Yesterday, I answered some of Roll Bama Roll Editor Erik_RBR's questions about the Missouri Tigers. Today, he'll be returning the favor. Erik is one of the more knowledgeable guys you'll find when it comes to the game of college football, and he happens to be a hoot as well. He – and the rest of the team over at RBR for that matter – are must reads/follows not just for this weekend, but FOR THE REST OF YOUR MORTAL LIVES.
Alabama's defense is real good, no bones about, but I'm not sure many Mizzou fans are as acquainted with the moving parts on that meat-grinding machine. Who are the players that they need to look out for?
Assuming Missouri tries to establish the run, as we fully know they will, then ILB Trey Depriest is primed to have a good game. His pass defense is sometimes suspect, but the man feasts on the ground. Reggie Ragland on the outside is the least-heralded, but perhaps best, of the Alabama linebackers. He is certainly the most versatile: he can pass rush, cover the flats, is very physical, and rarely overpursues versus the run. In the secondary, Landon Collins is the latest of All Americans at safety and is the captain of the defense. While he's not the most dynamic player with the ball in the air, he calls the plays, is opportunistic, and excels in run support. And, like every Alabama safety of the Saban-era, every hit he makes is a borderline targeting penalty. The defensive line is easily the best single unit of this defense, and runs ridiculously deep, with 9-10 guys regularly in the rotation. Two names to really watch out for are A'Shawn Robinson; last year, as a true freshman, he earned significant playing time and eventually cracked the starting lineup. He is a big, fast kid that can hold the point of attack inside, shed blocks, and is still versatile enough to move to the outside. Jonathan Allen is the second player to keep an eye out for. Allen is easily Alabama's best pass-rusher, commands double teams, and creates serious havoc out of a nine-tech. On the other side, Jarren Reed and DJ Pettway also excel at affecting the quarterback. There is just a cornucopia of talent on the front, all reflective of Saban's deliberate decision to get faster, more mobile, and deeper up front to combat high school offenses so many of the West teams have adopted.
On the offensive side of the ball, Alabama boasts the biggest star in college football. I'm talking, of course, about Lane Kiffin. How do you feel about the returns on that investment after regular season number one?
Lane Kiffin has been a revelation, and it's not just his impact on the offense. Taking the last point first, this is the best offense Alabama has had in its storied history. It may not appear so on paper, as Alabama isn't in the Top 10 in any statistical category. In the advanced statistics, methodical drives and explosive drives are also down from the 2012-2013 offenses too. However, this is a decidedly more dynamic offense in the ways that it can attack you, and certainly in the number of players it uses. Lane Kiffin's offense doesn't necessarily line up and let the offense assert their will as with Tide teams of the past. But, what he does better than almost anyone is create and exploit mismatches and put skills players in space to make plays. For instance, prior to Kenyan Drake's injury versus Ole Miss, Kiffin often used him in motion, as a flanker or slot receiver -very similar to concepts employed with Reggie Bush in those USC years. You see a lot of Kiffin's versatility arise with playcalling for fullbacks, tackle eligible linmen, multiple TE sets, platooning running backs, and, of course, the variety of ways he has been able to get the ball to Amari Cooper.
The second point is that he has made this a fun team to watch. The players absolutely love him, and it shows. I hate the word "swagger," but, yeah, he's got it, and it shows on the sideline. The offense reflects his brashness. For a team as historically stodgy as Alabama, I am delighted to see the team unbutton its collar and let its hair down. These are kids; let them play for the sheer joy of it.
Jokes aside, Amari Cooper is the damn truth. What does it take to stop him? Can it be done?
I don't think it's possible to "stop" Amari Cooper; not even elite secondaries like Florida and Ole Miss were able to shut him down completely. However, he can be frustrated and slowed down, particularly if the offensive line fails to give Sims time for longer routes to develop. Arkansas and Ole Miss had perhaps the best strategy, and one I expect to see Mizzou utilize: come after the pass hard and heavy, man-up and be physical at the corner spot, and then bracket Cooper with a safety. The corner-posts and double moves that have been lethal this season, can be minimized by a fierce front and safety help. If that happens, then expect to see Kiffin try to get Amari the ball on bubble screens, stop-fades, and dig routes. Cooper is physical enough to evade defenders, and then make defenses pay for missed tackles.
What worries you about Mizzou's offense? Does anything worry you about Mizzou's offense?
