I'm almost thankful to Alabama for putting the game away the moment Missouri got it back to eight points. I had held off on getting my hopes up to any major degree yet, but if Mizzou had gotten the ball back down just one possession, my brain would have taken me to places I wasn't prepared to go. But Blake Sims put together a ridiculously good drive to put Bama up 28-13, and that was that.
1. The wide run wasn't there (and was never going to be there)
On both offense and defense, Nick Saban's Crimson Tide are really good at forcing you to beat them, to outman them, to win the game. You aren't going to simply trick your way to success, you have to make plays. They can be beaten, of course, but it takes a lot. They might occasionally beat themselves if you stop them enough times (Auburn 2013). Or maybe your quarterback simply goes nuts (A&M 2012) or your pass rush overwhelms their offensive line (OU 2013). But you need a bunch of guys making huge plays. Mizzou had ... one? Two?
Lane Kiffin's offensive game plan focuses on getting the ball to five-star athletes as quickly as possible and forcing you to stop them over and over again. It's hard to do, especially when one of your two best players misses the last 40 minutes of the game. But the defense is even harder to beat, especially on the ground. You can't run straight at them, and you really can't beat them to the corner. Gameplanning against this defense basically comes down to a few "Well, this probably won't work, but I guess we'll probably need to try it" ideas.
The Missouri staff seemed to decide that the only way the Tigers were going to score enough points to beat Alabama was if the offensive line was able to hold its blocks for a super-human amount of time. I can't blame them for this. When you suffer three drops (I think) in the first three drives, you learn pretty quickly that you're not going to win by throwing the ball. But the number of run plays that seemed to be intentionally strung out wide confused me a bit. There were some others that seemed UNintentionally strung out wide, as well, but it seemed that Mizzou was hoping its tackles could seal the edge long enough for Marcus Murphy or Russell Hansbrough to poke around the corner. Didn't happen.
Again, nothing else really worked either, besides "Have Maty run around, then heave the ball to Jimmie Hunt." But this was an aspect of the plan that surprised me. And considering Mizzou all but removed it from the playbook at halftime, it seems the staff was at least a little bit surprised that it didn't work.
I don't know if this is a complaint, critique, or something else. We'll just call it an observation. Mizzou didn't have the manpower on offense to beat Alabama no matter what it did.The offensive line couldn't beat Alabama's defensive line, the running backs couldn't break the linebackers' tackles, and the receivers couldn't beat Alabama's defensive backs within 40 yards of the line of scrimmage. And "heave it to Hunt" was probably not going to work much longer. Still, I was surprised that they even attempted to beat Bama out wide with the run. I was hoping for three to five yards at a time between the tackles (which didn't happen), but I could have guaranteed wide runs weren't going to work. Alas.
2. I'm really, really happy for Jimmie Hunt
Passes to Jimmie Hunt were 6-for-9 for 169 yards. Passes to everybody else were 10-for-23 for 103 yards. Mizzou needed quite a few players to step up if they were going to score the 20- or 30-plus it was going to take to win the game. Marcus Murphy had his moments, but really, Hunt was the only one who came up big. And while it came in a losing effort, wow, am I happy for Jimmie.
I took up residence in the front car of the Jimmie Hunt bandwagon way back in 2011. He didn't get many touches in his first two seasons, but he made the most of them. One catch for 54 yards in 2011, 11 catches for 199 yards plus a kick return in 2012. Missouri's coaches aren't idiots, so clearly if he wasn't seeing the field much, there was a reason, be they bad practice habits, drops, blocking, or simply not being as consistently good as the guys ahead of him. Still, he was tantalizing, and I hoped he would put everything together at some point.
In 2013, he got hurt in the offseason, put on a little weight, and carved out a niche as a blocker and, basically, the No. 5 receiver. He had a big catch against Florida and ended up with 22 catches for 253 yards, but he struggled with drops at times, and his top-end speed seemed a lot lower than it had been.
