As passing attacks have become the default in college football, the 4-2-5 defense as a base set has become more common. Missouri will operate from just that, while Alabama still maintains a 3-4 over/under as a base set but it, too, now plays in nickel most of the time – and almost certainly will for this game, thanks to the offense Missouri is expected to run.
The Tigers finished last season with impressive defensive numbers, all things considered – 26th in total defense, 29th against the run, 35th against the pass and 20th in pass efficiency defense. Scoring defense ranked 21st, and perhaps most impressively, the Tigers were 7th in turnover margin.
With a lot of the same players back, and good depth up front, Missouri won’t be a pushover. Alabama had an up-and-down season defensively, and while the Tide wasn’t all that bad statistically, problems at linebacker especially led Alabama to fall from its perch as defensive control freaks.
Missouri has good depth up the middle, with four veteran tackles who have been around the block. Markell Utsey, Darius Robinson, Kobie Whiteside and Akial Byers all have the requisite size needed to play in the SEC, and Whiteside in particular is one of the conference’s most effective nosetackles. All but Robinson are seniors. Two other seniors, Tre Williams and Chris Turner, are set to start at defensive end.
While Missouri ranked 34th in sacks last year (which surprisingly, was good enough to lead the SEC), those numbers didn’t come from the defensive end slots. Turner and Williams combined for only 3 of them, which might explain why Turner is being pushed for a starting job by sophomore Isaiah McGuire. McGuire, though, had just 4 total tackles in 2020, so this is a place where Missouri needs better production.
Alabama will start D.J. Dale in the middle, flanked by LaBryan Ray and, a surprise to most, Justin Eboigbe, who beat out the more heralded Christian Barmore for the end spot. Phidarian Mathis will be a primary backup all along the line, and Byron Young is also available at either end slot. True freshman Tim Smith made his mark in fall camp and will be Dale’s primary backup at nose, along with Ishmael Sopsher, who showed flashes in limited work in 2019.
In regards to players with the potential to do big things, Bama has a big edge, but the Tide needs to live up to its billing. New defensive line coach Freddie Roach was brought in to try to make that happen. As it stands now, Alabama holds a slight edge but if Missouri’s Whiteside has a big game, the difference is marginal. Advantage: Alabama
This is a case of potential versus production, and probably not in regards to the team you would think. In this case, it’s Alabama that needs to show out, because last year’s inside linebacker play was dismal. In addition, the outside linebacker spots are both new, as both Terrell Lewis and Anfernee Jennings have moved on to paid work at the next level.
The inside spots will be manned by Dylan Moses, who is thankfully recovered from the injury that kept him out of 2019, and Christian Harris, who endured a baptism by fire at the weakside linebacker spot in 2019.
Backing them up will be Jaylen Moody, who lept up the depth chart during fall camp, and Joshua McMillon, back for a sixth year after suffering an injury in 2019 fall camp. Shane Lee, who started at middle linebacker in Moses’ absence last year, is bracketed with Moody as a backup, but he probably won’t have much value in this game beyond short-yardage situations thanks to his limitations in coverage.
Brandon Ale Kaho will push McMillon, especially on passing downs, and true freshman Demouy Kennedy made enough of an impression to get including in the official post-camp depth chart, which likely means he’ll be a special teams fixture in 2020.
Outside, Alabama will start a true freshman, Will Anderson, at Jack linebacker, backed up by another true freshman, Drew Sanders. The lack of any veteran listed on the depth chart there is telling; both Anderson and Sanders were impressive in offseason work and Anderson has been drawing comparisons to former Alabama greats so otherworldly that we’re going to actively skip joining the hype machine in this article.
The strongside linebacker spot is where all the veterans went to compete – Christopher Allen, Ben Davis and sophomore King Mwikuta. Kevin Harris II is also an option. It’s unclear how much Allen and Davis, particularly, will play, as Alabama doesn’t typically use a strongside linebacker in nickel and dime sets, but Allen and Davis figure to at least play on some running downs in place of Anderson when a veteran’s knowledge of multiple responsibilities is most necessary.
Missouri has just two starters, Devin Nicholson and Nick Bolton, but Bolton is especially productive, recording 107 tackles in 2019 and doing equally well in pass coverage and run support. Cameron Wilkins and Jamal Brooks give Missouri two experienced reserves, while Chad Bailey made a move in fall camp to push both. Missouri was hoping to get Sci Martin ready for this game, as his size and speed would seem to make him a weapon off the edge, but he’ll miss the game with a minor knee injury.
This one comes down to whether Moses can return to form, because as it stands, the best returning player on either team right now based off 2019 performance alone is Missouri’s Bolton. That, and whatever Anderson brings to the table for Alabama. Close call right now. Advantage: Alabama
It can honestly be said no one knows what the day will bring for either team. Alabama was already replacing three starters, and then JUCO transfer Ronald Williams Jr. went down with a broken arm. That’s probably going to put another true freshman into the starting lineup for Alabama, either Malachi Moore or Brian Branch, depending on the alignment.