Two things trouble me about Missouri's offense. The first, as Jack mentioned in the Roll Bama Roll Q&A, is Maty Mauk's ability to extend plays with his feet. Alabama has occasionally been hurt by mobile quarterbacks (less so this year than in the past), but a mobile Mauk is also a Mauk that forces the linebackers to stay at home a bit more, and open the underneath routes and middle of the field. This bootstraps to my second concern, the Missouri wide receivers versus the Alabama secondary. It is no secret that the Tide corners have struggled at times this season. Bradley Sylve earlier in the season, and most recently, Eddie Jackson. The Alabama defense simply cannot be expected to play coverage for 5-6 seconds with unsteady corners, especially versus double-moves and fly routes, where Alabama has had some issues this season. If Missouri comes out aggressive, and hits a few over the top, the entire complexion of the game will change, as the Missouri backs will find more and more space to operate underneath on draws, swings, checkdowns etc.
The marquee battle of this game is most likely Alabama's OL vs. Mizzou's DL, how do you see that playing out?
This will be a struggle for Alabama, to be completely honest, but not for reasons that you'd suspect. All season, the makeshift (and often-banged up) offensive line has done a fantastic job against pass rushers, which would seemingly negate Missouri's most talented players. Where Alabama struggles, and where I think Missouri wins more battles than they lose, is in the running game. This offensive line is simply not the unit we were accustomed to seeing in the paleo-years of 2008-2012. It is, if possible, a more finesse unit. Oh, they can open holes, and can be physical guys, but I don't see Alabama lining up and dominating the point of attack such that the runnings backs have huge days. That said, I don't see the Mizzou defensive line dirtying Blake Sims' jersey too often, either.
Did you know that Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel were teammates?
I may have heard that once or thrice. Any time Gary mentions "roommates" or "Kent State," everyone does a bleach shot. We will be spared Verne Chortles in the second half, so it's not an awful reason to take one's life.
From the perspective of the bluest of the SEC blue-bloods, what's your opinion of Mizzou three years into their conference membership?
I was actually a supporter of Mizzou back in the kerfuffle of 2009, before the bodies truly started hitting the floor: Flagship liberal arts university, a few outstanding academic programs, medium-sized endowment, stable athletics department, medium-sized student body, and -well, there is the simple matter that you started the Civil War. Athletically, SEC membership has been a boon to at least the football program, reflecting the overall talent increase and monetary payout that comes with membership. That said, as a hostage to Alabama basketball, it is good to see Mizzou has finally dropped its Midwest fixation on having an excellent program and has joined the rest of the conference in mediocrity.
How do you think Saban will prepare the team for a high-stakes game against a team that's obviously less talented. Is there any potential for a look-ahead letdown, or is that something that Saban-coached teams are immune to?
Saban has let-down games; he's not perfect. We usually see these after very close emotional wins (usually LSU), huge letdowns in consolation bowl games, or the occasional sleepwalking performance versus overpowered Group of 5 patsies. However, on the biggest stages, with titles on the line, Saban's teams do not come out flat. They may be disorganized, sloppy, overly-aggressive, or initially mistake-prone, but never flat. Trust me when I say this: Nick Saban is not paying lip service to Mizzou, nor is he overlooking a Tigers team that has talent, is well-coached, physical, and finds ways to win. That is not in his makeup, and even if it was, I do not think his personal and professional regard for Gary Pinkel would allow him to do so.
If Mizzou wants to pull of the impossible and walk away from Atlanta with a win, what do they need to do?
Missouri must excel at three things to win this game. The first is to slow the tempo way down and shorten the game. It is odd to say that as an Alabama partisan, but Missouri simply does not have the offensive firepower to keep up in a sixty minute, uptempo shootout. Obviously, this requires controlled passing, establishing the point of attack, and having success with the ground game. The second key will be shutting down one phase of the Alabama offense, and make the Crimson Tide a one-dimensional team. When Arkansas, LSU, and Ole Miss largely negated the Tide rushing attack, Blake Sims struggled. He's a better quarterback now than in October, but you want to make the passing game alone beat you. Finally, Mizzou needs to force and capitalize on turnovers and huge special teams plays. Alabama will give Missouri the ball once or twice, or will shoot itself in the foot with a missed FG or surrendering a long return. When given this opportunity, Missouri must score, and it must put it in the end zone.
How do you see the game playing out?
I am fully aware that the Tigers are a late-game/4th quarter, make it ugly, muck it up, aesthetically-displeasing team. Optimally, you want it to be a one score game late, where the Tigers have been excellent. However, I think what we'll see is Alabama and Missouri trade haymakers and mistakes for the first quarter, before everyone settles down. In the second, which has been Alabama's best this season, the Tide find a way to put it in the endzone a few times. Mauk will have some moments in a dying comeback attempt, but, much like the Alabama-Mississippi State game, I suspect these will be vanity numbers, and the Tide cruises in the second half to a 38-20 win.