There are two ways to look at the big Championship Week battles.
On one hand, the top four teams in the country are healthy favorites. Oregon and Alabama are two-touchdown favorites, Florida State is favored by four over Georgia Tech, and TCU is favored by a robust 34 over Iowa State. And from a win probability standpoint, Oregon, Alabama, and TCU are picked at 85 percent or higher. (FSU is at a vulnerable 58 percent.)
If you're craving upsets, these odds tell you not to hold your breath. But odds are cumulative. The chances that Alabama, TCU, and Oregon all win is only about three-in-four. The odds that those three and Florida State all win are only 43 percent. So we are a coinflip away from an upset of some sort, a fissure in the hierarchy that has formed over the last 14 weeks. You've got hope of watching the world burn, Team Chaos.
When you're a two-touchdown, 90-percent favorite, you hold the advantages. In the SEC Championship (4 p.m. ET Saturday, CBS), No. 1 Alabama's offense is, by the numbers, better than No. 16 Missouri's defense. Alabama's defense is much better than Missouri's offense.
Plotting out how an Alabama win takes shape doesn't require many words: Missouri can't run the ball on the fierce-as-ever Alabama front, Tiger quarterback Maty Mauk makes a couple of mistakes, and the Tide put points together on the Mizzou defense. Throw in some turnovers, and a 14- to 17-point victory becomes a 24- or 28-point victory. In a series, this is what would happen four of five times.
1. Mizzou's nasty defensive front
Who controls the trenches? Missouri's defense is one of six that rank in the top 20 of both Adj. Line Yards (16th) and Adj. Sack Rate (17th), and the Tigers might rank even higher if Markus Golden hadn't battled a hamstring injury for half the season. Alabama's offense can not only match, but exceed those numbers: seventh in Adj. Line Yards, third in Adj. Sack Rate.
Even with Alabama's overall numbers, Ole Miss, LSU, and Arkansas were able to control the line and force Alabama to gut out defensive victories, and the Tide were able to do so two of three times. If Missouri's defensive front, so nasty in November, can win its share of fights, and if the Tigers are able to win the turnover battle, they could pull the upset. Of course, they'll probably still have to move the ball; we'll see about that.
Alabama has played in four games decided by single digits: Ole Miss (loss), Arkansas (win), LSU (win), and Mississippi State (win). The difference in offensive stats between these four and the others is staggering.
|Four one-possession games (3-1)||Other eight games (8-0)|
|Blake Sims||69-for-128 (54%), 809 yards, 5 TD, 1 INT, 5 sacks (5.8 yards/attempt)
18 carries, 81 yards (4.5)
|138-for-200 (69%), 2,179 yards, 19 TD, 6 INT, 3 sacks (10.6 yards/attempt)
38 carries, 280 yards (7.4)
|T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry||110 carries, 430 yards (3.9)||199 carries, 1,209 yards (6.1)|
|Amari Cooper||46 targets, 27 catches, 284 yards (6.2)||100 targets, 76 catches, 1,289 yards (12.9)|
There's always a difference between your good and bad performances. But that is a chasm. Either everything works or nothing works.
The trenches play a big role. The four teams who played Alabama the closest had four of the five best defensive lines Alabama faced (along with Florida), especially run defense. Alabama's young line has graded out well, but that's because when it was good, it was great. When it struggled, it really struggled.
Offensive lines tend to struggle against Missouri.
Despite losing second-round pick Kony Ealy and All-American Michael Sam, Missouri's pass rush has improved. The Tigers have 40 sacks in 12 games as opposed to 41 in 14 last year. And Mizzou's 41 sacks in 2013 came in 608 pass attempts. Opponents were trailing and throwing. The Tigers had a solid 6.7 percent sack rate last year; it's improved to 8.8. Shane Ray (13.5 sacks, 7.0 non-sack tackles for loss) and Markus Golden (8.5, 7.5) have dominated, and Mizzou's tackles have contributed.
