By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Oct. 9, 2012
Turn to the page in the Alabama media guide where the records of Alabama versus other teams are listed, and you’ll find quite a surprise: Alabama has a losing record against Missouri.
Granted, Alabama is trailing two games to one, and the last meeting was held 34 years ago. Still, take a picture, because it may be decades before you see such a stat again.
It is rare for Alabama to trail any team in overall head-to-head record, especially another SEC program – even if it’s a program whose invitation still has a wet postmark. But wrongs are meant to be righted, and that’s exactly what Alabama is hoping to do this weekend when it travels to Columbia, Mo., and faces a Missouri team that is certainly getting a crash course in SEC membership.
Both teams are a bit beaten up, but Missouri might be even more beaten up than is the Crimson Tide. The Tigers are down to one quarterback, the offensive line is a M*A*S*H-ed up mess, and the defense has put up decidedly mixed results against a schedule of equally mixed strengths and abilities. Anything can happen in the SEC, but it would be a substantial upset if Alabama were to lose this game.
When one thinks of the consummate Big 12 spread offense, it’s hard not to think of Missouri, which essentially wrote the script that the other 11 teams were reading from over the past decade. Missouri was committed to the finesse passing game in the Big 12, and against Big 12 defenses, the plan worked – especially when the Tigers had a quarterback the likes of Blaine Gabbert. But Missouri is now facing mammoth SEC defenses, and productivity has declined accordingly. The Tigers rank 84th in rushing offense, 76th in passing offense, 80th in scoring offense and 95th in total offense. Worse yet, Missouri’s star quarterback, James Franklin, will be out for this game and several more with a serious knee injury. Alabama counters with its pro-style, multi-tight end power offense that features bruising running backs and a tough downfield passing game. Alabama isn’t doing much statistically in either running or passing, but the Tide is 17th in scoring offense thanks to its penchant of making good on scoring chances.
The loss of James Franklin is a serious one for Missouri, but it’s not as crippling as it could have been. Backup Corbin Berstresser started and went the distance against Arizona State earlier in the year, which is arguably Missouri’s most important victory of the season thus far. He’s also relieved Franklin in four other games this year. Franklin’s loss will be felt most from a leadership standpoint, then from a rushing standpoint, as he was a true dual-threat quarterback. Berkstresser, however, is rushing for more yards per carry than Franklin and has 2 touchdowns on the season, so he’s not a stone statue in the pocket. His passing numbers are 42-of-84 (50.0%) for 501 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 interception. By comparison, Franklin was 73-of-119 (61.3%) for 805 yards, 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. The biggest issue for Missouri is that the Tigers intend to play the game with no real backup quarterback. The backup on paper is true freshman Maty Mauk, who the Tigers are hoping to redshirt. If Berkstresser is knocked out for a play (say, a helmet comes loose), it would seem some form of Wildcat would be in order. Berkstresser is solidly built at 6’3”, 230 pounds. Alabama counters with A.J. McCarron, who has been among the nation’s leaders in passing efficiency and has yet to throw an interception. His backup is Blake Sims, who brings a different look to the Alabama offense, as he is most comfortable with a zone-read gameplan with limited passing. Phillip Ely has also played. Even with Franklin available for the game, it’s questionable whether Missouri could have taken the category, as Franklin has been nicked up all year. With him out, it’s no contest. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama fans will get what is likely to be their first look at Kendial Lawrence, an effective but smaller (5’9”, 190) running back who has carried 85 times for 487 yards (5.7 avg.) and 5 touchdowns. Lawrence is somewhat reminiscent of Auburn’s Tre Mason. Missouri doesn’t use a fullback, although Jared McGriff-Culver can play there situationally. The backups are Marcus Murphy (19 carries, 122 yards, 6.4 avg.) and Russell Hansbrough (11 carries, 54 yards, 4.9 avg.), neither of whom has scored a rushing touchdown yet in 2012. Both players are Lawrence’s size or smaller, as Missouri puts a premium on speed. Alabama prefers bulk and power, led by Eddie Lacy (64 carries, 314 yards, 4.9 avg., 4 TD) and T.J. Yeldon (50 carries, 292 yards, 5.8 avg., 2 TD). With Dee Hart joining Jalston Fowler on the knee surgery rehabilitation team, true freshman Kenyan Drake, who is averaging almost 10 yards per carry in limited work, elevates to third-team. Behind him will be either walk-on Ben Howell or Brent Calloway, who will play both running back and H-back. Calloway might get extra work in the packages originally designed for Fowler. Lawrence is a quality back, but Alabama has better depth even with its recent run of bad injury luck. Advantage: Alabama
