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By Jess Nicholas
Oct. 11, 2018
Although the Missouri Tigers come to Tuscaloosa riding a two-game losing streak, there is an uneasiness about this matchup that has its roots both in the history of the Alabama-Missouri series and also the high-wire act Alabama Crimson Tide has put on through the season’s first month and a half.
Speaking plainly, Missouri has knocked off better Alabama teams before, and injuries, particularly on defense, make Alabama not vulnerable per se, but this game might not be just another Tua Tagovailoa first-half showcase.
Missouri’s history as a beater of Bama giants is anchored in the 1960s and 1970s, hardly news in 2018. But Missouri is strong where Alabama is suddenly weak: a passing attack led by a quarterback who has shown both the ability and the gunslinger’s attitude necessary to hunt big game, defended by an Alabama secondary that just lost its third contributor for the season.
Whereas the losses of safety Daniel Wright and cornerback Jalyn Armour-Davis were both unfortunate, neither Wright nor Armour-Davis were key contributors. Corner-safety Trevon Diggs, however, certainly was. Alabama will be facing Missouri’s Drew Lock with a shuffled defensive backfield, which is playing behind a front seven suddenly shown to be a bit porous.
On offense, Tagovailoa couldn’t escape the Arkansas game without a minor knee tweak, but it appears to have done nothing more than scare a bunch of people out of their wits. Whether Alabama continues to call designed quarterback runs for Tagovailoa is another matter entirely. If the fans had their way, those pages would not just be removed from the playbook, but burned, cremated and the ashes spread across the seven seas.
Missouri is a good offensive team with a horrendous pass defense. Provided Tagovailoa stays on two feet throughout, Alabama should be able to score as much as it wants. Whether the Bama defense can prevent Drew Lock from doing the same will be the key.
Missouri may have left the Big 12, but it didn’t leave Big 12 offensive philosophy behind. The Tigers pass to set up the run – or just pass to set up more passes. The running game ranks 34th, so it can’t be completely ignored, but the real concern is the passing game, specifically Lock at quarterback. Injuries have neutered the wide receiver group to some extent. Outside of Lock, the offensive line is the strength of the team. Alabama will use its multiple attack, which still has elements of a pro-style attack but has taken on more spread elements with Tagovailoa at the helm and Mike Locksley calling the plays. The Crimson Tide leads the nation in scoring and passing efficiency, is 6th in passing offense and 4th in total offense. Missouri is 9th overall. It’s strength against strength.
Drew Lock is the consummate Big 12 spread-style QB, a decent enough runner to keep overpursuit in check, but mostly a distributor of the football with good field vision and a gunslinger’s mentality. Lock threw for nearly 4,000 yards and 44 touchdowns in 2017, but his 2018 pace is a bit off. He’s completing just shy of 60 percent of his passes (118-of-197, 59.9%), with 11 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. The touchdown production is off by almost half, but then again, so is his pace for interceptions. Freshman Taylor Powell is the backup, but he hasn’t played much and lacks Lock’s wow factor. Alabama will start Tua Tagovailoa, whose 75.2% completion rate and rather insane 258.4 QB rating has pushed him to the top of most sports pages. Both Tagovailoa and Lock are accomplished downfield passers, but Tagovailoa does it with a level of accuracy heretofore unseen. Jalen Hurts will probably play in this game and he, too, has improved his downfield passing in 2018. While not Tagovailoa’s equal, Hurts brings a first-rate running game to the table. This will probably be the closest this category gets for Alabama in 2018, provided Tagovailoa stays healthy, and it’s still not particularly close, thanks to Lock’s more measured performance and a lack of depth on the Tiger sideline. Advantage: Alabama
Missouri uses a three-pronged attack at running back, giving the Tigers uncommon depth here. Larry Rountree III and Damarea Crockett are the primary ball-carriers; they have almost equal stats of around 500 yards rushing, a 5-yard-per-carry average and they’ve combined for 7 touchdowns. What’s most different for Missouri this year is both Rountree and Crockett are larger backs with the ability to run inside. True freshman Tyler Badie is the scatback that has historically been more common among Big 12 offenses, but he’s been no less effective than the other two despite fewer carries. Alabama counters with Damien Harris, Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs, a three-headed monster of its own, and then adds Brian Robinson Jr. for good measure. Harris and Harris have mimicked Rountree and Crockett almost to the exact yard, and their 7 combined touchdowns is split 4-3 just as Missouri’s is between its two primary backs. What Alabama does much better, though, is pick up additional yards per carry – over a 1-yard-per-carry average among the starters. Jacobs’ presence in the passing game, as a split back in two-RB formations and around the goal line make him a weapon few other teams have. Missouri’s running game has been a surprise, but Alabama is still more productive. Advantage: Alabama
Health issues are going to make this gap much wider than it should be. Nate Brown, Emanuel Hall and Richaud Floyd are all listed as injured or out for this game. Floyd might be healthy enough to go but the other two likely will not be. Hall is the team’s leading receiver with 430 yards and a 23.9-yard-per-catch clip, while Brown is an important possession receiver. Floyd has yet to play this year. Another key reserve, Dominic Gicinto, injured an ankle against South Carolina and may also miss. That would leave Johnathon Johnson and Jalen Knox as the starters along with Kam Scott. Johnson and Knox have been productive, combining for 459 yards and 4 touchdowns, while Scott has been limited to 3 catches but has a gaudy per-catch average of nearly 30 yards thanks to a 70-yard TD pass. Tight end Albert Okwuegbunam is often targeted (27 catches), but those usually go for very short yardages (7.2 avg.). The story is the same with backup Kendall Blanton, who has 11 catches already. The second unit of receivers has just 1 catch between them. Alabama will primarily lean on Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle, although Derek Kief, Tyrell Shavers and Xavian Marks will also likely see playing time. All four receivers are over the 300-yard mark on the year, as is tight end Irv Smith Jr., who has become possibly the SEC’s best at the position. Jeudy has eclipsed the 500-yard mark already. If Missouri wasn’t battling so many injuries, things would be close, but the Tide would still hold a comfortable edge. Now that edge is a canyon. Advantage: Alabama
The Tigers have been super, ranking 9th in sacks allowed and 14th in tackles for loss allowed. Combined with the resurgent running game, the Tigers give up nothing to Alabama in this comparison. What might make the difference, though, is another injury. Guard Kevin Pendleton is dealing with multiple ailments and Sam Bailey might get the start in his place. Trystan Colon-Castillo will start at center, with Tre’Vour Wallace-Simms at right guard and the tackle combo of Paul Adams to the right and Yasir Durant to the left. If Pendleton can’t go, the backups at four out of five positions will be freshmen. Alabama will start Ross Pierschbacher at center, with Jonah Williams and Jedrick Wills at the tackle spots. Deonte Brown worked ahead of Lester Cotton at left guard some this week, while Alex Leatherwood is expected to start at right guard. There is no question which team has more depth (it’s Alabama), but in Pendleton is healthy enough to start for Missouri, do the Tigers have the better starting five? It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but we still give Bama a slight edge. Advantage: Alabama
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