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Missouri wrap-up: Consummate Saban-era opener reveals hope, things to work on

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It’s a quote you hear everywhere but never can seem to trace it back to the person who initially said it: If you think games like this don’t matter, try losing one.

Missouri was not in Alabama’s sphere heading into Saturday’s game, and everyone knew that. By the time the half rolled around, it was plenty obvious to all that Alabama was in full control of both the tempo and the outcome.

But ask Oklahoma whether it thought Kansas State was a real threat prior to Saturday, or ask the defending champs, LSU, whether it believed Mike Leach, in his first game as head coach at Mississippi State, could engineer a win on the road in Baton Rouge.

Had Alabama either lost to Missouri or even let the game get close, there wouldn’t be an intact fingernail in all of Tuscaloosa or in any other household that decorates in crimson and white. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. Fortunately, the only thing that can derail a Nick Saban team from being perennially in charge of college football comes from a bat.

Alabama beat Missouri 38-19 Saturday in a game where Alabama turned the Tigers into kittens – albeit scrappy ones – and then turned the tables on the Tigers by being the one to play with its food, not them. It took Alabama putting Bryce Young in at quarterback late in the third quarter, dialing back the offense significantly and substituting in backup offensive linemen for Missouri to get out from under the pin. Defensively, it meant putting in the second-string front seven.

What Alabama learned coming out of the game was that in a year in which nothing is normal, and it feels like Indy Car racing did in 1996 when the field split and a lot of top teams stopped coming to race – which leads to things like Louisiana-Lafayette firmly inside the 2020 top 25 – and any win is preferable to any kind of loss. With the season shortened to a 10-game gauntlet, and with all games intra-conference affairs, both the pressure to perform and the consequences of failure are magnified.

Missouri’s future under Eliah Drinkwitz would appear bright. Drinkwitz’s team was well-prepared, tough and never quit, even when it was clear to all that they just didn’t have enough bullets to survive a shootout against the heavy favorites. The Tigers were already a solid defensive team with a lot of experienced players coming back for 2020; if Missouri can continue to develop a new quarterback, and can find a way to run the ball more effectively than it did against Alabama, the Tigers could easily post a winning season.

Alabama now heads home to host Texas A&M, which defeated Vanderbilt by only a 17-12 score, and has had its explosiveness muted thanks to the impact of Covid-19 on some of its key offensive personnel. Alabama’s future, if its performance against Missouri is an indicator of anything substantive, is that this will be a more conservative team than in recent years, more apt to put the hammer down in the running game and pay attention to things like controlling the clock.

Given that Alabama looked clearly the best of any SEC team in the opening week, that may be enough to get the Crimson Tide into the College Football Playoff. Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Missouri:

1. Alabama looked its best when going downhill. The Tua Tagovailoa years in Tuscaloosa were defined by RPOs, quick routes and a game that spread out opposing defenses, opening up big plays downfield. The opener against Missouri, with Mac Jones under center, felt decidedly different. Whether it’s because Jones lacks Tagovailoa’s open-field running ability, or whether it’s because Alabama (correctly) has identified RB Najee Harris as its top playmaker down-to-down, the result was the same: Alabama looked determined to let the offensive line set the tone for the game, and that tone was downhill, in Missouri’s face, with the physical Harris giving more punishment than he took.

While we would be remiss not to acknowledge the contributions of wide receivers Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith, it appears this offense is going to be based heavily in play-action, with Harris as the consistent first look – and that’s fine with us, because that’s when Saban’s offenses are at their most dangerous. Also, a shoutout to WR John Metchie is needed, as Metchie threw several key blocks on both running and passing plays to spring ball carriers.

Finally, a shout-out to walk-on senior WR Joshua Lanier, a UNA transfer, who made the travel roster and got in the game late on kickoff coverage. Given the talent on this team, that’s quite an accomplishment.

2. Defensive line had a sneaky-strong game, and looked improved over 2019. Missouri ran the ball 34 times for 69 yards, with the talented Larry Rountree getting 67 yards on 14 carries. Tyler Badie, though, was completely shut down on the ground – 4 carries for 11 yards. Both those guys will play in the NFL next year. Alabama logged 3 sacks and harassed Shawn Robinson on several other occasions.

