Even though Alabama clinched the SEC West title after Mississippi defeated Mississippi State, earning a spot in the league title clash for the 10th time in that game’s 23-year history, the conference’s “stepchild” returns to the contest for the second-straight time after joining the SEC three years ago.
Having lost to Auburn in last year’s clash by a 59-42 score, the Tigers will rely on a quarter horse- like team that features a swarming defense to stymie a squad filled with four- and five-star prospects that have the Tide’s third unit better equipped than at least half of the teams (123) that play in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision ranks.
Questions remain for two other major conference title games – can Ohio State beat Wisconsin for the Big Ten championship without quarterback J.T. Barrett and will the playoff committee even consider the Buckeyes a valid contender for one of the four spots in the new playoff format without Barrett at the helm?
Can Florida State overcome all the off-field distractions and Jeckyl-and-Hyde performances in recent weeks to stave off the charge from the red-hot Georgia Tech team for the ACC’s top rung?
The only question in the SEC contest is who wins? Alabama earns an automatic spot in the four-team playoff format and will likely enter the bowl season rated the best team in college football. A victory by Missouri will force the playoff committee to put a team with two loses on their schedule into the championship tournament, with Alabama left to choose from either the Orange or Cotton Bowl as a consolation prize.
The 2014 Tide team has performed at a similar pace that the 2013 unit did, but the faces have changed. Just two starters from the 2013 defensive squad are back at the positions they played last year, with the offense having five players return to their customary spots, including three valuable performers on their front wall – center Ryan Kelly, right tackle Austin Shepherd and left guard Arie-Manuel Kouandjio – all playing at an All-SEC pace while clearing rush lanes for returning starter T.J. Yeldon.
The offense has a new leader, with senior Blake Sims finally getting his opportunity as the replacement for A.J. McCarron. Sims had to hold off a challenge for that job from Florida State import Jake Coker, was supposed to be McCarron’s heir apparent. Last year, the Tide averaged 248.5 yards per game passing, with the current unit humming along at an average pace of 282.6 yards.
Sims is never going to be confused for being an NFL quarterback, but some team could bring him into a camp to see if he can handle tailback duties. He’s already scored six times on the ground in 2014 and holds the school record with 3,290 yards in total offense, ranking second on the season chart with 2,988 aerial yards and third with 24 touchdown tosses. Coker has added four scoring strikes while hitting on 38 of 59 tries (64.4 percent) in relief.
Sims ranks third on the team with 302 yards rushing, but while T.J. Yeldon (170 for 885 yards and eight scores) was supposed to be the featured ball carrier, injuries early in the season gave soph sensation Derrick Harvey his opportunity and he “ran” with it, tallying 754 yards with eight more scores on 139 chances. Blocking for that tandem is Jalston Fowler, a bruising fullback who has averaged 6.7 yards in limited carries (11), also proving to be a nice safety valve for the short passing game, scoring twice on eight grabs.
While Sims has connected with 17 different receivers this year, including finding 10 of them with touchdown passes, he relies heavily on Amari Cooper, as the “X” receiver might be the best prospect in the draft at his position. Having recovered from a rash of injuries last season, Cooper has pulled in 103 balls for 1,573 yards (15.3 ypc) and 14 touchdowns. The rest of the Tide receivers (16 of them) have combined for 142 catches for 1,818 yards (12.8 ypc) and 14 scores.
The only other pass catcher with at least three scoring grabs is senior DeAndrew White, who has added 338 yards on 33 receptions. Fellow senior Christion Jones has 16 snatches while a rising talent, tight end O.J. Howard, has produced a 17.4-yard average through 13 catches, but has yet to reach the end zone.
The front wall is led by Kouandjio, as the left guard has posted 13 touchdown-resulting blocks from his left guard spot. He appears to be a solid second-round prospect, but after his brother Cyrus, a projected early first-rounder last year, flamed out at the Combine and slipped to the Bills with the 44th pick, teams are reserving judgment until they see Arie-Manuel in postseason workouts.