Patrick Surtain Jr. is the lone returning full-time starter for Alabama, and he has one of the two cornerback positions locked down. The other went to Josh Jobe, who had a strong finish to 2019 and looked sharp against Michigan in Alabama’s bowl game. Jordan Battle becomes the next young Alabama strong safety to watch, while veteran Daniel Wright, whose career has been all over the place thus far with injuries and other issues, takes the free safety spot.
The aforementioned true freshmen, Moore and Branch, will likely handle the nickel and dime roles, although DeMarcco Hellams and Eddie Smith could also factor in there. Jalyn Armour-Davis and Marcus Banks will be the two backup corners, while Brandon Turnage provides general depth.
Missouri is banking on veteran safeties Tyree Gillespie and Joshuah Bledsoe to take the next step up. They were the Nos. 2 and 3 leading tacklers in 2019, respectively, and while they combined for 17 pass breakups, they only had 1 QB hurry between them and no interceptions. Martez Manuel, mostly a special teams player in 2019, will be the nickel safety.
The cornerback positions are also in a bit of flux, as true freshman Ennis Rakestraw Jr. seems to have beaten out Adam Sparks, last year’s nickel corner, as the primary corner heading into 2020. Jarvis Ware will be the off-corner, but he needs to be more productive. He had no interceptions or tackles behind the line of scrimmage in 2019 and just 4 PBUs.
Missouri has a distinct edge in experience, but it will be most interesting to see how Rakestraw and Ware match up to Alabama’s Waddle and Smith. For now, we’ll grant Missouri the category based on the veteran leadership at safety, but Alabama has the superior athleticism. Advantage: Missouri
Missouri lost Tucker McCann to graduation in 2019, meaning it lost both kicking starters. Kentucky graduate transfer Grant McKinniss will fill the hole at punter and is also a capable holder, so that was a clutch find for Drinkwitz.
Placekicker appears to be the domain of a true freshman, Harrison Mevis, a built-like-a-linebacker prospect who was rated as the No. 2 available kicker in this year’s class. Sean Koetting will probably handle kickoffs and could serve as a long-FG specialist. Tyler Badie is one of the best kickoff returners in the conference, while Mobile-area true freshman Kris Abrams-Draine appears set to be the punt returner.
Alabama welcomes back Will Reichard as placekicker, whose leg injuries are hopefully a thing of the past. Reichard will at least handle all extra points and field goals, and seems likely to handle kickoffs as well. Joseph Bulovas will probably do the latter if Alabama elects to keep Reichard out of the reach of potential contact, although walk-on true freshman Chase Allen made enough of an impression during fall camp to get onto the depth chart at kicker. At punter, it’s wide open.
True freshman walk-on Sam Johnson, senior graduate transfer from Air Force (and brother of former Tide great J.K. Scott) Charlie Scott, and last year’s late-season sensation Ty Perine are all bracketed as first team. Perhaps there will be a punt-off in warmups before each game to decide the punter for that day.
Skyler DeLong did not make the depth chart. Jaylen Waddle and Slade Bolden are marked as the return specialists along with Brian Robinson Jr. Alabama holds an edge in the return game, and it covers kicks very well (so does Missouri), and while neither team holds any kind of real edge among the kickers, Missouri actually has fewer question marks despite all the changes.
With Alabama and special teams, we’re … from Missouri. You gotta show us. Advantage: Missouri
Alabama leads in six categories, Missouri in two. It’s very close to being a straight eight for Alabama, but Missouri doesn’t lag far behind at running back, linebacker or maybe even defensive line. In regards to OL-DL cross-matchups, though, it’s probably a push for Alabama’s DL going against the Missouri OL, but on the flip side, Alabama’s OL has a clear edge over Missouri’s DL, and that’s probably what will be the difference in this game.
Alabama would like to run the ball, control the clock and control the pace. That’s the SOP in Alabama openers under Nick Saban and that’s what we expect to see in this game. Missouri is a good opener for Alabama, all things considered, because the Tigers have enough quality athletes – especially on defense – to make Alabama have to work for it, but probably doesn’t have weapons to really put pressure on Alabama’s key weaknesses. Most of Missouri’s pass rush evaporated with the graduation of the 2019 class, and there isn’t a big edge in special teams.
Each team, though, could lose the game via poor pass defense. Missouri is pedestrian at safety and unproven at the corner spots. Alabama has one proven corner, but is starting a freshman at the key Star position, and the new safeties are far more about potential than they are proven production.
Eventually, it will come down to the ability to make big plays. Alabama has been victimized enough over the years by backup quarterbacks and green quarterbacks that saying Shawn Robinson and Connor Bazelak are incapable of beating the Crimson Tide would be short-sighted at best. But Alabama should be expected to make big plays in the running game behind Najee Harris, as well as a few well-timed big plays in the passing game behind DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle (to say nothing of Mac Jones, or even Bryce Young).
Look for a close first half, and a pullaway after halftime is finished, as Alabama gets ready to march toward another championship-contending season.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN