The No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide (11-1, 7-1 SEC, No. 1 CFP) are favored by more than two touchdowns over the No. 14 Missouri Tigers (10-2, 7-1 SEC) in Saturday’s SEC Championship game at the Georgia Dome.
Alabama’s certainly the most formidable opponent the Tigers have faced all season. The Tide are coming off a 55-44 victory over a tough Auburn squad, and have scored 40 or more points in six games this season. They’re also second in the SEC with 489.3 yards per game, and extend drives with an incredible 52.9 percent third down conversion rate.
But a Tide victory isn’t a foregone conclusion, especially against a Missouri defense that helped win six straight by allowing 16.5 points 281.8 yards per game. To say nothing of the SEC’s best pass rush totaling 40 sacks.
Many factors have to go right for Missouri to complete the upset, but here are three key questions to the game that could decide the SEC’s next champ.
Can Missouri force Blake Sims to make mistakes?
The fifth-year senior Tide quarterback Sims has played very well this season, notching 24 touchdown passes to seven interceptions, and rushing for another five scores. But his interception late against Ole Miss resulted in Alabama’s sole loss of the season. That was also one of only two games Sims did not pass for a touchdown.
Largely Sims was error free for most of the season, but four of his seven picks have come in the last two games. And his three interceptions in the first three quarters against Auburn last week nearly cost the Tide.
It will take both the Tigers pass rush and their top defensive backs to force Sims to slip. Defensive lineman Shane Ray and Markus Golden must break through a Tide offensive line that’s let up 11 paltry sacks, the lowest mark the SEC. Ray’s racked up 13.5 sacks, tops in the conference, and Golden’s recorded 8.5 sacks.
Can the Tigers create any turnovers?
Assuming the pass rush does its job, the next step relies on senior safety Braylon Webb and sophomore defensive back Aarion Penton. The pair of secondary stars accounts for seven of the Tigers 12 interceptions on the season. It will be interesting to see if Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel asks one of his top d-backs to cover Tide and SEC-leading receiver Amari Cooper one-one-one while another spies Sims, or stick to double-teaming Cooper.
Can Russell Hansbrough break past the Tide?
Make no mistake, the Tigers are in this position due to their defense. But they will need significant help on the offensive side from junior running back Russell Hansbrough. Quarterback Maty Mauk has tossed 11 interceptions this season, including two in the last three games.
Pinkel will likely try to limit the sophomore’s pass attempts to not only reduce the risk of turnovers, but keep his defense rested and Alabama’s attack off the field.
Hansbrough’s recorded three of his nine touchdowns on the season during Missouri’s six-game winning streak, and he’s averaged more than 4.6 yards per carry in four of those six. He’ll matchup against an Alabama squad that’s allowed the fewest rushing yards in the SEC, 92.7 per game and a mere three touchdowns.
Point Spread: Alabama -14.5
Over/Under: 48.5 points
Prediction: Alabama over Missouri, 34-20