This year started out as you always hope your senior year will. With Mizzou's offense averaging 38 points per game in non-conference play, Hunt caught 16 passes for 198 yards and five scores. Projected over 14 games, that's a pace for 56 catches, 700 yards, and 20+ TDs. That's a solid senior season for a team that was desperately in need of guys stepping up in the receiving corps. But he suffered an injury in practice before the South Carolina game, and while he only missed one game, he caught just five balls over the four games that followed. Either because he wasn't completely past the injury or he lost concentration, he started dropping quite a few balls -- one of Maty Mauk's interceptions against Georgia went right through his hands.
Then, redemption. After Mizzou's second bye week, Hunt went off. Five catches for 85 yards against A&M. Three for 106 and what was eventually the game-clinching touchdown against Tennessee. Five for 61 against Arkansas in a game that featured both regression (bad early drops) and redemption (a huge, late, 44-yard catch). And, of course, six for 169 in the SEC Championship game. (Remember Dorial Green-Beckham's huge SECCG game against Auburn last year? DGB had six catches for only 144 in that game.)
Hunt has one more game left in his Missouri career, but wow, what a way to finish up. He caught 19 balls for 421 yards in his final four regular season games, and while he couldn't beat Alabama by himself, his late-season improvement was one of the primary reasons why Mizzou was able to win the last three games to reach the SECCG in the first place. His is a story of perseverance, and I'm happy the entire nation got to see him playing so well in his second-to-last game.
3. I have no idea what to think about next year
You know how I operate by now. The moment a late-season loss more-or-less sets Missouri's postseason fate, my mind begins to drift toward the future. And I'm pretty sure the first thing I always say when thinking about next year is, "I have no idea what to think about next year." Still ... I have no idea!
I'm struggling to think of a Missouri team that has been as strange a mix of experience and inexperience as the one that will take the field next year. Barring transfer/discipline, the Tigers are going to head into 2015 with...
- A quarterback who has started 18 games.
- A 1,000 yard rusher (assuming Russell Hansbrough gains 30 yards in the bowl game).
- Nine offensive linemen from the year-end two-deep and five with starting experience (97 career starts).
- Two of the SEC's best play-making defensive tackles (Harold Brantley and Josh Augusta).
- All three starting linebackers, including leading tacklers Kentrell Brothers and Mike Scherer.
- Every cornerback.
- A safety with two years of starts and/or starter minutes (Ian Simon).
That's a lot! That's a HELL of a lot, actually!
Oh yeah, and Missouri will also be hitting the field with...
- Wide receivers who have, to date, a combined nine receptions to their name.
- No Markus Golden and (we assume) Shane Ray.
Missouri is going to be loaded with experience in nearly every unit ... and is going to have almost no experience whatsoever at wide receiver and defensive end. From a pure assets perspective, the Tigers are going to have a lot of them as they try to win a third straight division title. But they have two voids they're going to have to work around. It's a non-rebuild rebuild. And I have no idea what that means for expectations as a whole.
It is, of course, going to mean that most are going to predict Mizzou fifth or sixth in the East again. But by this point, I assume you would expect no less. What it means for reality, though, I'm honestly not sure.
At the very least, it's nice to realize that Maty Mauk has eight months to develop a rapport with Nate Brown, Wes Leftwich, J'Mon Moore (who managed to pack an egregiously awful performance into just a handful of snaps yesterday), and the trio of reshirting freshmen, and that he did a pretty good job of doing the same with Bud Sasser, Hunt, and Darius White this past offseason. Still ... yikes. The running game should be strong, the run defense should be strong, and the secondary should be as active and deep as ever despite losing Braylon Webb and Duron Singleton. But the entire personality of the defense is going to change without Golden and Ray (and Webb), and ... at some point you're going to have to pass. It's going to be an interesting spring. (It usually is.)
But that's enough 2015 talk! Mizzou has one more game left in the 2014 season, and we'll find out who and where the Tigers will be playing in a few hours.