Missouri preview: Banged-up Tide could get a test from high-flying Tigers


DEFENSE

Barry Odom’s background is in defense, but Missouri has struggled on that side of the ball since he was elevated to head coach. The Tigers have been a 4-3 base team for as long as anyone can remember, but like most, it’s as often a 4-2-5 these days as it is anything else. Missouri ranks just 77th in total defense, although the Tigers are a formidable 15th against the run. The pass defense has been putrid, 116th in raw pass defense and 105th in pass efficiency defense. Scoring defense is just 84th as a result. Alabama will be in nickel all day out of its 3-4 over/under base set. Total defense is down to 25th, a rarity for a Nick Saban team, with rushing defense at 48th and raw pass defense at 39th. The Tide has kept pass efficiency defense strong (10th) and doesn’t allow many points (12th), but this is not a vintage unit. And this week, it is dealing with another key injury.

DEFENSIVE LINE
Missouri has suffered from a lack of pressure in 2018 and much of that is the fault of a tackle group that can’t get upfield. No defensive tackle has a sack, although half of Terry Beckner Jr.’s tackles of running backs have been behind the line of scrimmage. Missouri ranks 50th in the latter category, compared to 103rd in sacks. There’s a bit more pressure from the ends, particularly strongside end Chris Turner. Nate Anderson and Tre Williams will split the other spot. Reserve tackle Rashad Brandon may miss this game with injury. Alabama will start Quinnen Williams in the middle, flanked by Raekwon Davis and Isaiah Buggs at the ends. Davis is having a rough start to his season so far, but it has been more than covered up by Williams’ emergence in the middle. Johnny Dwight and LaBryan Ray will back up the ends, while Phidarian Mathis and Tevita Musika are the reserve tackles. This category isn’t particularly close, but Alabama has some things to work on, particularly at Davis’ spot. Advantage: Alabama

LINEBACKERS
Terez Hall and Cale Garrett are veteran players, and productive. They rank 1-2 on the team’s tackle list, combining for 7 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. Garrett has been a productive pass rusher, picking up 6 quarterback hurries. Another veteran starter, Brandon Lee, is listed as a nickel back but he is much more a roving linebacker/safety. He’s fourth on the team in tackles, but hasn’t made much of an impact at or behind the line or scrimmage, making a lot of chasedown tackles. There is good depth here, as Jacob Trump, Nick Bolton and Ronnell Perkins have all logged impact plays. Alabama will start Dylan Moses and Mack Wilson inside and Christian Miller and Anfernee Jennings outside. Alabama has something to prove here, as the team is coming off one of its most lackluster linebacker performances in recent years. Jamey Mosley and Eyabi Anoma will back up the outside spots, while Josh McMillon, Markail Benton and Brandon Ale Kaho handle the inside. Alabama probably has the most dynamic player of the two teams in Dylan Moses, but until the Crimson Tide starts to prove it on the field, we can’t give this unit the benefit of the doubt anymore. Advantage: Missouri

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Which do you take, the Swiss cheese Tiger unit that can’t stop anyone, or the Alabama unit that is now missing no worse than its second-best defensive back? Missouri has been hot buttered garbage for most of the year, logging just 2 interceptions and a mediocre 16 pass break-ups. By comparison, Alabama has 10 INTs and 36 PBUs. DeMarkus Acy was supposed to hold down the fort for Missouri at cornerback, but neither he nor Adam Sparks has excelled. Safeties Cam Hilton and Khalil Oliver have recorded modest production. Hilton has flashed some as a blitzing safety, however. Christian Holmes and Terry Petry will offer depth at corner, while Joshuah Bledsoe and Tyree Gillespie are the reserve safeties. For Alabama, the loss of Trevon Diggs to a broken foot was both unexpected and potentially catastrophic. Diggs had made greater strides than any other Alabama DB, going from a second-teamer who had lost his job in 2017 to challenging safety Deionte Thompson for the unit’s MVP. Now Saivion Smith will be pushed into greater service at cornerback opposite Patrick Surtain Jr., while Thompson and Xavier McKinney continue to man the safety spots. With Diggs out, most of the additional playing time will go to safety-corner Shyheim Carter, who has already returned two interceptions for touchdowns this year. But the issue of the sixth defensive back looms large. Jared Mayden will apparently get first crack at it, but Kyriq McDonald, Josh Jobe, Nigel Knott, Rogria Lewis and Keaton Anderson all are waiting for a turn. Diggs was leading the team in PBUs at the time of his injury; he won’t be replaced easily. Still, aside from Acy (his has almost a third of the team’s PBUs by himself), Missouri doesn’t have much to challenge Alabama’s superior athletes. Advantage: Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS
Alabama continues to have issues at placekicker, where Joseph Bulovas missed a PAT against Arkansas. Skyler DeLong hasn’t punted in two weeks, so the hopes are that his leg hasn’t atrophied. Alabama is still solid in the return game, with Jaylen Waddle on punts and Josh Jacobs on kickoffs as the two primary names. Missouri will start one-time Alabama commitment Tucker McCann at placekicker, and don’t look at his stats if you don’t want to cry. McCann is having an all-star-type season for the Tigers, including going 2-for-3 from beyond 50 yards out. Punter Corey Fatony is one of the best in the business. If there’s a weakness to Missouri’s special teams units, it’s the punt return team just isn’t that strong, after being thought of as a strength in the preseason. Still, this category is mostly about the kickers, and Missouri holds a strong lead there. Advantage: Missouri

OVERALL

Alabama leads in six categories, Missouri in two, although the Tigers could easily take the lead at offensive line. As for the OL-DL cross-matchups, Alabama’s offensive line comfortably controls its matchup with the Missouri defensive line. Missouri’s offensive line probably holds a slight edge over Alabama’s defensive line, but that might be a push. Still, it points to a high-flying game with a lot of points.

Alabama must keep Tagovailoa healthy, because Tagovailoa must keep throwing. Alabama probably can’t win many games using a plodding, ground-based offense. The Crimson Tide seems all-in on a strategy of throwing to win the game.

If Tagovailoa is sharp, Alabama will do just that. The difference in skill between Alabama’s receivers and Missouri’s defensive backs is enough to cause havoc, and Missouri’s MASH-unit receiver group probably can’t replicate Bama’s performance when the ball is going the other way.

This one might be closer than normal early on, as Missouri is very capable of answering Alabama. Whether the Tigers are capable of keeping that up for a full sixty minutes … doubtful.

Alabama 52
Missouri 24

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Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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