The Alabama defense has undergone quite a few changes since last season, but two things remain constant – Trey DePriest leads the linebacker unit from the middle and strong safety Landon Collins is in charge of the secondary. In 2013, Alabama allowed eight rushing touchdowns, holding ball carriers to 106.2 yards per game while limiting the scoring to an average of 13.9 points.
Led by DePriest, the Tide has given up just three rushing touchdowns this year, as opponents are running at a 92.2-yard per-game average. The scoring average is up a bit (16.9 ppg), but that is because of leaks in a young secondary that has already been torched for 16 touchdowns while yielding 219.8 yards per game (2013 squad allowed just 180.3 yards per game and a total of 13 scoring passes).
While DePriest is the pulse of the front seven, it is junior linebacker Reggie Ragland that is considered the superior draft prospect, likely to be selected in the second round if he chooses to declare. Ragland leads the team with 86 tackles, making 8.5 stops-for-loss. “Jack” linebacker Xzavier Jackson might sneak into the end of the draft, as he leads the Tide with eight sacks and has caused three interceptions among his six QB pressures.
DePriest has chipped in with 78 tackles and free safety Nick Perry complements Landon Collins by contributing 71 stops with a pair of pass thefts. Collins is the defensive unit’s only blue-chipper and should be the first safety selected. Teams are split on where he will play – either free or strong – but at 215 pounds and with 4.53 speed, he’s much more agile than any other safety in this draft class. To date, he’s posted 84 tackles, second on the team, leading the Tide with three interceptions.
Alabama Featured ProspectAMARI COOPER: Wide Receiver, 6:00.4-205-4.56
Cooper has made a triumphant return from a rash of injuries that stalled his ascension to the being universally regarded as the best receiver in college football. The 2014 season put an emphatic stamp on that assessment, as his 103 catches for 1,573 yards and 14 touchdowns in 12 games nearly matched his previous career marks of 104 grabs for 1,736 yards and 15 scores through his first two seasons with the Tide.
Cooper currently holds most of the school career and season receiving records. He is one of just two SEC players (112 by Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews in 2013) to catch 100 passes in a season and one of seven (207) to register 200 catches for a career. His average of 131.08 yards receiving per game is the third-best annual figure by an SEC performer.
Only LSU’s Jordan Reed (1,740 in 2001) has gained more receiving yards in a season than Cooper, as they are just two of three SEC players to total 1,500 yards in a campaign. His 3,309 aerial yards are second only to Matthews (3,759) on the league career charts.
Cooper Positives…Sure-handed pass-catcher who has the strength to power through the jam and get into his patterns with no impedance…Runs with a nice, long stride and while he might not consistently show suddenness, he has good feet and some elusiveness after the catch…Aggressive blocker in the backfield, where he does a nice job of taking out the blitzer’s legs and simply buries his opponent with a violent hand punch at the point of attack…Shows good field awareness and has good concentration along the boundary, doing a nice job of keeping his feet in bounds…Has a natural feel along the sidelines and uses his hands and body well to create separation on shorter routes…Excels on shallow crosses and short hitch-type routes, using his body well, as he won’t hesitate to get physical after the catch, when he cuts it up…Strong-handed receiver who will pluck balls out of the air and runs without having to break stride (very similar to the New York Giants’ Odell Beckham)…Occasionally catches short balls with his body, but can high-point the pass with his natural hands effectively when running deep routes…Shows good toughness in a crowd and is a physical receiver who will take balls from defenders combating for jump balls…Can grab short balls that are high and away from his body and flashes good leg strength to run after the catch…Although not overly elusive, he makes things happen in the open field, using good head fakes, hip wiggle and double moves (when they don’t work, he barrels over the defender)…Attempts to punish and run over defenders if he can’t shake them in space…As a blocker, he goes full speed to stalk and destroy deep backside safeties.
Cooper Negatives…Gives some good side steps after the catch, but isn’t elusive in a short area…Needs to be more explosive coming off the snap, and while he has a violent hand punch, he needs to use his size better vs. press coverage (gets away with not using it at his level of competition, but must show better consistency at the next level)…Drifts too much in long patterns and needs to run more crisp and precise routes…Takes too many false steps at the top of his routes and needs to do a better job of dropping his weight at the break point, as he is still a very raw and unrefined route-runner…Has the ability to separate, but there are times when he does not always use his fakes and double moves, preferring to run over defenders at this level, but he won’t be able to do that vs. more physical defenders at the next level.
Missouri might lack the “stable of thoroughbreds” that Alabama features, evident by the draft-eligible power poll chart listed below, but if the Tide thinks they are just going to breeze by the Tigers, their “junkyard dog” tandem of pass rushers, Shane Ray and Marcus Golden are more than ready to take on the challenge.
With Ray at 247 pounds and Golden tipping the scales at 255, you would think they are mismatched facing Alabama offensive tackles Austin Shepherd (6:05, 330) and Cam Robinson (6:06, 323), but just look at the numbers this pair has produced facing similar challenges vs. blockers outweighing them by at least 70 pounds weekly.
Ray has already shattered the school season sack record (13.5) and ball carriers have been held to minus-78 yards vs. the junior rush end, the best numbers for any player in the major college ranks. Ray, a certain top-10 choice in the draft, also has made 20 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, delivering 21 third-down hits and 10 touchdown-saving tackles. Fellow rush end Golden has been lights out the second half of the season after overcoming early-schedule injury woes, chipping in with 8.5 sacks that includes 16 tackles for losses among his total of 62 stops (third on the team).
Missouri is not just a two-horse pony ride, as the linebacker unit has been making impact plays to complement their defensive end tandem. Junior Kentrell Brothers has experience at all three LB spots and leads the team with 103 tackles from the weak-side, followed by Michael Scherer delivering 100 more from the middle slot. Hard-hitting strong safety Braylon Webb can also bring it, collecting 62 tackles while gaining 89 yards via four interceptions.
Still, the cream of the crop for the Tigers reside on the defensive line, as Golden is targeted as a second-round choice and Ray might be the first rush end taken in the draft. The amazing part of this story is, neither could crack the lineup the last two years, thanks to the presence of Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.
The defense is what got the Tigers to the SEC title game, that is a certainty. They lead the conference and rank sixth in the nation with 40 sacks, pace the SEC while placing eighth in the FBS with 91 tackles-for-loss and is second-best in the conference in turnovers, having recorded 12 interceptions (197 yards), recovering 10 of the 18 fumbles they caused and returning two for scores.
Quarterback Maty Mauk has been the primary culprit for the poor performance by the offense this season. The Tigers rank 95th in the nation in total offense (365.9 ypg), 55th in rushing (176.0 ypg), 98th in passing (189.9 ypg) and 67th in scoring (28.6 ppg), as Missouri has had to rely heavily upon their defense getting them great field position.
While blue-chip talent is non-existent on offense, especially after All-World receiver Dorial Green-Beckham was booted off the team before the season, but there are a few players that could find themselves on an NFL roster next year. Tailbacks Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough have split running duties, as neither is considered durable, but they have combined for 1,696 yards and 13 touchdowns on 335 carries.
Hansbrough has not indicated they he will leave school for the pro ranks, but Murphy has very good value as a potential slot receiver, in addition to the ability to be a standout return specialist. He leads the SEC with two kickoffs returned for scores (averaging 31.9 yards), is 13th nationally with an 11.4-yard average as a punt returner (one touchdown) and leads the league with an average of 135.0 all-purpose yards per game, gaining 747 rushing and 185 yards with a score on 25 catches.
A Wes Welker-like slot receiver who might be an undrafted free-agent find is Bud Sasser. The 6:02, 216-pounder is slow of foot (4.69 speed), but has 65 receptions for 904 yards and nine scores this year. While it is doubtful that his speed issues will earn him a draft spot, left offensive tackle Mitchell Morse is putting together a Justin Britt-like performance, making 76 knockdowns and 10 touchdown-resulting blocks.