Missouri is in three-wide sets most of the time, and the Tigers are starting to utilize their tight ends more following the move to the SEC. The big name is T.J. Moe (24 catches, 231 yards, 9.6 avg., 1 TD), who is one of the school’s all-time leading receivers. But Moe has been overshadowed somewhat in 2012 by Marcus Lucas (30 catches, 309 yards, 10.3 avg., 2 TD) a huge target at 6’5”, 220 pounds. The low yards-per-catch averages illustrate the problems Missouri has had in being explosive in its new league. That hasn’t been the case, however, for L’Damian Washington (18.6 ypc), Bud Sasser (27.8 ypc) and Dorial Green-Beckham (18.3 ypc), although Green-Beckham’s stats are skewed heavily by an 80-yard touchdown catch. All three players are 6’2” or better, and Alabama might run into size mismatch problems in this game. Lucas and Green-Beckham also are asked to work sometimes as flex tight ends, along with starter Eric Waters, who has caught just 3 passes for 26 yards (8.7 avg.). Gahn McGaffie (18 catches, 124 yards, 6.9 avg.) is the one sprite in the bunch, working out of the slot. Alabama counters with Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell, Christion Jones and Amari Cooper as its primary foursome. All have their specialties – Norwood is the most physical, Jones the most flexible and Bell the fastest – but it’s the freshman Cooper (17 catches, 222 yards, 13.1 avg., 3 TD) that has become the breakout performer. Alabama lost DeAndrew White for the season with a knee injury against Ole Miss, so look for Marvin Shinn or Cyrus Jones to step up into the A-group. Danny Woodson Jr. and walk-ons Nathan McAlister and Nick Williams add depth. Alabama’s tight ends are more involved in the offense than are Missouri’s at the moment, particularly Michael Williams. Kelly Johnson will start at H-back, but Brent Calloway can also play there and Alabama is using Brian Vogler more often in an Ace package. Harrison Jones provides depth along with Malcolm Faciane. Alabama’s group, especially Cooper, have shown flashes of promise, but the Crimson Tide doesn’t have a veteran like Moe, nor does it have the depth Missouri enjoys. Advantage: Missouri
Missouri has had poor injury luck in general in 2012; at offensive line, the Tigers have had terrible injury luck. The starting group for this game can best be described as “patchwork.” Center Mitch Morse is out for this game, as is right guard Jack Meiners. Also out is guard Travis Ruth, who sustained an arm injury in fall camp and is probably gone for the year. Left tackle Elvis Fisher is already a sixth-year player thanks to a patella tendon injury in 2011, and Missouri would like to limit his work but simply doesn’t have the luxury. He’s been out at times this year with a right knee injury. If Fisher can go for this game, he’ll start on the left side with Justin Britt at right tackle. The guards will be true freshman Evan Boehm and walk-on junior Max Copeland. The center will be a redshirt freshman, Brad McNulty. If Fisher has trouble, Anthony Gatti will be forced into action. Alabama counters with a solid group of Barrett Jones at center, Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen at guard and Cyrus Kouandjio and D.J. Fluker at tackle. Alabama is also developing some depth with Arie Kouandjio inside along with Ryan Kelly and Chad Lindsey, and Kellen Williams and Austin Shepherd at the tackles. Even with Alabama’s struggles in pass protection at times this year, the Crimson Tide is in far better shape than is Missouri. Advantage: Alabama
Missouri’s offense may be struggling in 2012, but the defense has been surprisingly good — at rush defense, at least. The Tigers are ranked 24th in total defense nationally, thanks largely to being tough against the run (19th). Pass defense has been spotty, though, as Missouri is ranked 51st in raw pass defense and 76th in efficiency defense. The Tigers operate from a 4-3 base and can be difficult to deal with up front thanks to a good mix of personnel. Alabama counters with its 3-4 over/under scheme that leads the nation in pass efficiency defense, scoring defense and total defense, and is 3rd in rushing defense and 4th in raw pass defense.
