Game week is here! The Missouri Tigers begin the Eli Drinkwitz era against some team named the Alabama Crimson Tide coached by some guy named Nick Saban. Kick-off is set for 6 p.m. CST on ESPN at Faurot Field as the Tigers look to pull off the monumental upset.
To get another perspective on the second ranked team in the country, Brent Taylor from our friends at Roll Bama Roll joined Sammy Stava to discuss the match up in our first Q & A series of the season.
Sammy Stava: First off, with such a strange SEC football season ready to get underway, nothing is guaranteed in 2020. What is your confidence level that the SEC and College Football in general will be able to pull this season off from start to finish?
Brent Taylor: All off-season, anytime somebody asked me this question (or something similar), I’ve joked that I figured we would get about six games in and then Ole Miss would absolutely be the team to get everything shut down because half their team tested positive and it comes out they played against someone else like that without telling anyone. Because Ole Miss gonna Ole Miss.
That said, the last couple of weeks we’ve heard nothing but positives from both college and the pros at how few players are testing positive and that everyone is doing pretty well at keeping COVID from spreading with the rare positives they do get. So right now, I’m feeling pretty optimistic we can make it 10 weeks. But ask me again in a few weeks. I’m sure LSU is at some point going to try to use COVID as an excuse to get out of playing a game they think they’ll lose, and things will probably spiral from there.
SS: Yeah, we already know Alabama is really good and talented to begin with. Now? Their motivation would seem to be off the charts after missing the playoff last season. With all of that mixed in, just how dangerous do you think this Alabama team is capable of being this season?
BT: The best part about the off-season is that, by all reports, this is the most motivated the team’s ever been, everybody is in the best shape of their life, and everyone is turning heads at practice. Of course, all the other teams’ fans are thinking the same thing. Unbridled optimism is what makes the off-season bearable.
That said, I fully expect the Alabama defense to rebound in a big way. They return a couple of senior front-seven starters in LaBryan Ray and Dylan Moses who were expected to be the leaders of the 2019 squad but got injured before the season ever got going. They both passed up the chance to go pro early in order to come back for a senior season and prove they’re top draft pick type material and their injuries are behind them. There’s a lot of “unfinished business” to that group.
Offensively, Alabama returns 4/5 of a great OL from last season, two elite receivers in Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, and a running back on a mission for the Heisman in Najee Harris. And yet I think there will be a bit of a step back. As great as all of those players have been, I worry there was a bit of “man, we’re in a bad situation... But that’s fine, Tua will get us out of it” in their psyche over the past couple of seasons, and that will have to be stomped out this year.
SS: Alabama had six players named to the AP Preseason All-American list to lead the country. DeVonta Smith, Dylan Moses, and Alex Leatherwood were named to the first team, while Najee Harris, Jaylen Waddle, and Patrick Surtain are on the second team. Do you think the offense or defense will be the biggest strength to this team? And if any, are there any weaknesses on this Alabama team?
BT: Overall, the offense returns the most star power and has what should be a phenomenal senior offensive line. The running game and wide receiver screen game should be viewed as the strengths of this team.
Defensively, Alabama is breaking in a whole lot of new starters. The secondary in particular returns only Pat Surtain of their top five defensive backs from last year. Josh Jobe at outside corner had one start in 2019 but wound up benched after committing a number of pass interferences against Duke when getting beat deep. On top of that, the nickel corner is set to be a true freshman, and new starting safety Daniel Wright has never seen meaningful playing time outside of special teams. So I think Tide fans will be quite weary of teams willing to attack the Alabama defense with a vertical passing game.
SS: After he filled in admirably in his sophomore season having to replace Tua Tagovailoa, what are your expectations for starting quarterback Mac Jones as he enters his junior season?
BT: Mac looked like a dear in the headlights when he came in as a reserve early last season and again when he first took over for Tua after his injury against Tennessee. Jones then completed about 80% of his passes against Arkansas and nearly as good against Mississippi State... But those weren’t exactly vaunted defenses and Steve Sarkisian severely limited the playbook to a lot of horizontal passes to let the receivers do most of the heavy living after the catch. Against Auburn and Michigan (two very good but not elite pass defenses), Jones was absolutely phenomenal on 1st and 2nd downs, hitting passes on all levels of the field... And then was quite pedestrian on passing downs. Even worse were his two back-breaker pick sixes against Auburn.
So, there’s a strong contingent of Alabama fans who point to his overall stats through 4 games being better than those of Joe Burrow, and just as strong of a faction that are worried about him. Personally, I think that as long as Alabama leans on their superstars in Najee Harris, Waddle, and Smith and the defense improves enough, then Jones will be a solid enough complimentary piece and ball distributor to coast the Tide through an SEC schedule. If things go bad for the defense and/or the running game has a bad day, though, I fear Jones may not quite have that “it” factor to go out and win a game with his arm with everything on the line.
SS: Alabama is currently a four-touchdown favorite over Missouri. How do you see this one playing out on Saturday night?
BT: I think your defense will cause some problems, especially if Alabama tries too hard to get Najee Harris going up the middle early on. Fortunately (for us), the Missouri pass rush isn’t a game wrecking force and Mac Jones should be able to put together a couple of nice daggers without too much pressure in his face.
I also fully expect Rountree and Robinson to break off a few explosive runs, but ultimately the Tigers aren’t able to really get consistent, sustained drives going. Alabama wins fairly easily after a tight 1st quarter, but just barely misses covering the spread. Call it 41-17.
SS: What is your season prediction outcome for Alabama this season?
BT: With the way the schedule played out (namely LSU losing their entire team and Georgia utterly flopping on their QB situation), I think Alabama mostly coasts through the regular season with scares against Ole Miss and maybe Kentucky. They roll into the SEC championship undefeated and take on Florida (or maybe Kentucky again... I’m really high on them, to be honest).
If there’s a playoffs after that, I think Alabama makes it in. And unless Mac Jones has an extra mental gear we haven’t seen or freshman phenom Bryce Young is ready to take over at QB by then, I’m not sure the Tide will quite have the horses to take down Ohio State or Clemson.