 (59th) push
Passing Success Rate 53.5% (16th) 47.2% (81st) UA big
Passing IsoPPP 1.12 (19th) 0.72 (6th) push

It's pretty incredible this matchup is. Any matchup where the two units are ranked within 20 spots of each other is deemed a push, and almost every matchup here is a push. Now, one has to remember that Alabama suffered some line injuries in October and were pretty unstable there for a couple/few games; of course, one also has to remember that Markus Golden was less than full strength for half the year. We'll consider that a wash, I guess. Both of these units looked awfully good last week.

The primary concern from these numbers comes in Alabama's standard downs passing game. Mizzou's passing success rate here has improved in recent weeks, but it's still easily the lowest rated aspect of Mizzou's defensive attack. The Tigers don't give up big plays, but they'll give you the short stuff. And the Tide will take a ton of short stuff if you let them. And by "short stuff," I mean "short stuff to Amari Cooper."

Targets & Catches
Amari Cooper: 96 targets, 65 catches (68%), 1,072 yards (11.2 per target), 12 TD
DeAndrew White: 36 targets, 22 catches (61%), 203 yards (5.6), 3 TD
Christion Jones: 18 targets, 12 catches (67%), 195 yards (10.8)
T.J. Yeldon (RB): 13 targets, 7 catches (54%), 65 yards (5.0)
Jalston Fowler (FB): 13 targets, 7 catches (54%), 93 yards (7.2), 2 TD
Chris Black: 12 targets, 9 catches (75%), 115 yards (9.6)
O.J. Howard (TE): 10 targets, 7 catches (70%), 126 yards (12.6)

That really is an incredible distribution. White, Jones, Yeldon, Fowler, Black, and Howard have combined for 99 targets on standard downs ... three more than Cooper. I called this a Bellcow offense yesterday, and Cooper is the chief steer. Alabama will still run the ball as frequently as you allow, but as good as Yeldon and Derrick Henry are, that is, to me, a secondary concern to what Bama does with Cooper. The big plays come from the passing game.

Passing Downs
UA Offense MU Defense Advantage
PD % Run 36.6% (37th)

S&P+ 140.4 (10th) 144.8 (8th) push
Success Rate 38.6% (8th) 23.4% (9th) push
IsoPPP 1.05 (92nd) 0.99 (14th) MU big
Rushing Success Rate 32.4% (32nd) 22.4% (36th) push
Rushing IsoPPP 1.13 (57th) 0.97 (30th) MU
Passing Success Rate 42.2% (5th) 23.8% (8th) push
Passing IsoPPP 1.01 (95th) 1.00 (30th) MU big

Targets & Catches
Amari Cooper: 50 targets, 38 catches (76%), 501 yards (10.0), 2 TD
DeAndrew White: 19 targets, 11 catches (58%), 135 yards (7.1)
O.J. Howard (TE): 11 targets, 6 catches (55%), 100 yards (9.1)
T.J. Yeldon (RB): 11 targets, 8 catches (73%), 115 yards (10.5)
Christion Jones: 9 targets, 4 catches (44%), 29 yards (3.2)

Hey look: more pushes! Alabama makes a concerted effort to protect Blake Sims, giving him quick looks as often as possible. That tamps down opponents' sack rates, but it also prevents most big-play potential. Cooper is averaging 16.5 yards per catch on standard downs, but he's getting just 13.2 per catch on passing downs.

The big plays come on first down or on second-and-short. On third-and-9, Alabama's looking to get nine yards. And that's fine -- the Tide are pretty good at getting just that. They're eighth in the country in passing downs success rate despite minimal efficiency. But it will be interesting to see how this approach meshes with Missouri's; the Tigers have managed to combine strong efficiency (thanks mostly to an effective pass rush) and strong big-play numbers (thanks mostly to strong tackling across the board). Does Mizzou have to take some risks to prevent passing downs conversions? If so, does that open up big-play opportunities for an offense bereft of them in these situations?