Missouri Featured ProspectSHANE RAY: Outside Linebacker/Rush End, 6:02.6-247-4.58
Ray has appeared in 37 games at Missouri, starting his last eleven contests, as he’s recorded 112 tackles (78 solos) with 18.0 sacks for minus 126 yards, 32.5 stops for losses totaling 167 yards and 29 quarterback pressures. He has been directly involved in 109 plays vs. the run, as he limited those ball carriers to minus-73 yards (-0.67 ypc) that included just five first downs and one touchdown. He also tackled those runners for a loss on 36 snaps and took down opponents at the line of scrimmage for no gain on 22 other rushing attempts, delivering 20 third-down hits and five more on fourth-down snaps, in addition to making 11 plays inside the red zone, with four coming on goal-line stands vs. the ground attack.
Ray Positives…Has excellent explosiveness coming off the snap and shows fluid change of direction agility that is evident in his above-average range…Maintains balance working down the line and has the hip flexibility to come of his backpedal and drop back in the zone sharply (see 2014 Central Florida and South Carolina and 2013 Florida games)…Has superb leaping ability (40-inch vertical jump) and plays with above-average strength (tested at over 400 pounds in the bench press)…Can chase the ball down from sideline to sideline and utilizes his burst to be disruptive going through the gaps to flush out the quarterback (19 pressures in his last 19 games)…His lateral range allows him to flow to the ball with great ease of movement…Stays on his feet working through trash and has the quickness to suddenly close on the ball…Has valid instincts, especially recognizing blocking schemes, and makes quick and decisive adjustments on the move…He not only shows willingness to take on any task, but has quickly adapted to his new environment as a full-time starter and defensive leader, pacing the nation in the all-too-critical categories for a down lineman – sacks and tackles behind the line of scrimmage…Quick to locate the ball while taking on combo blocks playing along the front wall, but in the NFL – with his speed and closing burst – he will be much better utilized in a freelance role in the second level as a strong-side linebacker, with appearances as a rush end, during obvious passing situations.
Ray Negatives…Ray lacks the bulk you want from a classic defensive end and must keep his hands active in order to escape bigger linemen, as even though he has good strength, NFL-type blockers strive with hand placement and he does not have the bulk to get in one-on-one hand battles with 330-pounders…Plays with good aggression, but has had a very high amount of personal-foul penalties and one in the Arkansas game could have proved costly (kept the Hogs’ final drive alive rather than be a fourth-down call)…Will need some patient coaching, if he is to shift to linebacker, as his primary responsibilities have been to attack the pocket rather than drop back in coverage (has excelled in man coverage, though, as teams completed less than 6 percent of those attempts vs. him).
|*RAY, Shane (RE)||Missouri||OLB||06:02.6||247||4.58||8.7||1|
|*COLLINS, Landon (FS)||Alabama||SS||05:11.5||215||4.53||7.2||1|
|*HOWARD, O.J. (soph)||Alabama||TE||06:05.5||237||4.59||7.2||1|
|KOUANDJIO, Arie-Manuel||Alabama (OG)||OT||06:04.6||326||5.28||6.3||2|
|FOWLER, Jalston (TB)||Alabama||FB||05:11.2||254||4.88||6.0||3-4|
|MURPHY, Marcus||Missouri (WR/RET)||TB||05:08.0||189||4.52||5.6||5|
|*BROTHERS, Kentrell (IB)||Missouri||OLB||06:00.4||240||4.73||5.4||5|
|IVORY, Brandon (DT)||Alabama||NG||06:02.6||314||5.41||5.3||5-6|
|ÞPRIEST, Trey (SB)||Alabama||ILB||06:00.4||258||4.82||5.2||5-6|
|BROWN, Leon (OT)||Alabama||OG||06:06.1||348||5.67||5.0||7|
|*DEVALL, Denzel (DE)||Alabama||OLB||06:01.6||250||4.73||4.5||FA|
|SIMS, Blake (TB)||Alabama||QB||05:11.6||202||4.49|
NOTES: * indicates player is an underclassman…# indicates major injury that could impact draft grade…CL indicates college class… HT indicates height of the player…WT indicates weight…40 indicates 40-yard dash time…225 indicates repetitions in the 225-pound bench press…VJ indicates vertical jump…BJ indicates broad jump…SH indicates 20-yard shuttle…3C indicates three-cone drill…PRO-indicates The NFL Draft Report’s projected pro potential grade (see chart below)…RND indicates the round we project the player to be selected.