The same Covid-19 virus that wrecked TideFans.com’s annual previews is going to have an effect on this analysis of the Missouri-Alabama opener, scheduled for Saturday in Columbia, Mo. As Nick Saban often says, it is what it is.
Missouri will come into this game down approximately 10 players. That’s 7 players held out for Covid protocol, plus two others opting out and a 10th player out with a “traditional” injury. That number could grow or shrink by the end of the week.
In trying to provide an accurate look ahead to what Alabama might be facing when it travels to the heartland, we currently have no way to know the identities of the 7 players Missouri is losing to Covid-19. Therefore we’re going to preview Missouri as if those 7 players were available, and then treat it as if there was a mass suspension just before gametime. Unfortunately, this is likely to become standard operating procedure as the season goes along.
Alabama seems to have no one in Covid-19 protocol at the moment – at least publicly, that is. Several Alabama players have already had the disease, survived it and fully recovered from it, dating back even into the spring and summer. Whether any of that is going to carry over into Week 1 of the season, expect Alabama and Nick Saban to be no more or less forthcoming than Missouri is.
Taking Covid-19 out of the equation entirely, this matchup is, well, a mismatch. Missouri has a new coach, the roster is being retooled and the offense being rebuilt. The team still hasn’t selected a full-time quarterback, nor a permanent left tackle. And to serve as a comparison of overall talent between the two teams, CB Ennis Rakestraw, a player Alabama struggled, and ultimately failed to find a slot for in its most recent recruiting class, was the gem on the crown of Missouri’s 2019-2020 recruiting haul.
Early games this college season have produced some unpredictable results. How close will Missouri get to pulling this upset? Nothing is impossible … except expecting anything in 2020 to be guaranteed to go according to script.
Missouri’s new coach, Eliah Drinkwitz, went 12-1 in 2019 as head coach at Appalachian State, his only year as a head coach – at any level. He coached with Gus Malzahn in high school in Arkansas and his preferred style of offense, at least at Appalachian State, tracked closely to what Malzahn likes to do: run the ball from a variety of formations with a lot of deception, but still score a lot of points. Appalachian State was 9th in scoring offense in 2019 and 16th in rushing offense, but only 93rd in passing offense.
Missouri will base out of a three-wide, one-back formation, but how much Missouri mimics Appalachian State (or Auburn) is yet to be seen. The Tigers have a veteran running back group and questions up front in regards to pass protection, so the Crimson Tide will need to focus its efforts up front. Alabama comes into this game ready to run the same multiple, pro-style attack it has run for years, but given the impressive stable of running backs Alabama has, it’s hard to imagine Alabama not favoring the run more in 2020 than it did in 2019, at least early on.
Like Alabama, Missouri had a quarterback battle on its hands in fall camp. Unlike Alabama, there doesn’t seem to be a clear starter atop the depth chart heading into the first game. Connor Bazelak is a redshirt freshman, but he did get in three games for the Tigers in 2019 and completed 15 of 21 passes (71.4%) for 144 yards. He was third on the depth chart for most of the season. He’s competing with TCU transfer Shawn Robinson, a junior who sat out 2019.
Robinson is a run-first quarterback who can disrupt with his legs, but his passing numbers at TCU occasionally showed issues with accuracy. He ended up completing over 60 percent of his pass attempts as a sophomore but he’ll need to be able to create openings for himself off the scramble in order to be successful long-term. Bazelak isn’t exactly a speedster at quarterback, but he’s capable of getting out of danger. Both are expected to play.
For Alabama, Mac Jones made good enough on the opportunity presented to him in late 2019 following Tua Tagovailoa’s injury that he was able to ended 2020 as more than just the “next guy up.” From there, Jones appeared to have a solid fall camp, enough to stay ahead of Bryce Young, at least for now. Young’s mobility far surpasses that of Jones, and Young also seems to have all the necessary raw skills to excel as a passer. What he doesn’t have is experience, and much of the advantage he would have had coming to campus in the spring got wiped out by Covid-19.
The plan going forward seems to be somewhat of a two-QB system for Alabama, given how uncertain roster makeups will be from week to week. For that matter, Paul Tyson, a redshirt freshman, has a chance at playing more this season than probably any third-teamer has in the past, especially in light of all games being SEC conference games.
Jones gives Alabama the edge here all by himself; add in what Young is capable of doing, and this category is solid to Bama. Advantage: Alabama
Both teams have veteran units, and Missouri’s group is probably better than Alabama fans want to know. Larry Rountree III rushed for 829 yards in 2019 and has added enough size to his frame to make him less prone to early takedowns. Backup Tyler Badie is sort of a poor man’s Josh Jacobs, finishing 2019 as both the second-leading rusher and second-leading receiver on the Missouri team.
Dawson Downing is the true “big back” on the team, with enough size to be effective between the tackles. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry last season. He can also fill a FB/H-back role in a pinch. True freshman scatback Elijah Young was impressive in fall camp and also figures to see action in this game.