When Missouri Has The Ball…

Standard Downs
MU Offense UA Defense Advantage
SD % Run 59.3% (60th)

S&P+ 100.6 (69th) 132.7 (5th) UA big
Success Rate 46.7% (69th) 40.0% (8th) UA big
IsoPPP 0.72 (91st) 0.62 (7th) UA big
Rushing Success Rate 50.0% (39th) 35.2% (1st) UA
Rushing IsoPPP 0.61 (96th) 0.38 (1st) UA big
Passing Success Rate 41.8% (102nd) 46.2% (65th) UA
Passing IsoPPP 0.90 (68th) 0.86 (53rd) push

Yeah ... fewer pushes now. Safe to say, Missouri won't be ripping off many big runs against Alabama, huh?

One of the keys to this game will be standard downs success rate. Mizzou has rebounded significantly on passing downs; the Tigers were woeful in that regard for much of the year and have gotten back to figuring out ways to move the chains on third-and-6. That's great. But you're probably not going to want to test Alabama on third-and-6 (or more) very often. Maty Mauk can dig his way out of some passing downs, but not a ton of passing downs. So however you choose to attack Alabama, you need to make sure you're getting four or five yards pretty frequently. If Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough are carving out some space between the tackles, great. If Sean Culkin catches 15 passes for 68 yards, fine.

Along these same lines ... no false starts, please. You got them all out of your system over the last couple of months, guys, right? If Gary Pinkel is saying "That's just Missouri beating Missouri" in the post-game show, Mizzou lost. No way does Missouri beat Missouri and Alabama on Saturday.

Targets & Catches
Bud Sasser: 68 targets, 42 catches (62%), 514 yards (7.6 per target), 5 TD
Jimmie Hunt: 28 targets, 17 catches (61%), 211 yards (7.5), 5 TD
Darius White: 28 targets, 17 catches (61%), 193 yards (6.9), 3 TD
Marcus Murphy (RB): 22 targets, 16 catches (73%), 120 yards (5.5)
Sean Culkin (TE): 22 targets, 9 catches (41%), 68 yards (3.1), 1 TD

Mizzou's pass efficiency on standard downs has had some ... hiccups this year. Part of that is, as we've discussed before, Maty Mauk's own mechanics and his struggles to throw shorter passes with the accuracy they need. Part of it is that his supporting cast of underneath-the-coverage receivers hasn't been great. Whatever the reason ... it can't be a reason on Saturday. If Mizzou elects to throw short, quick passes, Mauk has to get them to the receiver accurately, and the receiver has to catch it. No margin for error this time.

Passing Downs
MU Offense UA Defense Advantage
PD % Run 38.3% (29th)

S&P+ 104.0 (57th) 127.8 (16th) UA
Success Rate 32.4% (49th) 29.1% (53rd) push
IsoPPP 1.08 (83rd) 1.01 (21st) UA big
Rushing Success Rate 30.6% (49th) 29.4% (82nd) MU
Rushing IsoPPP 1.02 (80th) 0.76 (1st) UA big
Passing Success Rate 33.5% (57th) 29.0% (37th) push
Passing IsoPPP 1.12 (75th) 1.11 (61st) push

Because of a mediocre-at-best pass rush, Alabama has struggled at times on passing downs. You're not going to break a 30-yard run on them on such downs, but you can find some room to run, and you can perhaps break a big play or two. This is only a very good passing downs defense, not an elite one.

Again, I think Mizzou can make up ground on some passing downs ... the key is obviously not having to do it very often.

Targets & Catches
Bud Sasser: 38 targets, 23 catches (61%), 384 yards (10.1 per target), 4 TD
Jimmie Hunt: 30 targets, 17 catches (57%), 318 yards (10.6), 2 TD
Sean Culkin (TE): 17 targets, 9 catches (53%), 100 yards (5.9)
Marcus Murphy (RB): 16 targets, 9 catches (56%), 65 yards (4.1), 1 TD
Darius White: 12 targets, 9 catches (75%), 125 yards (10.4), 1 TD
Russell Hansbrough (RB): 11 targets, 6 catches (55%), 2 yards (0.2)

Sasser, Hunt, and White are averaging a lovely 10.3 yards per target on passing downs. They are not as athletic as Auburn's Sammie Coates and Duke Williams, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that the Tigers could hit on a big pass play or two. No drops, please.

