By Jess Nicholas
Dec. 6, 2014
This may not be the most dominating Alabama team in the school’s long, multi-championship history. But it is one of the most likable.
Every time Nick Saban talks about the 2014 edition of the Crimson Tide, his genuine affection for the team comes flooding out. Unlike the 2013 team, which suffered from leadership-related short circuits on both sides of the ball, the 2014 Alabama team is a strange combination of lunchpail mentality with the quick-strike ability of a coiled rattlesnake. The offense is led by the country’s unlikeliest elite quarterback, who is built like a sawed-off fireplug, runs like a whippet and has an uncanny knack for rising to the occasion.
Defensively, this isn’t Alabama’s best-ever – the secondary is average by Saban-era standards and the inside linebackers aren’t as adept in coverage as past versions – but Alabama’s defensive line is packed full of former prep all-Americans and there isn’t a specific weak spot for opposing offenses to target.
Against Missouri Saturday, Alabama completely dominated both sides of the game. Missouri’s four biggest positive plays all came on busted plays with a scrambling quarterback, which does not an offensive philosophy make. Offensively, Alabama put up points early by going tempo, then sealed the game by taking Missouri back to the days of the I-formation and pounding the ball down the Tigers’ throats.
To be honest, Missouri could do little about the latter, which points to just how well the Tigers have been coached by Gary Pinkel’s staff over the years. Point blank, Missouri was fortunate to be here. Georgia showed the world what would happen when the Tigers went up against a fully loaded SEC team. Had the Bulldogs simply taken care of their own business – losses to South Carolina and Florida were both major screw-ups on Georgia’s part – Missouri would be getting a nice bowl right now after sitting home this weekend, and no one would really complain.
As it is, Missouri was exposed a second time, this time by Alabama. Pinkel’s maneuvering had allowed Missouri to sneak into Atlanta, but the early-season loss to Indiana is something that wouldn’t have happened to any other bowl-eligible SEC team. Missouri won the SEC East in 2014 primarily because of struggles on other SEC schools’ campuses, not because of anything Missouri did or didn’t do itself.
Now, Alabama has set itself up for business in college football’s inaugural final four. It’s unclear whether Alabama will be the top seed or drop to No. 2 behind Oregon just yet, but Alabama is all but locked in now and will probably be hosting a game in New Orleans once the dust settles.
All this with a team led by a humble, unselfish quarterback, coached by a guy – Lane Kiffin – who is less popular among rival fan bases than Kim Jong-un caught hosting a pit bull fight. It’s a story that is almost too unbelievable to put into a script.
But if Alabama keeps playing to script, title No. 16 will roll its way in two more games. What a story that would make.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for the SEC Championship Game.
1. Blake Sims finishes strong where it all started. Sims had a solid game in the 2014 season opener, held in the Georgia Dome against West Virginia. Against Missouri, he put the perfect bookend on the 2014 calendar. Sims broke the 10-year-old game record for completion percentage previously held by Auburn’s Jason Campbell, only this time out he never came close to throwing an interception and was the glue that held the Alabama offense together instead of the guy everyone was afraid would come apart at the seams. Sims had 281 total yards in the game, including a couple of big scrambles and yet another deep-ball touchdown pass, this time to DeAndrew White instead of Amari Cooper. He’s unconventional, he doesn’t look like a quarterback, and sometimes he makes fans hold their breath to the point of unconsciousness. All he does is win. He’s Alabama’s modern-day Pat Trammell in a way.
2. Alabama’s defensive line makes the difference in both this game and the 2014 season. Missouri rushed 23 times for 41 yards, a 1.8-yard average, and that’s where it all went wrong for the Tigers. For all the talk of Maty Mauk’s running ability, he carried twice for minus-1 yard, likely because Pinkel knew it would be futile to run him up the gut. Neither Russell Hansbrough nor Marcus Murphy could get going for the Tigers, not around the edge and certainly not on inside runs. Alabama’s tackles crushed Missouri’s interior line, and the entire right side of the Tiger line more closely resembled the aftermath of a major earthquake than a modern football line. Alabama set the edge consistently, forcing runs away from blockers and holding up plays long enough for the Tide’s second wave to crash down from beyond the line of scrimmage. This was simply a continuation of what has become the norm for Alabama in 2014, as its defensive line has been dominant enough to allow Alabama’s defensive coaches to design complex coverage and blitz schemes without having to worry about breakdowns in the initial front.
3. Dickson, DePriest and Robinson lead the way on defense. As a continuation of point No. 2, Alabama’s Xzavier Dickson and Trey DePriest played lights-out for the entire first half and continued to affect the game in the second half. The entire defensive line played spectacularly, but A’Shawn Robinson was on an entirely higher level. Dickson helped set the edge time and again Saturday and also provided plenty of pressure to Mauk in the pocket. DePriest was a tackle-to-tackle, if not sideline-to-sideline monster, and was a big reason why Missouri’s running game never got out of the gate. Alabama moved Robinson around but he did most of his damage inside at nose. It was strange to watch a nosetackle set the edge in the running game, but Robinson was so quick at times, he could get outside the offensive tackle on a running play and do just that. Alabama may have some issues in its secondary, but being strong in the front seven is a nice trade-off.
4. Missouri’s offense had no flow and was too one-dimensional. Of Missouri’s 313 yards, roughly half came on Mauk’s four scramble-heave plays. With the running game made to look like a sad joke, Missouri’s offense suddenly became all about what Mauk could do under extreme pressure. The jump balls to Jimmie Hunt were certainly effective, but Missouri couldn’t build a playbook around something like that. Missouri’s lone touchdown came after the Tigers reached the Alabama 1-yard line, went backwards for three snaps, then had to utilize an illegal (but uncalled) pick to get a receiver free for the touchdown on 4th down. Even when the Tigers pulled to within a score at 21-13, the body language of the Tiger coaches suggested they were just waiting for the inevitable Alabama score and pull-away. When it finally happened, thanks largely to Alabama going to a power look behind Derrick Henry, the Tigers completely folded their tents.
5. J.K. Scott may have saved Alabama’s season. Cole Mazza let loose with a bad snap, yet Scott somehow dug it out and punted the ball to the Missouri 20. If that punt had been blocked, or if Scott had been tackled while holding the ball, the pressure would have swung hard to Alabama’s side of the field. It’s unlikely Scott will win the Ray Guy Award this year – the award is as much a career-achievement honor as it is about a single season, and Scott is just a true freshman – but if Alabama is lining up individuals to give credit for the 2014 season, Scott is certainly in the team’s top 10, if not top five.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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