Alabama brings back its 1-2 combo of seniors Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr. Harris seemed to hit another plane once Tagovailoa went down late in the 2019 season and more of the responsibility of the offense fell to him, so it will be interesting to see how much further he progresses in 2020. Robinson had a difficult 2019 year but seemed to rebound with an excellent offseason.
The wraps will finally come off redshirt freshman Trey Sanders, who missed 2019 with injury. Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams, both talented true freshmen, will probably see time on special teams and could carry the ball late in this game. Another true freshman, Kyle Edwards, is available, but Keilan Robinson was missing from the depth chart released Monday night and apparently the rumor of him sitting out the season is true.
Missouri brings quality to the table, with Rountree having a solid chance to make an NFL roster next year and maybe Badie as well. But Alabama has better depth overall, and Najee Harris may be the best running back in the country. Advantage: Alabama
Both teams have question marks, although Alabama’s is mostly about second-line depth. Missouri brings back Jalen Knox as its slot receiver, and Knox has a good mix of size, speed and overall skill. The other two starters are both graduate transfers. One of them, Virginia Tech’s Damon Hazelton, was a player Alabama once recruited. He was good enough to get all-conference consideration in the ACC and he has good size at 6’3” and 215 pounds. He’ll be able to challenge whoever is assigned to him.
The question mark is the flanker, Keke Chism, a big (6’4”, 220) receiver who caught nearly 2,000 yards of passes over the last two seasons at Angelo State. He is regarded as a smart player and an asset in the running game as a blocker, so is this a case of a late bloomer who was overlooked coming out of high school? It could be.
Regardless, Hazelton, Chism and Knox can’t play every snap, and Missouri’s second group is a total crapshoot at this point. Only Barrett Bannister has any kind of appreciable experience, and Tauskie Dove is the only other player besides him with any kind of stats at the position. The name to watch may end up being true freshman Javian Hester, who will back up Hazelton as another big body.
As for the tight end, Daniel Parker may or may not be available due to an injury; if he can’t go, Niko Hea will have the carry the load mostly himself. Parker could wind up being one of the top-tier tight ends in the SEC this year if he continues to develop, but that’s still an “if.”
Alabama will counter with Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith returning to their starting roles, and John Metchie looks like the most likely candidate to take the third starting spot. Alabama has its own depth concerns, and Metchie is still unproven. Slade Bolden appears to be the likely fourth receiver, and could get in work at quarterback and running back as well. Xavier Williams will get plenty of chances.
Word broke late Tuesday that Javon Baker, a true freshman who was most impressive in fall camp, might be a Covid-19 casualty for this game. If so, Thaiu Jones-Bell and Traeshon Holden will round out the depth chart. At tight end, Miller Forristall, Major Tennison and North Carolina transfer Carl Tucker will get most of the work, with Cameron Latu and Jahleel Billingsley rounding out the depth chart. Michael Parker is also available there.
Competition is probably still ongoing between Tennison and Tucker at the Y slot, while Forristall seems to have H sewn up and could slide to Y when Alabama uses only one tight end.
There are questions galore to go around here but even dealing in the knowns – Alabama’s Waddle and Smith against Missouri’s Hazelton and Knox – Alabama is ahead. And the Tide has a better situation at tight end at the moment, too. Advantage: Alabama
This is the biggest mismatch on the offensive side of the board. Missouri has yet to decide on a blindside tackle, with Georgiana, Ala.’s Zeke Powell currently leading the fight. Massive (6’8”, 320) sophomore Bobby Lawrence had one start last year but didn’t play in many games overall. Michael Maietti will start at center flanked by guards Xavier Delgado and Case Cook. Cook and Maietti are returning starters and Delgado was a key reserve in 2019.
The larger concern is the depth, as all three are backed up by freshmen. Larry Borom, who has played both guard and tackle, is in a battle at right tackle with Javon Foster but is expected to hold the slot. Two players expected to provide depth, Hyrin White and Thalen Robinson, are both out for the year.
Missouri was 13th in the country and 2nd in the SEC last year in fewest sacks allowed, but just 68th in tackles for loss allowed. Maietti is on the small size for a center and Missouri may find it difficult to shield the inside running game while also breaking in a new left tackle.
Alabama returns a veteran group, both as starters and primary backups. Landon Dickerson will start at center with Deonte Brown and Emil Ekiyor as the guards. Alex Leatherwood is back at left tackle, while Evan Neal, predicted to be Alabama’s next star lineman, moves from left guard to right tackle, giving Alabama probably its best bookend tackle situation in years.
Chris Owens seems set up to be the sixth man, as he can play all five positions. Darrian Dalcourt should see time at center or guard, while Tommy Brown, Pierce Quick and Kendall Randolph are the other top reserves. Randolph might get some action as a goalline tight end.
Missouri should have a capable offensive line in 2020, but Alabama has a small pro team in the making, especially at the tackle slots. It’s just not close. Advantage: Alabama