In particularly, LaBryan Ray and Justin Eboigbe had solid efforts, with Ray recording 4 tackles and a sack. Eboigbe only counted a single tackle on the sheet, but he also collapsed his side of the line several times and redirected plays. Alabama was able to get good pressure up front even without Christian Barmore, who missed the game with an injury.

While tackling wasn’t always the best, especially from the Tide secondary, Rountree was never really able to open up the inside of the defense, and Alabama’s defensive line was able to cause problems for Missouri C Michael Maietti, who got kicked into gaps by the larger Dale. Missouri’s offensive line is about mid-pack among the ones Alabama will see in 2020, so this was an encouraging result.

3. Linebacker was the most improved of any position group. It’s amazing how much better the coaching looks when Christian Harris has another year under his belt and Dylan Moses is back full-speed. Moses and Harris combined for 10 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, a sack and a lot of general mayhem.

But the most astonishing debut of any Alabama player was that of Jack linebacker Will Anderson Jr., who recorded 3 tackles and more or less stopped the read-option in its tracks all night. Anderson forced quick pitches and redirected plays several times and made a huge impact off the stat sheet – all while looking like a junior or senior rather than the true freshman that he is. Across the way, Christopher Allen had solid game, by far his most consistent yet at Alabama, and Ben Davis was able to provide reliable help off the bench.

The one negative of the night came late, as Anderson’s backup, Drew Sanders, got inexplicably lost twice on wheel routes. One went for a 53-yard touchdown to Tyler Badie; the other would have gone for a major gainer as well had the receiver not dropped the ball. Sanders will be good in time, but he’ll need to fix this part of his game quickly or teams will know to focus him when he’s in the game. Backup inside LB Jaylen Moody had a couple of nice plays and a QB hurry.

4. The QB battle continues, but Mac Jones showed why he began the year P1. Bryce Young made a couple of hero-level throws and his scrambling ability was evident, but Jones basically played the game-manager-with-a-twist role to rave reviews. Jones’ 23-yard touchdown pass to Waddle, over double coverage, was a Tua-like throw with no way to defend. Jones made all the right moves and never made a critical error, which in Nick Saban’s world counts as pure honey straight from the gardens of Heaven. If Jones is to lose his hold on the job – or if Young wants to wrest additional playing time from Jones – something will have to happen that is not currently on anyone’s radar screen, such as a significant injury. Both quarterbacks showed a knowledge of progressions, and it took substitutions along the offensive line for Young to be put in a position where he felt hassled.

5. Points to improve: DB, special teams units, OL depth. The most shocking of these was the lack of depth on the offensive line. RT Evan Neal briefly went down with either an ankle injury or some kind of cramp, and Kendall Randolph struggled mightily as his replacement. When Neal re-entered the game, it was to get snaps at left tackle, with Chris Owens in at center and Randolph remaining in the game. Even with those modest changes, Alabama’s offensive line seemed to shut things down. RG Emil Ekiyor, who played well in tandem with Neal (as RT) and C Landon Dickerson, got pushed around with those two players out. The kickoff unit, with true freshman walk-on Chase Allen handling kicks, was OK in coverage, but Allen was erratic, booming one kick and then hitting the next one only to Missouri’s 20-yard line or so. New punter Sam Johnson was adequate, but no more than that.

The scariest issue, by far, was in the secondary. Safety Jordan Battle had a solid game and cornerbacks Josh Jobe and Patrick Surtain performed well enough, but everything else in the middle of the field was a bit of a mess. Daniel Wright led the team with 11 tackles, but missed several others and aside from fighting for a loose ball on a punt, wasn’t a factor on any key plays. He had a tendency to miss tackles when coming up, but Alabama needs more than a “catch-and-release” safety playing deep. Malachi Moore and DeMarcco Hellams got most of the work at Star and dime but didn’t do much of note.

Given what happened down in Baton Rouge, Alabama is going to need to get better quickly against the pass. While Missouri was held to less than 10 yards per completion (with one bust, the 53-yarder to Badie skewing the stats – and that coming against the linebackers, not the DBs), the Tigers still completed two-thirds of all attempts and there weren’t any close calls in terms of potential interceptions. Coming out of the first game without anything to work on is basically impossible, and Alabama certainly has a shortlist.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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