Whatever jokes people might want to make about Big 12 defenses shouldn’t include Missouri’s front seven and in particular its defensive line, which makes plays and has good depth. Defensive end Brad Madison is finally healthy after nursing a shoulder injury for more than a year, and that’s bad news for Alabama’s offensive tackles. He can get after the passer but is also a stout run defender. Kony Ealy starts on the other side, with Michael Sam the primary backup to both. The three have combined for 9 sacks on the year, helping Missouri rank 32nd nationally in that regard. Shane Ray and Brayden Burnett provide depth. Inside is where future NFLer Sheldon Richardson, who unfortunately will be most remembered for his “old-man football” slight at Georgia earlier in the year, can be found. It’s odd for a defensive tackle to be a team’s third-leading tackler, but that’s where Richardson finds himself, and he’s also added 3 sacks to his total. Matt Hoch starts alongside him, with Jimmy Burge, Lucas Vincent and Marvin Foster providing depth. Alabama counters with Jesse Williams in the middle and Damian Square and Quinton Dial on the outside. Ed Stinson should play in this game after suffering an ankle injury against Ole Miss, but he might be limited. Jeoffrey Pagan should see more time along with D.J. Pettway. Brandon Ivory is nursing an ankle sprain of his own; if he can’t go, true freshman Darren Lake will be Williams’ backup. This is the best defensive line Alabama has faced thus far in 2012, and not only is it a quality outfit, it holds an edge over Alabama at the moment in both health and depth. Advantage: Missouri
Zaviar Gooden was supposed to be one of the Tigers’ breakout defensive players this year, but he’s played in only four games and hasn’t gotten into a rhythm. Unfortunately for the Tigers, they can now add Will Ebner, the team’s sturdy middle linebacker, to the list. Ebner will likely miss this game with a hamstring injury and if he plays, he won’t be 100 percent. He’s the team’s leading tackler. If he can’t go, look for Donovan Bonner to get the call. Andrew Wilson will start on the other side, while Darvin Ruise and Kentrell Brothers provide most of the depth. Alabama will send Trey DePriest, Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley into the fray at middle linebacker, with Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson at outside linebacker. Denzel Devall and Jonathan Atchison provide depth outside while Tana Patrick and Tyler Hayes provide depth inside. If Ebner were fully healthy, this category would be much closer, but Alabama would still have the edge based on athleticism. With Ebner hobbling, it’s a solid edge to the Tide. Advantage: Alabama
It’s E.J. Gaines and a cast of dozens, basically, if you’re a Tiger. Gaines is the team’s second-leading tackler and is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss with 7 – and he’s a cornerback. While Gaines figures to play at the next level, the rest of the secondary needs to learn to play at its current level. That includes safeties Kenronte Walker and Braylon Webb and Gaines’ compatriot at corner, Kip Edwards. Randy Ponder is the third cornerback and sometimes-starter at nickel, while Matt White and Ian Simon provide depth at safety. Alabama counters with Dee Milliner at cornerback and the safety group of Robert Lester, Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Nick Perry. The big question this week is whether Deion Belue will have recovered enough from a shoulder injury to start opposite Milliner at corner, or if John Fulton has to fill in. Alabama is a much better defensive team with Belue starting. If Belue can’t go, Geno Smith becomes the next corner off the bench behind Fulton, with Bradley Sylve also available. Even without Belue entirely, Alabama holds an edge here; with Belue, it’s a substantial edge. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama’s special teams continue to impress, and the Crimson Tide added kickoff returns to its resume when Christion Jones housed one against Ole Miss. Placekickers Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster have been weapons, and punter Cody Mandell has been solid. For Missouri, kick and punt returns have been very good in 2012, particularly punt returns (5th nationally), thanks to Marcus Murphy and T.J. Moe. The Tigers , though, haven’t been great on covering kicks despite having a good punter in Trey Barrow (42.6 avg.). Placekicker Andrew Baggett has been erratic at times, missing a PAT and being unreliable outside of 40 yards. Alabama figures to be changing punt returners again this week, as Dee Hart’s loss means Christion Jones will likely get the call. So long as Alabama contains Murphy on punt returns, the Crimson Tide should carry this one easily. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in six categories, Missouri in two. The biggest surprise on the breakdown is the defensive line category, which will obviously raise eyebrows among Bama loyalists. As for the OL/DL matchups, though, Alabama easily controls the matchup of its defensive line versus the Missouri offensive line, while Missouri’s defensive line would have to play over its collective head to reach a draw with Alabama’s OL. Thus, give Alabama the edge there as well.
The pitfalls here for Alabama are many. The Crimson Tide is coming off an off-week, which sometimes can be as much a curse as it is a blessing. Missouri will be more in a rhythm, but what kind of rhythm will that be a week after losing to Vanderbilt at home? Meanwhile, Alabama used its off-week to get fresh again.
Missouri can be a difficult place to play, but that is most true for night games, and this won’t be a night game. With weather expected to be borderline at best, don’t expect the crowd to be the factor it otherwise might have been.
In the end, the key for Alabama is to get its offensive line into a groove early and dictate to the Missouri defensive line what the line of scrimmage is going to be. If Alabama can establish its running game and be as balanced as it wants to be on offense, it’s unlikely the Tigers can keep up, particularly with a backup quarterback calling the shots behind an offensive line that is sewn together with borrowed thread.
Defensively, Alabama simply needs to limit big plays. If Missouri is forced to grind against the Alabama defense, it won’t end well for the Tigers. Missouri does have the ability to make big plays downfield thanks to its receiver corps, but living off bomb passes is not typically a recipe for success against Alabama.
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