And about those tackles: this is the deepest Missouri has been at the position under Gary Pinkel. Seniors Matt Hoch and Lucas Vincent and sophomores Harold Brantley and Josh Augusta have combined for 11 sacks and 13 non-sack TFLs. They have combined to form a third leg of a rush that has been one of the nation's best with almost no blitzing. Mizzou linebackers have combined for just 1.5 sacks. When you don't have to blitz, you can drop seven defenders into pass coverage. And when your linebackers excel in run defense, you have an all-around strong D.
If Missouri's defensive front holds up against Alabama like it has against everybody else when it's been healthy -- the Tigers are first in the SEC in yards per play allowed (4.3) and yards per game allowed (300.8) in conference play -- then Alabama's performance against good defenses tells us Mizzou might be able to keep the point total low.
2. Four yards at a time
Mauk is what he is. He is not a high-efficiency quarterback. Even during Mizzou's current six-game winning streak, he's completing 52 percent, which mirrors what he did when he was 3-1 as a fill-in starter last season.
But Mauk is becoming a better version of an inefficient quarterback. His completion rate is up to 56 percent over the last four games, and his TD-to-INT ratio for the last five is 8-to-2. (It was 0-to-5 in the first three SEC games this year.) He has become more effective at throwing shorter passes, and he has curtailed a lot of his "spin out of the pocket and make a throw running backwards" tendencies. He is stepping up in the pocket, and he has rushed 36 times for 280 yards in the last six games.
This is a long way of saying that Mizzou's flawed offense is functioning at its most efficient level. The Tigers managed a 49 percent rushing success rate against an excellent Arkansas run defense last week (the national average for rushing success: 43 percent), and Mauk is doing a better job of hitting short passes to tight ends (four catches for 37 yards against Arkansas) and running backs (five catches for 25 yards).
Aside from a couple of long Russell Hansbrough runs against Texas A&M and a couple of long Jimmie Hunt receptions in the last two games, there haven't been many big plays. But if you can grind out first downs before punting, if you can give your defense a chance to rest, you can make sure your defense is in position to win.
Missouri will need to score. But if the Tigers' offense can at least set the defense up to succeed and set itself up in the field position department, then they won't need to score a ton. And if they are to win the turnover battle as well, that could lead to that one-in-10 situation the numbers say is feasible.
Of course, even if the offense does a decent job, it might not matter if Bama wide receiver Amari Cooper goes nuclear again. He has three 200-yard games against SEC teams so far this year, including an Iron Bowl-record 224 last week.
How Missouri will try to contain Cooper
by Ian Boyd
The name of the game for defensive coordinator Dave Steckel and his charges is their Tampa 2 defense, which has two main varieties. The first is the classic set, with the middle linebacker reading quickly for run or pass and dropping deep down the middle if he gets a pass read:
Their other is basically cover 3, but with the "deep" safety playing in a shallower position like the middle linebacker would and filling aggressively on run plays:
Missouri made the move towards this defense in part due to conversations Steckel had with Monte Kiffin, an architect of the original Tampa 2 defense and the father of Alabama OC Lane Kiffin. Needless to say, Lane is familiar with what he's facing.
The Alabama response to any defensive tactic is to get the ball in the hands of Cooper, who lines up outside as a Z receiver but will also move inside to the slot and even to RB in order for Kiffin to get him in favorable matchups.
The Missouri pass defense doesn't work by controlling matchups, so they aren't going to play along with Kiffin in these games. Instead, the Tigers will take up the challenge of keeping Cooper in front of them and tackling him when he catches the ball. Meanwhile, they'll trust in their classically aggressive defensive line play to pressure Blake Sims into throwing errant tosses into soft zone coverage, where there will be many Tiger eyes on him.
It's the ultimate challenge for a bend-don't-break defense. Cooper is one of the best receivers college football has seen in recent years at both running after the catch and beating deep zone defenders with double moves. If they can't confuse Sims, don't expect them to come out smelling too good in their matchup with Cooper.