Summary

So here are the key factors:

1. Standard downs success

The defense always holds the overall advantage on passing downs, and ... well, Alabama already holds enough defensive advantages. If Missouri can keep the Tide off-balance between run and pass, the Tigers might be able to find ways to consistently gain six yards here and seven there. But there will be only so many rabbits in Maty Mauk's hat in this game. Conserve them.

Similarly, if Alabama is finding Amari Cooper for solid gains on first down, and if T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry are gaining six or seven yards instead of three or four, there's really no way Mizzou wins this game. Mizzou must win on standard downs.

Key Stat: Standard downs success rate.

2. Turnovers

Turnovers are stolen possessions. Whatever Alabama scores per possession, Mizzou will probably need more possessions to match. If Mizzou gets some bounces and creates some easy points (or prevents some), the Tigers can absolutely stick around. If the bounces are going Alabama's way, however...

Key Stat: Turnover margin and turnovers luck

3. Little Things™

Field Position Finishing Drives
Avg. FP
(Off)
Avg. FP
(Def)
MARGIN
Pts. Per
Scoring Opp.
(Off)
Pts. Per
Scoring Opp
(Def)
MARGIN
Alabama 30.8 (51st) 28.0 (33rd) +2.7 (38th) 4.8 (33rd) 3.2 (3rd) +1.6 (2nd)
Missouri 29.6 (79th) 29.8 (69th) -0.2 (79th) 4.7 (41st) 3.9 (30th) +0.8 (19th)

I've said it for basically all of conference play, and for the beginning of Mizzou's six-game win streak, the Tigers were among the best LIttle Things teams in the country. Over the last three weeks, they've done Big Things better and completely lost ground in terms of field position and finishing drives. The upset script all but mandates a Tiger win in at least one of these two categories.

Key stats: points per scoring opportunity and average starting field position.

4. Maty vs. Blake

In a lot of ways, Maty Mauk and Blake Sims are pretty similar quarterbacks. They have both shown one-read-and-scramble tendencies at times, and they can both do damage to your defense with their legs. Neither is a run-heavy QB, but they pick their spots well.

Sims has been quite a bit more efficient than Mauk this year, and while the reason for that could be as simple as "He has Cooper, and Mauk doesn't," I also think Sims has underrated accuracy and, when his line is protecting him, solid, quick decision-making ability. I've been talking about Sims as a pretty underrated guy all season ... and here's where I hope I'm wrong about him. If Mizzou wins the first three keys on this list, then in theory the Tigers can win even if Sims plays quite a bit better than Mauk. But Mauk probably needs to at least break even here.

Key Stat: Passer rating, I guess? INT and sack rates? Really, the eyeball test will work. Just ask yourself who played better at the end of the game. #stats

*****

The numbers say what your brain has probably been telling you for the last week: Alabama has more advantages than Missouri and will probably win. Accept that, and you'll find yourself pretty relaxed come game time.

[puts homer hat on]

I also know this, however: Missouri wasn't supposed to get to Atlanta, either. The Tigers' offense was a pile of smoldering embers eight weeks ago, and they were tasked with winning six straight games (three of which they had a less than 40 percent chance of winning) to win the division. They won six straight games. And by simply winning the honor of taking the field on Saturday, they gave themselves a chance to win on Saturday. You can't win if you don't play, and Mizzou's playing.

There is no margin for error here, and there's no question that Mizzou will have to play its best game of the year to take down Alabama. But until they don't, I guess we don't know they won't. Using weekly odds, Mizzou's chances of going winning these last six games were around 2.5 percent. Ten percent? Might as well give 'em the rings now, right?