Missouri can point to a number of reasons it’s an underdog in Saturday’s SEC Championship Game against Alabama (4 p.m. ET, CBS), but this one might be the most telling: The Tigers haven’t won a conference championship in any league since 1969. Back then they were members of the Big Eight, and they shared the conference crown with Nebraska after a 6-1 league finish.
The Crimson Tide, meanwhile? They boast a whopping 23 SEC titles and are vying for their third since 2009. But Alabama’s Goliath can still fall to the sling of Missouri at the Georgia Dome. Here are three key matchups to watch in Saturday’s SEC title game.
There might not be a more disruptive defensive end duo in the SEC than Markus Golden and Shane Ray. They lead the SEC with 22.0 combined sacks and 36.5 tackles for loss this season. Ray is the SEC’s individual leader in sacks (13.5) and tackles for loss (20.5), and his sack mark set a new single-season record at Missouri. The Tigers’ tandem is so effective that the defensive line often needs little help to get to the quarterback.
“They’re able to generate a pass rush with just a four-man rush,” said one SEC assistant coach. “That picks up the play of everyone else involved. They do a lot of twisting and moving, and they’re really good at it. That causes problems both in the run game and pass protection.”
Golden and Ray will face a talented Alabama offensive line Saturday that’s allowed an SEC-low 11 sacks and paved the way for a running game that averages 5.1 yards per carry this season, fifth in the conference. That line has also helped Alabama convert 53 percent of its third-down attempts, the third-best percentage in the country.
Left tackle Cam Robinson, who injured his shoulder against Auburn last week, should be good to go against Missouri. That’s good news for quarterback Blake Sims, who has become one of the more dangerous dual-threat passers in the league behind his offensive line. Sims has thrown 24 touchdowns against just seven picks this year, all while completing 63 percent of his passes. The senior’s scrambling ability (4.7 yards per carry) also gives him an extra edge that’s difficult to stop.
“I think their quarterback right now is what is driving them,” said the SEC assistant. “You think you might have him for a sack, and he gets a first down on third-and-13. To me, he’s the X-factor.”
Sims wasn’t even the Tide’s presumed starter heading into 2014, but he’s flourished in new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s up-tempo system. Keeping Sims protected is priority No. 1 for Robinson, center Ryan Kelly and the rest of Alabama’s stocky front. It’s no secret Golden and Ray will have their sights set on Sims come Saturday.
“We know he's fast,” Golden said of Sims this week, “but we're fast enough to run him down.”
2. Amari Cooper vs. Missouri secondary
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel isn’t blind to the challenge Cooper presents in Alabama’s passing attack. He just knows his Tigers have to be practical on defense.
“You're not going to stop him,” Pinkel said this week. “He's a great, great player. You try to limit the amount of damage they can do.”
The question is, how much damage will Cooper do to Missouri? He’s fresh off a 224-yard, three-touchdown performance in Alabama’s 55-44 win over Auburn last weekend. His 103 catches, 1,573 yards and 14 touchdowns this year are all Alabama records. Cooper is likely the nation’s best receiver, and he’s a near-lock to be a Heisman Trophy finalist.
“He’s the full package,” said the SEC assistant. “When I analyze a wide receiver, I usually look for three things: Does he have the ability to catch and advance? Does he have the ability to get in and out of breaks quickly? And can he stretch the field vertically? Not a lot of guys can do all three of those things really well. He can definitely do all three.”
Stopping, or at least limiting, Cooper starts up front with Missouri’s pass rush. Alabama’s star receiver can’t exploit the Tigers’ defense if Sims can’t throw the ball comfortably. But if Sims has too much time in the pocket, Cooper can take advantage.
The 6-foot-1, 210-pound junior should be tested by a Missouri secondary that features Braylon Webb, whose 41 career starts leads all SEC safeties. Webb and his counterparts have been ball hawks this season; he has four interceptions on the year, and sophomore cornerback Aarion Penton has three.
Cooper excels at gaining yards after the catch, which should be a focus for Missouri’s secondary. But the Tigers have been one of the SEC’s better teams at tackling in space, and keeping Cooper contained after the catch should help to keep Alabama’s big plays to a minimum.
“Missouri was probably one of the best tackling teams we faced all year,” said the SEC assistant. “They do a great job of rallying to the football, keeping everything in front of them and getting the guy to the ground once they get there. We obviously faced a lot of good defenses, but those guys tackle better than anyone else.”
3. Maty Mauk vs. Alabama secondary
Alabama safety Nick Perry explained this week the only two kinds of plays Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk likes to run. “There’s the play that the coach calls,” Perry said, “and the play that he makes happen when it breaks down.”
For a quarterback at the end of a roller-coaster season, Mauk has gained the respect of the Crimson Tide. That’s because Perry and the rest of Alabama’s defense know what Mauk is capable of. The sophomore signal-caller is 13-3 as a starter, and he’s thrown eight touchdowns against only two interceptions over the last five games, all Missouri wins. The Tigers only stand a chance against Alabama if Mauk plays to his potential.
But that doesn’t always happen. Mauk is tied with Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace and South Carolina’s Dylan Thompson with an SEC-worst 11 interceptions. In Missouri’s embarrassing 34-0 loss to Georgia, Mauk completed only nine passes, threw four interceptions and fumbled once.
Much of the Tigers’ offensive success hinges on which Mauk shows up on a given Saturday. But Pinkel said that’s good news for this week, as Mauk is hitting his stride at the right time.
“It's nice to see him making plays again, like we expected him to do,” the coach said. “Certainly people around him are playing at a high level, too. But it's nice to see him improving.”
Quarterbacks have exploited Alabama’s secondary at times this season. West Virginia’s Clint Trickett threw for 365 yards and completed 64 percent of his throws in the Mountaineers’ 33-23 September loss to the Tide. Auburn’s Nick Marshall threw for 456 yards and three touchdowns last week in an Iron Bowl loss. Overall Alabama allows 219.7 passing yards per game, 10th in the SEC.
The Crimson Tide still boasts some pure defensive talent that might be the trump card against Bud Sasser (904 yards and nine touchdowns this year) and Missouri’s receivers.
“When you look at the success Missouri has had offensively this year, they’ve had explosive plays against man coverage,” said the SEC assistant. “But I think Alabama has the talent to really match up with them from a man-to-man standpoint. I think the edge goes to the Bama secondary against the Missouri wide receivers.”
Missouri’s defense might do its job, but whether or not Mauk and the Tigers offense can do enough to take advantage is another story.
“They’re going to hold Alabama’s offense at bay, but they’re not going to be able to shut them out, that’s for sure,” the SEC assistant said. “Frankly, I don’t know if Missouri’s offense is going to be good enough to put up the points it needs to win this game.”